Flood victims in St. Louis area still waiting for buyouts. ‘When can we leave?’

Last summer, after record-shattering rainfall flooded hundreds of homes across the St. Louis area, local officials turned to a key long-term strategy to help homeowners, and stop a cycle of repetitive flooding:

Hugo Coñoman sprays the basement ceiling of Lidia Ivanova’s University City home with a mold-preventing primer paint after it was bleached on Tuesday, June 20, 2023, almost 11 months after last July’s flash flood. Ivanova hoped for a buyout after the River Des Peres left her basement full of water and 18 inches on the main floor. “The city called and said they wouldn’t buy it for the next five years, maybe 20,” she said. “So I started working on it.”Robert Cohen, Post-Dispatch

HAZELWOOD — After 40 years in their home on Elm Grove Court here, Rick and Jean Guinn want out.

Rains have backed up their sewer at least four times. Hurricane Ike flooded their basement in 2008. After last summer’s flash flooding filled it again, with twice as much water, they volunteered for a government buyout, which would demolish their home and pay them to move.

“This last one just did us in,” Jean Guinn said. “We’re done.”

But, a year later, they’re stuck in limbo: They don’t feel like they can sell their house. They don’t have somewhere else to live. They don’t know when the buyout will come. And every rain brings fears of Coldwater Creek rising behind them.

“It’s a constant source of worry,” she said. “When will it be done? When can we leave? Will they offer enough?”

Rose Guinn, 3, throws water on her grandfather Rick Guinn while playing in the backyard of the Guinns’ home on Elm Grove Court in Hazelwood on Thursday, June 22, 2023. When floodwater from Coldwater Creek filled the Guinn’s basement last July, including Rose’s bedroom, the water came to the top step of their deck. While her home of 40 years is on the voluntary buyout list, Jean Guinn is worried they might not be able to take it. “They’re not going to give us enough money to go anywhere else,” she said.Robert Cohen, Post-Dispatch

Last summer, after record-shattering rainfall flooded hundreds of homes across the St. Louis area, local officials turned to a key long-term strategy to help homeowners, and stop a cycle of repetitive flooding: They wanted to buy out hundreds of flood-prone homes and demolish them, turning them back into green space, forever. Now that list stands at just 52.

And even those who made the cut are left waiting as applications move through local, state and federal government bureaucracy, before checks are written and shovels hit the ground. 

Nine local governments — St. Louis, St. Louis County, Hazelwood, Florissant, Maryland Heights, Ladue, Webster Groves, University City, De Soto — applied for federal funding to buy properties in pockets of the region hard hit by last July’s floods, according to state records released to the Post-Dispatch.

Coldwater Creek floodwater reaches the top step of the deck at Rick and Jean Guinn’s Hazelwood home on July 26, 2022.Photo courtesy of Rick Guinn

But red tape slows everything down.

Local governments apply for buyout funding on behalf of residents, after assessing damages, prioritizing the most at-risk properties and asking owners if they want a buyout, which are typically priced at the value of the home before the flood.

The Missouri State Emergency Management Agency pares down the wish lists based on several criteria, including the history of flooding in each area, the damage to each home, and how effective each buyout would be in saving taxpayer dollars.

State and local officials then get necessary documentation from qualifying property owners and submit formal applications to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which again reviews the applications for eligibility.

And the funding is limited: FEMA caps all “hazard mitigation” grants after any one disaster at 20% of the FEMA payout for that specific flood. And FEMA typically only pays for 75% of the projects; state and local governments have to find the rest. 

In Webster Groves, officials decided to prioritize four homes that had suffered repeat, substantial flood damages. The full list of 12 would have cost the city more than $900,000, it said. “Unfortunately, this is not financially feasible,” the city said in a letter to residents, “and difficult decisions had to be made.” 

In Hazelwood, officials are requiring buyout applicants to put in 10% of the sales price. Each property owner “bears some responsibility for acquiring the property, so a contribution towards the mitigation is a reasonable way to help protect tax dollars,” City Manager Matt Zimmerman said in an email.

In University City, officials had initially talked of buying out most of more than 300 homes condemned in the wake of last July’s flash flooding, a cost estimated at $40 million. But the state said there was no way the city would get that kind of funding, so officials pared down their list to two dozen.

Buyouts are often frustrating for officials and homeowners alike, said Jon Remo, professor at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale who researches river management and flood mitigation.

“I wish I could say it’s a clear and transparent process, but it’s not,” Remo said. “Not that anybody is necessarily doing anything wrong, but when you have all these levels of local government, it’s just hard to follow.” 

‘I just want to know when’

Last fall, the nine local governments — not including St. Clair County, which has asked Illinois to consider buyouts there, too — were eyeing more than 150 addresses, including homes and apartments, for buyouts, at a cost of about $26 million.

But after a monthslong review, the Missouri State Emergency Management Agency said it planned to send applications for 52, worth a total of about $13.5 million, on to federal authorities by Aug. 8. Another 16 properties were waitlisted, should more funding be available than anticipated. 

FEMA did not provide a timeline for when it expects to authorize buyout funding and did not respond to a request for comment. But federal and state officials warn cities and homeowners that the process is complex and takes time. 

The buyouts now being considered, which range from Coldwater Creek in north St. Louis County to Joachim Creek in Jefferson County and from Deer Creek in Ladue to the River Des Peres in Lemay, would still be one of the largest in the region in three decades.

In University City, Kathleen Behrmann, 71, moved into her home on Wilson Avenue in 2015, looking for somewhere to “age in place.” She knew it was in the flood plain, but was told at the time that the Metropolitan Sewer District had done work there to reduce flooding. The home was affordable. She liked the yard and the neighborhood. She bought flood insurance.

And she had just finished renovating the kitchen when last July’s flood hit. University City condemned her home. 

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