Tonto Basin residents stuck in flood-prone homes, resigned to rebuilding every time floods rip through may have another option — let the feds buy you out.
Grants through the Federal Emergency Management Agency pay approved homeowners living in flood-prone areas fair market value to relocate to drier land. Some of the grants have match requirements.
For example, the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, available since the county declared disaster after January’s flood, typically pays 75 percent of the buy-out cost. The county pays the remainder — essentially the cost of demolition and restoring the property to its natural state.
The buy-out process is lengthy: one homeowner is nearing the end after two years.
“The goal for this whole project is to get some relief for the residents that are having these repeated flood issues,” said Gila County Emergency Management Director Matt Bolinger.
However, residents in most cases need to have flood insurance through the National Flood Insurance Program, and a lot of Tonto Basin residents say to heck with flood insurance.
No official numbers are available, but Supervisor Mike Pastor said he’s only talked to two people with the coverage. Some homeowners must have flood insurance — if they have a federally backed home loan, for instance. But others take their chances.
“They don’t worry about it until the water comes,” Pastor said. “They don’t want the government telling them what to do out there.”
However, the federal government, after the January flooding, declined to help homeowners rebuild their homes. The residents with flood insurance had no problem filing claims, supervisors said. But those without it are left to wait until high water rolls in again.
Bolinger said the government’s refusal to help people fix their homes shocked him.
“I completely anticipated that FEMA would approve individual assistance,” he said.
“I feel terrible for them,” he added. Current laws prevent people from building dikes or levies to protect their homes.
“There’s nothing they can do,” Bolinger added. “They can’t protect their property. They can’t sell the place because it’s prone to flooding. They’re stuck there. Our goal is to get them some relief.”
The cost of flood insurance often deters homeowners, supervisors said. According to FEMA, the average flood insurance policy costs about $558, however, policies vary depending upon the extent of flooding threat.
A homeowner’s insurance policy doesn’t cover flooding from storms — it more likely covers events like a broken pipe.
“That is the one thing a lot of homeowners don’t understand,” said county Public Works Director Steve Stratton.
Adding complexity, Tonto Creek’s course is changing, and property previously unsusceptible to flooding now floods. Debra Williams, a risk analyst for Gila County Emergency Management, said creeks naturally change over time.
“Tonto Basin and Roosevelt will become more and more flood-prone,” said Supervisor Tommie Martin. People should understand the risks of not having flood insurance, she added. “It’s a pay me now, pay me later kind of thing.”
Other people buy Tonto Basin property without knowing the potential for flooding.
The county has been compiling a database so property owners can eventually go online, enter their parcel number and see if it lies in a floodplain. The process of creating the database absorbs a lot of time, and the county’s Chief Engineer and Floodplain Administrator Darde De Roulhac said its completion is still several years away. For now, residents can ask the county if their property sits in the floodplain.
Meanwhile, officials in the emergency management department are working with six homeowners through applications for buy-out. One homeowner is nearly finished.
The federal government figures that buying-out property owners better protects people and costs less than continuously paying disaster funds, according to FEMA.
The county is working its way through a list from the January flood of 118 property damage reports, asking homeowners if they want to relocate. Nothing is guaranteed.
Williams said limited funding makes the process highly competitive.
In the group of post-January storm applicants, more than half of them must have insurance through the National Flood Insurance Program, said Williams.
For this specific grant, awarded because of the disaster declaration in January, there exists a window of opportunity.
However, Williams said she isn’t sure when it will close. After that, other possibilities for help exist, but they have more restrictions and a greater cost share.
Some people, traumatized as torrents of rain threaten their homes, want out of their homes.
“Nine months out of the year, they’re happy,” said Williams, adding that the lengthy process perhaps deters people.
In Gila County, “every place that everyone lives is pretty much at the bottom of a hill,” she added.
Everyone can buy flood insurance, and Williams recommends that people do because the threat always exists.
“If you live at the very top of a mountain, you can buy flood insurance,” said Williams.