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Best Practice: Life Outside the Floodplain for Thousands of Flood Survivors

MASON CITY, IA - During the first week of June 2008, heavy rains flooded major rivers and tributaries, forcing the Winnebago River and creeks (Willow, Chelsea, Ideal, Mason, and Calmus) to fill area homes in Mason City, Iowa, with up to 10 feet of floodwaters. Several intervals of excessive precipitation were a major contributor to flooding as heavy rain continuously pounded most of central and eastern Iowa between May and early June 2008, causing rivers and creeks to dramatically extend beyond their bounds.

According to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, statewide flood damage in Iowa communities in 2008 was estimated to be $10 billion, with January through June the wettest period on record in the state. August through December was the second wettest period of record the following year.

After the 2008 floods, the governor made housing the priority in the state’s flood recovery efforts, but ran into a problem when it was determined not all the properties that were damaged from the catastrophic flood event would be eligible for acquisition through the state’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP).

To find a solution, the Iowa Department of Economic Development (IDED) partnered with the Iowa Homeland Security and Emergency Management Division (IHSEMD) and developed a property acquisition program funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) through a Community Development Block Grant (CDGB).

This partnership formulated a team effort to address the housing needs and developed a strategy to move people out of the flood hazard areas and reduce or eliminate the long-term impact that the state’s flood disasters have on families, communities and the economy. The team effort resulted in the largest federally-funded buyout project in the state’s history. The CDBG funds were used to acquire properties in special flood hazard areas that would not qualify for the HMGP, according to John Wageman, Hazard Mitigation Officer for IHSEMD.

To qualify for buyout approval through HMGP, all projects reviewed must be consistent with state and local hazard mitigation plans and strategies: solve a problem, provide a beneficial impact, cost less than potential future damages, present environmentally sound results, and comply with state and federal laws, rules, and administrative requirements.

Of the 173 properties FEMA reviewed for acquisitions in Mason City, 104 were approved at a purchase cost of $10 million. HMGP is a cost-share program with FEMA paying 75 percent and state and local governments responsible for the remaining 25 percent.

Of the statewide property acquisitions through FEMA and CDBG funds, to date, nearly 2,500 property owners volunteered to join the buyout program in more than 35 communities and an estimated $300 million has been allocated for the acquisitions.

FEMA approved $79.6 million toward the purchase of 973 properties. The Iowa Department of Economic Development obligated up to $230 million to purchase nearly 1,500 properties. Local and state government along with supplemental funds of an estimated $20 million from CDBG will pay the balance, which is a 25 percent match requirement of HMGP.

Last updated June 3, 2020