Sam Agee is one of a number of flood-affected property owners stuck in limbo, waiting for a government buyout that might never come.
Months before the historic Oct. 4 storm, Agee bought a two-story house on Kilbourne Road, south of Lake Katherine and just uphill from Gills Creek. Agee lives nearby and hoped to sell the house to his son.
The flooding wiped out those plans, and now the house is gutted and boarded up as Agee weighs whether to go ahead with costly repairs or keep waiting on a government buyout he isn’t sure will come.
“It’s going to be a bitter pill either way you look at it,” Agee said, “but I’d sort of like to know now.”
The wait for Agee and other residents affected by the flooding will take a while longer as local governments look to secure federal hazard mitigation funds made possible by the presidential disaster declaration.
It could be 18 months or more before those funds are approved, said Derrec Becker, a spokesman for the S.C. Emergency Management Division.
Then, there are no guarantees local governments will use the money to buy out properties in flood-prone areas and convert them into green space.
The federal money, awarded after a competitive application process, can pay for a variety of efforts, including strengthening public buildings, widening culverts in waterways or buying out property. It is unclear how many federal dollars will be available for South Carolina, but the Federal Emergency Management Agency has agreed to provide an amount equal to 25 percent of the disaster’s total government cost, Becker said.
FEMA money can be used to pay for 75 percent of an individual project’s cost. Communities would have to come up with the other 25 percent.
‘They should not wait’
Disaster officials say what to do is up to local governments.
After a 2010 flood that caused $2 billion in damage, Nashville banned new commercial and residential development in flood-prone areas, placed limits on property owners who wanted to rebuild in floodways and bought more than 200 homes from residents for conversion into green space.
Local governments here still are weighing their options.
Columbia officials are leaning toward applying for federal hazard mitigation funds, but have not yet decided whether property buyouts would be the best use, spokeswoman Leshia Utsey said.
Richland County will pursue the hazard mitigation grant program, spokeswoman Beverly Harris said. She would not go into detail on specific programs the county might pursue.
Lexington County also is looking hard at applying for the grants, but must determine which projects to pursue and where the remaining 25 percent of matching funds would come from, County Administrator Joe Mergo said.
“The main thing is that if people are looking or waiting to do any type of repair, hoping that the government will buy out their property, they’re going to be waiting for a long time,” Becker said. “They should not wait.”
Applications for the federal funds are submitted to the state for review and then are passed on to FEMA, Becker said. Local governments approved for buyout funds then can – with owners’ consent – buy the properties, demolish any structures there and turn the property into green space.
The properties can be purchased for up to pre-disaster fair market value, unless the local government chooses to use the property’s assessed tax value. The property would then be turned into a public park or left undeveloped, but it could never again be redeveloped, Becker said.
An ideal outcome
Agee and other owners of property near waterways say a pre-flood market-value buyout would be the ideal outcome.
Sabrina Todd, who lives on Glenhaven Drive in an area heavily damaged by floodwaters from nearby Gills Creek, said she and other residents in the South Beltline Boulevard-area neighborhood likely would welcome a mass buyout. Many of the homes there remain boarded up, with ‘X’s spray-painted on front doors and windows.
“With all the development that’s happened upstream, and all the dams, it doesn’t seem like this neighborhood ought to be here,” Todd said.
Erich Miarka, program coordinator for the Gills Creek Watershed Association, called potential government buyouts “a tremendous opportunity.”
“If you can move those properties out of the floodplain, we’re taking people out of harm’s way. We’re taking properties out of harm’s way,” he said.
Agee, meanwhile, isn’t sure of his next move.
He estimates it would cost about $180,000 to repair the house to a state where someone would consider buying it. But he said if he were assured a buyout would come in 18 months, he could live with paying the property’s insurance and taxes until he could sell it to Columbia.
“If they will just say, “ ‘Yes, we’ll buy it, but it’ll take 18 months to do it,’ or, “ ‘No, we’re not going to buy it,’ then I can move on,” he said.