The federal government has doled out millions of dollars to local parishes to elevate or purchase homes in flood-prone areas, an effort that took on new prominence after the 2016 floods ravaged the Baton Rouge region.
The goal is to help proactively avoid major flood damage, protecting residents and limiting how much the government has to spend on cleanup and rebuilding.
But in some places, like Livingston Parish, local officials are struggling to find people to take advantage of the grants because of the high cost of doing the elevation work.
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“It’s sad. We reach out, we work with the local homeowners, and we try to get them to get on board,” said Mark Harrell, director of Livingston Parish Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness. “They’re financially strapped, so you don’t get the amount (of applicants) that you want.”
The Federal Emergency Management Agency recently awarded two grants totaling $4.2 million for projects in Livingston. Funded by FEMA’s Flood Mitigation Assistance program, they target 27 structures in high-risk zones, also known as a special flood hazard area, according to FEMA.
One grant, which the parish applied for in 2018, allocates just over $2.3 million for the acquisition of six structures and the elevation of nine structures in the parish, according to FEMA. The second grant, applied for in 2018 by the city of Denham Springs, allocates $1.68 million for the acquisition of two structures and the elevation of nine structures in the city, according to FEMA.
“The proposed project is intended to mitigate risk to the homeowners during flooding events,” FEMA spokesperson Melissa Wilkins said in an email.
The structures for which the grants have been awarded are already identified and are located across the parish, according to FEMA. The federal share of the projects’ costs varies for each structure, ranging between 75% and 100%, according to FEMA.
The grants are chipping away at the number of people living in high-risk flood areas. But there are still “at least 1,000” homes in Livingston Parish considered repetitive losses, meaning homeowners have filed at least two flood claims in the past 10 years, Harrell said.
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One big reason: The grants have a cost-share element that means homeowners who use it would need to spend tens of thousands of dollars to elevate their homes — or sell them to the government.
FEMA covers 75% to 100% of the cost to elevate a home, depending on the severity and frequency of floods the home has sustained in the past, Harrell said. The cost of an elevation runs at about $125,000, on average, Harrell said.
Homeowners whose property is being elevated with the funds will have to pay for any long-term maintenance associated with the elevation. Homes that are sold will be returned to their natural state, according to FEMA.
“On the acquisition, they’re only going to be paid what FEMA pays them,” Harrell said.
Denham Springs Mayor Gerard Landry said that, while mitigating the high costs for homeowners can be a struggle, the city works with homeowners to cover the remaining costs through flood insurance or asking FEMA to increase their share of the project’s cost for repeat flood victims.
The parish’s hazard mitigation pot of federal money can also be used for projects like drainage and bridge elevations to prevent damage during future floods, Harrell said.
When parishes do find people to take advantage of the grants, they effectively help the federal government save money, a FEMA study conducted after the March and August 2016 floods found.
The study looked at the amount of money FEMA has spent mitigating homes in areas inundated during the floods and compared that figure to the amount that would have been spent on repairs, content losses and displacement costs.
Ever since Jescenia Crenshaw was evacuated by boat from her Denham Springs home during the August 2016 flood, she’s wanted to return home.
The study found FEMA paid out almost $30 million to elevate or acquire 183 homes over the past 20 years located in the flooded areas. The agency estimates the mitigations saved the federal government almost $27 million in payouts.
The total cost of the 15 elevations and acquisitions approved in February for Livingston Parish is just under $2.9 million, according to FEMA, $566,000 of that will not be covered by the federal funding.
The federal share of the project costs represents just over 80% of the total cost of the elevations and the acquisitions. FEMA is funding 86% of the roughly $1.9 million total project cost in Denham Springs.
A 2016 study by Louisiana Economic Development estimated $1.3 billion in damage was done in Livingston Parish by the August 2016 flood.
In surrounding parishes also battered by recent floods, FEMA has similarly dolled out millions of dollars in flood mitigation grants.
Iberia Parish received $2.1 million for the elevation of 15 structures in the parish, according to FEMA.
In February, Jefferson Parish received just over $6.6 million from FEMA to fund the elevation of 45 flood prone structures in the parish, according to FEMA.