Cover Story: Flood buyout program drying up?

By Jeff Atkinson - bio l email

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - In Charlotte-Mecklenburg when it rains, homes flood.  It's a fact of life.

But those swift-water rescues that we used to see all the time - they're fewer and farther between.  That's largely thanks to program that bought up hundreds of flood-prone properties.

Still though thousands of homes and homeowners remain at risk.  This highly successful program is now at a crossroads.

Ten years after county and feds began buying up property the worst of the worst are out of harm's way.  No more qualify for buyout dollars.

It's a trip he makes at least once a day.  The area that George Jeffus walks his dog now looks like a park.  It used to look like a lake after a big rain.

Briar Creek flows through here and constantly floods.  Two years ago the county bought out more than a dozen homes on Dunlavin Way and in the Country Club Heights neighborhood and got rid of the problem.

"These homes would have been flooded and the people would have had insurance claims," said Jeffrus, who lives in the area.  "I think the county buying up the homes is a good investment for the county."

By the end of this year, nearly 600 homes and businesses in the floodplain in 5 different watersheds scattered throughout the county will have been bought out.  The price tag of the buyout $60 million.  The program began ten years ago.

Flood-plagued Doral Apartments off Monroe Road, which county commissioners signed off on last week to purchase, will be the last to get bought out.

"We've tackled the worst of the worst in terms of flooding within the living space," says Tim Trautman director of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Storm Water Services' flood mitigation program.  But he says that doesn't mean the problems are over.

Four thousand homes and businesses are still at some risk for flooding, but because they don't meet the criteria of water getting into the living space they don't qualify for federal and county flood dollars.

It's now that Trautman and his team are at a crossroads.

"We need to figure out other ways besides just using federal money with local money to be able to reduce flood risk," he says.

Over the next year and a half they'll continue to update their floodplain maps, honing in on the areas most at risk.

And then begin contacting property owners and offer recommendations on what they can do themselves to reduce their risk and expense.

Things like raising the HVAC unit so it doesn't conk out when it floods; making changes to the crawl space to let the water flow out after a big rain; and add an alarm system to let the homeowner know when the water's rising.

It's the next step in protecting life and property which Storm Water Services began with buying out property owners.

"It's not just about how deep the water gets in the house.. but it's about the danger associated with it to the residents who live here and to the emergency responders that we rely on to provide those life safety services," says Trautman.

You may not realize this but Charlotte-Mecklenburg happens to be more prone to flash flooding than some other areas by the way the area's developed along with our topography and the way the creeks flow.

While other communities try to tame their streams and creeks - putting up levies and dams -Charlotte-Mecklenburg has gone the way of just plain getting people out of harm's way.  It's a unique program that has been recognized throughout the country.

Where is the money coming from?  Seventy-five percent of it's federal dollars, 25-percent comes from Storm Water Services budget which you pay for in your utility bill.

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