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Flood buyout criteria may hurt Cass County

Only a handful of 107 homes on a list of potential flood buyouts in Cass County would qualify for funding under a Federal Emergency Management Agency formula the county is using for the first time.

Only a handful of 107 homes on a list of potential flood buyouts in Cass County would qualify for funding under a Federal Emergency Management Agency formula the county is using for the first time.

County leaders, caught off guard by the formula's eligibility criteria, are scrambling to change that with help from state and federal officials.

The county received word Friday - the day FEMA began accepting applications for its Flood Mitigation Assistance program - that the agency will allow the county to use an older formula to determine eligibility.

"I think that'll be a real positive thing for us," County Engineer Keith Berndt said.

Some homes on the list belong to people who declined buyouts in 1997 as their neighbors' homes of the same age, elevation and vulnerability were bought out and removed, he said.

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"And now all of a sudden your home has been hit again by a worse flood, and to tell all those folks, 'Your home's not eligible,' would be kind of a hard pill for some of those folks to swallow, I believe," Berndt said.

The county plans to apply for FMA funds to buy out 107 homes that were covered by flood insurance in high-risk flood areas.

The majority of the homes had water on the main floor or up to the floor joists, Berndt said.

Under FEMA's formula, the homes must have a positive cost-benefit ratio to be eligible.

After running the buyout list through the formula, the county found that only three of the 107 homes qualified for FMA funds. By Friday morning, that number was up to seven or eight, Berndt said.

The problem, he said, is that the formula is heavily weighted toward homes sitting in the 10-year flood elevation, meaning each year they have a 10 percent chance of flooding. Homes at higher elevations have little chance of being eligible, he said.

Most of the 107 Cass County homes are in the 50- to 100-year flood elevation range, but flood damage in 1997 and 2009 and close calls in 2001 and 2006 showed that major flooding can occur more frequently, Berndt said.

"So we think that needs to fit into the equation, that actual historical information," he said.

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The response from FEMA has been positive, he said. Berndt received an e-mail Friday morning from Lonnie Hoffer of the state Department of Emergency Services saying that FEMA is OK with Cass County using an old version of the cost-benefit model.

Sen. Byron Dorgan,

D-N.D., also got involved, talking to FEMA to try to understand its model, how it's being applied and what, if any, changes should be made, he said Friday.

Dorgan said he was surprised that the cost-benefit ratio was as low as .23 for some of the Cass County homes. A ratio of 1.0 or higher is needed to be eligible for FMA funds.

"It just seems to me to be very, very low given the flooding circumstances in those areas," Dorgan said.

Berndt said the county hopes to have more clarity on the matter early next week. In the meantime, he asked those on the list to be patient and said if they're planning to buy other properties, they should have contingencies in their contracts in case the buyouts don't materialize.

"Until it's a done deal, it's not a done deal," he said. "That continues to be our message, is that people should not assume it's going to happen, but they should remain optimistic."

Cass County had hoped to submit its application Friday to be first in line for the $25 million available in the FMA program for buyouts. But waiting a week or two to apply won't take the county out of the running, Berndt said, adding the county doesn't expect to get an answer on funding for 60 days after applying.

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"We just think the sooner we get the application in, the better, but by not having something in today, we don't think we've jeopardized our position," he said.

The 107 homes also will be included in a separate application for Hazard Mitigation Grant Program funding for a total of 140 buyouts in Cass County. HMGP funds were used for buyouts after the '97 flood.

Dorgan said a potential comprehensive flood-control project for the area also would likely include funding for buyouts.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528

Related Topics: CASS COUNTY
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