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Published June 18, 2009, 12:00 AM

Cass officials question FEMA buyout program

A key federal flood buyout program is unrealistic, Cass County officials say.

By: Jon Knutson, INFORUM

A key federal flood buyout program is unrealistic, Cass County officials say.

“From our perspective, the program is just too rigid to fit our circumstances,” said County Engineer Keith Berndt, chairman of the county’s Flood Buyout Program Committee.

The committee met Wednesday in Fargo with representatives of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The county has submitted a list of 107 flood-insured homes to be bought out through FEMA’s Flood Mitigation Assistance program.

As of last week, only 10 of the 107 qualified under FEMA’s benefit-cost ratio.

That’s difficult to understand, given severe flooding in both 1997 and this spring, said Berndt and County Commissioner Ken Pawluk.

“I question how we can incorporate what we’ve seen twice in 12 years to what we’re seeing in the b-c (benefit-cost) ratios,” Berndt said.

FEMA doesn’t pretend its programs – or the data they utilize – are perfect, said Mike Hillenburg, FEMA’s Denver-based regional hazard mitigation assistance branch chief.

“We’re using the best information we have,” he said.

The Flood Mitigation Assistance program involves risk, not actual damage, to homes, he said.

Under FEMA’s benefit-cost analysis, the risk to most of the 107 homes on Cass County’s list isn’t great enough, he said.

Pawluk said Cass homeowners hurt by flooding will have a hard time understanding that.

“You’d be hard-pressed to justify to houses that are wet that that’s sound logic,” he said.

Pawluk also said the flood buyout process is going “agonizingly slow.”

Hillenburg said FEMA wants the process to go quickly and fairly, while also protecting taxpayers’ interests.

Don’t confuse FEMA’s Flood Mitigation Assistance with its Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, said Derek Jensen, external affairs officer for the agency’s Denver region.

The Hazard Mitigation Grant Program has a provision that allows homes suffering 50 percent or more damage to qualify for a buyout, he said.

That program was widely used in Cass County after the 1997 flood, Jensen said.

The 107 Cass homes included in the application for Flood Mitigation Assistance will be included in a separate application for Hazard Mitigation Grant Program funding, for a total of 140 potential buyouts in the county.

It’s too soon to predict how many of the 140 homes will receive FEMA funding, county and agency officials said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Jonathan Knutson at (701) 241-5530