Charlotte Shows How to Beat Flooding

(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- When the remnants of Hurricane Florence settled over Charlotte during the weekend of Sept. 15, drenching the flood-prone city with a near-record amount of rain, Justin Parmenter felt one thing above all else: relief. A seventh-grade English teacher with two young children, Parmenter used to be one of the thousands of people living along Charlotte’s many creeks, which regularly top their banks. His house, six miles and a world away from the gleaming, hill-top towers downtown, stood on a low patch of land next to Briar Creek, whose waters constantly reached his property, ruining his appliances and eventually wrecking two of his cars.

“I can recall walking through knee-deep floodwater, carrying my infant daughter in my arms, because we didn’t know how much higher the water was going to get,” Parmenter says of one morning in 2010 when he had to rush out of the house. But he and his family were stuck: As the years went by and the flooding got worse, nobody would buy their home, at least not for the $80,000 Parmenter still owed on his mortgage.

Then, something happened that would be impossible in most U.S. cities: Local officials agreed to buy the house, no questions asked, for a fair market value of about $100,000—then tear it down and prohibit anyone from building there again. Now he and his family live in a two-story on a hill; their biggest worry during Florence was that a branch might fall in their yard. “I’ve always been so grateful to them,” Parmenter says, sitting in his new home. “I was desperate to get out of that house.”

Charlotte Shows How to Beat Flooding

As Florence pummeled this city of 850,000, Charlotte had one thing in its favor: It sits in Mecklenburg County, one of the few places in the U.S. that’s begun emptying out its flood plain, pulling people and homes from the most vulnerable neighborhoods. Storm-prone cities from New York to Houston are rushing to build along the water despite the growing risk of flooding, but Charlotte is headed in the other direction. Climate experts call it a blueprint for the country.

“As flood risks continue to worsen throughout the U.S. because of climate change, you’re going to see a real need for really novel approaches,” says Joel Scata, a lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council who focuses on the threats associated with water and climate change. “The Charlotte-Mecklenburg approach is a great example of that.”

Large-scale buyout programs are among the most effective responses to climate change, but the strategy, known as managed retreat, is controversial. Unlike building levees or seawalls, which can either fail outright or prove inadequate, tearing down homes is foolproof: A house that no longer exists is a house that can never flood again.

But local officials often fear that emptying out areas threatened by water will cost too much or shrink their tax base. Only a handful of cities have buyout programs; most rely on federal money after major disasters, which can sometimes be used to purchase homes that have been damaged. Those programs struggle with inadequate or unpredictable funding and also take years to complete, by which time many people who might qualify have already repaired their home and moved back in.

Charlotte’s approach is better, Scata says, because it recognizes that having homes continually flood guarantees residents will suffer—and the best way to help people leave those areas is to offer them money right after a flood or, better still, before it happens. “For certain areas that repeatedly flood, that tax base is just going to continue to go down over time, because those properties will be worth less and less,” Scata says. His research shows that the average time it takes the federal government to buy a flood-damaged house is five years.

Charlotte Shows How to Beat Flooding

Yet federal disaster policy discourages cities and states from following Charlotte’s lead, according to Larry Larson, senior policy adviser at the Association of State Floodplain Managers. Allowing development by the water doesn’t just mean more tax revenue in the short term; it also increases the financial toll of natural disasters, which in turn increases the odds of federal assistance. “Those that do nothing are more apt to get federal dollars,” Larson says. “That’s a perverse incentive.”

To short-circuit the build-flood-repeat cycle, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Storm Water Services utility adds a $1.25 fee to each customer’s monthly water bill. That generates enough for the city to spend about $3 million a year to buy and demolish as many as two dozen homes. It also funds a “quick-buy” program, offering money for a home right after a flood.

The local buyout program has become a point of civic pride. Hugh McColl, former chairman and chief executive officer of Charlotte-based Bank of America, cites the program as evidence that the city has done a good job preparing for events like Florence. “We’ve done quite a bit of work in buying up properties,” he says.

Timothy Trautman, who oversees the buyouts as manager for the engineering and mitigation program at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Storm Water Services, says the program reduces demands on emergency responders rescuing people during floods and saves money on sheltering victims.

Since 1999, Charlotte has spent $68 million to buy and demolish 400 buildings, Trautman says. He says there are an additional 500 to 1,000 in the flood plain that the county would eventually like to buy. The county doesn’t require that a home floods a certain number of times before it’s eligible to be torn down. “We bought some properties where we’re not sure if they’ve ever flooded,” Trautman says. “But the flood plain maps, the data, tell us that there’s a significant risk there. We trust that information.” Indeed, no homes in the flood plain have been lost to Florence, which Trautman attributes to the program’s success.

On Florence’s second day in Charlotte, Parmenter tours the land his home used to stand on. The lawn is beneath a growing sheet of water. Parmenter’s former neighbor, Leslie Connell, calls out to him: Doesn’t he know not to park so close to the creek? “That’s going to flood,” she warns him.

Connell and her husband, Tom, live in one of the few homes left in the area. When the county offered to buy them out, they threw the forms away. Moving and finding something else they can afford would be hard. Asked if she worries about flooding, Leslie pauses. “It’s a fear,” she says. “Starting over is a bigger fear.” One other reason for staying: Where else could they find all this empty space? “I like it down here with nobody around,” Tom says. Beyond the edge of his yard, the creek keeps on rising.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Matthew Philips at mphilips3@bloomberg.net

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