When Amy Papian bought her three-bedroom house in University City 31 years ago, she thought she’d never leave.
Her bedroom had a large window that overlooked the backyard — and in the summertime, the sweet smell of honeysuckle drifted inside the house.
But then four floods invaded her home over 15 years, and she decided she’d had enough. After the last flood in 2008, a neighbor’s body washed up in her backyard. Papian and her daughters moved out, and the city purchased their home through a voluntary buyout program run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Papian, 71, is one of more than 5,100 property owners in Missouri who have taken buyouts since 1990. Missouri has the highest number of FEMA-bought properties of any state, according to data National Public Radio acquired in a Freedom of Information lawsuit against the federal agency.
Taking a buyout was the responsible thing to do, because it wouldn’t be right to put someone else through another flood, Papian said.
“Suppose I had sold the house to someone else, and suppose they were the ones whose bodies they had found,” Papian said. “Would that not be on me? You have a choice to make at that point. It’s a moral choice.”
Missouri has the largest number of FEMA buyouts in the U.S.
About 80% of the buyouts in Missouri took place after the Great Flood of 1993, when the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers overflowed their banks, killing 50 people and causing $15 billion in damage across nine states. The flood of 1993 was a turning point for the FEMA program, said Jonathan Remo, a geography professor at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.
“There was this nexus between local, state and federal governments coming together to rethink how to address these losses related to the floods,” Remo said. “And given the magnitude of 1993, there seemed to be a lot of willing participants.”
More than 25 years later, thousands of Missouri residents and businesses are still in areas with high flood risk.
The federal program aims to move as many residents out of harm’s way as possible, particularly those who’ve experienced multiple floods, said David Maurstad, director of mitigation and federal insurance administrator for FEMA.
“We want to reduce disaster suffering, try to break the repeated cycle of disaster, repair, disaster, repair, over and over again,” Maurstad said.
After the 1993 floods, FEMA officials learned it was more effective to buy multiple houses in an area than to do so one at a time, Maurstad said.
Local officials apply for buyouts on behalf of homeowners. FEMA pays 75% of the cost to purchase the properties, while state and local governments cover the rest.
Officials then demolish the buildings and convert the areas to open space, which cannot be redeveloped.
In University City, the price tag to demolish 26 houses along Wilson Avenue came to $4 million, of which FEMA paid $3 million. A state grant covered $461,000 of the cost, and the city drew the remaining $539,000 from its reserves.
Buying properties may cost less than repeated flood repairs
The investment pays off in the long term, said David Stokes, executive director of the Great Rivers Habitat Alliance, a nonprofit that works to preserve flood plains.
“To buy out these properties might be a large short-term expenditure, but that’s far, far better than paying for emergency repairs and emergency rescues and all the other things that can come if people or businesses continue in these locations,” Stokes said.
The number of properties FEMA has purchased has fallen sharply since the aftermath of the 1993. Increased competition for FEMA funding could have played a role, Stokes said.
“Between Superstorm Sandy, the hurricanes in Florida, the hurricane in Houston, and now the flood of 2019, it seems that FEMA is dealing with disasters every year,” Stokes said. “It’s hard for them when they’re waiting on more funding and another major disaster hits.”
Demand for buyouts is likely to grow in Missouri and nationwide, as research predicts increased flooding from climate change and river constriction from levees and manmade structures. Near-record flooding along the Mississippi River recently forced residents in West Alton, Grafton and along River Des Peres in St. Louis to evacuate their homes.
Congress approved $140 million for flood-related disaster aid this year, which represents an increase over past years, said Maurstad, of FEMA.
When flooding makes homes less welcome
Amy Papian vividly remembered the night she and her daughter’s boyfriend evacuated during the flash flooding of 2008.
“I heard a great big bang,” Papian said. “That’s what woke me up. And I rushed downstairs to see what it was, and the water was already three or four steps up to the living room. I screamed, ‘Chris, put on your pants and grab a cat!’”
The city demolished her house and others on Wilson Avenue in 2011. The grassy area is now bordered by overgrown bush honeysuckle.
Before the flood, Papian loved spending time in the backyard. Finding her neighbor’s body snagged in the honeysuckle bushes changed that.
“After that, we were forced to come back to the house and live there, and we never went in the backyard,” she said. “We never had any more barbecues, we never did any more gardening. That was just part of the house we didn’t use anymore.”
Papian now lives at the top of a hill in St. John. But on a recent visit to where her house used to stand in University City, she felt nostalgic.
“I know that flooding has gotten worse,” Papian said, “but if it wasn’t for the river, I absolutely would have stayed here for the whole rest of my life.”
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