The now-familiar piles of debris look exactly the same in front of two neighboring homes along Elkhorn Drive in Central.
Both homes got the same amount of flooding, about 40 inches or so. Both have been cleaned out of drywall and carpet, with air conditioning humming at all hours to help dry out the interiors.
However, the path forward toward rebuilding will be different for each because one is in the 100-year flood zone and one is not.
“It’s in a holding pattern until a valuation can be done,” said David Ratcliff, program director of Central Municipal Services, pointing to the house on the left, the one in the flood zone, on a recent trip down through parts of Central to look at home inspection progress.
The home in the 100-year-floodplain, what FEMA designates as the area at highest risk of flooding, will need an evaluation to determine if it has to be elevated. The house just a few feet to the right will only require an inspection and free permit before the homeowners can start rebuilding.
“People don’t understand that,” Ratcliff said.
In Central, homes fall into three categories for what homeowners need to do before rebuilding.
Home owners outside the FEMA flood zone just need to get a permit and inspection before they rebuild.
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A home in the flood zone that received 36 inches or less of water will need a permit and inspection and then it's ready to go, Ratcliff said. The city has determined those houses are unlikely to lend themselves to substantial damage, which is part of the threshold that provokes an evaluation of whether a structure needs to raised.
But owners of homes in a flood zone that got more than 36 inches of water are going to need an elevation certificate, which is a determination of whether the house is above the base flood elevation on FEMA maps. If the home is above the base flood elevation, then the owner just needs to get a permit from the city, which are free for rebuilding work, and then can start rebuilding.
If the home is found to be below base flood elevation, the owner will need to get a contractor estimate for repairs. If that estimate shows that repairs will cost less than 50 percent of the value of the home, the owner can get a permit and rebuild. However, if the damage estimate comes back as costing more than half of the home's value, there will be additional requirements before a home can be repaired, such as elevation.
That isn’t the final say since homeowners can appeal a decision, Ratcliff said. So far, out of 1,500 or more homes that have been evaluated so far, only one has met that description of being below base flood elevation, got more than 36 inches of water and had more than 50 percent damage, he said.
The home inspections are moving along in a city where Ratcliff estimates at least 90 percent of the damaged homes have already been cleaned out.
When people are ready to go, they come in for a permit and an inspector makes an appointment for a home inspection before people can get started putting up drywall and generally rebuilding.
The city services, run by the private company IBTS, called in additional inspectors who have come in from all over the country to help out for two-week stints. They are doing building inspections of the estimated 6,000 to 8,000 Central homes that were damaged in the August floods.
Inspections include moisture tests, checking out electrical and plumbing systems, along with giving some helpful advice.
“We’re doing a lot of instruction of what to do,” said Jack Gleason, building official for Central.
Some of the tips include replacing the electrical inlets if they had been underwater, placing a small metal plate over studs where water pipes go through to avoid puncturing them when putting up drywall and to keep the air conditioning running to prevent the house from building up moisture.
Currently, there are four to six inspectors working during the week with six to eight working on the weekends when more people are at home. Each inspector can do about 30 homes a day, Ratcliff said. Once that is done, the city gives a certificate for occupancy.
Mayor Jr. Shelton said it can be frustrating for people to go through all the steps, but it’s necessary not only to make sure homes are safe for people to start rebuilding, but for larger reasons as well.
“I’ve got a letter from FEMA saying if we don’t make people get permits our National Flood Insurance Program is in question for the whole city,” Shelton said. “It is something being done for their protection and it’s mandated by FEMA.”
One other tip city officials have is for those residents getting FEMA manufactured housing units set up on their property while they work on their homes. As soon as a person knows they’re going to get one of the mobile homes, Ratcliff said, they need to call the utility company to get a power hookup in place since it can take seven to 10 days for the necessary equipment to get set up.
So far, the city has received 138 pre-applications for the temporary housing units, a bit of a frustration for city officials. Rules have been set up by FEMA to get permits, but then FEMA contractors don’t seem to be following those rules all the time, Shelton said.
Just Wednesday morning, Radcliff said he called the FEMA temporary housing liaison to get help for a woman looking for a temporary shelter where she and her ailing husband could stay, only to be told that the FEMA representative had been reassigned.
The person didn’t know who the new representative was but said he would get the person to make contact with the city. FEMA did not respond to requests for comment about the criticism.
“FEMA is too large to operate in an emergency,” Shelton said. “It’s obvious they try to use one template for every disaster.”
Shelton said he’s had to spend large parts of his time using “common sense” to address FEMA rules that he doesn't find logical.
For example, a renter who was flooded out wanted to get a mobile home placed at her mother’s house so she could stay in Central and her children could stay in school instead of being moved out of the area.
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There was concern from FEMA officials that if the trailer was placed at the mother’s home, the mother would end up living in it, Shelton said. No one, Shelton said, would want to live in these temporary homes if they had any other choice, but that’s the type of thing that has been taking up a lot of his time.
“This event could happen anywhere in the United States,” Shelton said. “You would think they’d have a procedure just for this kind of event.”