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 Provided file photo -- Only the top half of a fire hydrant on East Silverleaf Street in Gonzales was visible during a heavy rain event that hit the parish and surrounding area in May of 2014.

WASHINGTON — When catastrophic floods swept the state in 2016, homeowners across southeast Louisiana were again faced with a decision whether to rebuild and stay in their chronically-flooded homes or pack up and head for dryer ground.

The state program created to oversee recovery has offered buyouts to people living in especially flood-prone areas, paying homeowners in certain areas up to $200,000 to move out.

But some are choosing not to take the money and move.

About 144 Louisiana homeowners are currently involved in various buyout programs, according to Pat Forbes, director of the state office that oversees the Restore Louisiana program. That's less than half the nearly 500 the state estimated would be eligible for buyout money from 2016's floods alone. About 580 initially expressed interest, but not all were eligible. 

"A lot of folks just decide to stay where they are," Forbes said. 

Experts say the decision often ultimately comes down to time and money — it's expensive to move and federal assistance can take years to come through.

In Louisiana, it's an all-too-familiar situation — happening repeatedly to the same homeowners.

2016 analysis from the Pew Charitable Trusts found that Louisiana is among the states with the highest rates of repeatedly flooded properties that have cost the federal government billions in assistance programs.

As an alternative, the federal government offers assistance for victims of chronic flooding who want to move to safer ground, but a recent report found that the wait time for a home buyout can stretch five years or more.

The FEMA funding comes down to states, who ultimately oversee buyout programs on a state and local level. 

“FEMA does not choose which properties participate in buyouts or acquisitions," a FEMA spokesman said. "Each state (grantee) works with their local governments to determine communities and residents who are interested in taking part of buyouts of repetitive loss properties. All of the FEMA Hazard Mitigation Assistance grants programs are voluntary. Each county floodplain manager and local officials know best the needs of their communities. We trust and support local and state officials during the buyout process.”

The Natural Resources Defense Council analyzed nearly 30 years of data from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s buyout programs — the first ever public review of the data.

“Because the process takes so long, many homeowners simply rebuild after a flood disaster and hope the next flood misses them,” said Anna Weber, a senior policy analyst with NRDC and co-author of the report.

She added, “As sea levels rise and flood risks escalate, we need faster and more equitable ways to help the millions of homeowners affected by repetitive flooding. Buyouts should be an accessible option for anyone who wants to move.”

Wait times in Louisiana were especially long, the analysis found, with some homeowners being in the process for a decade. Reflecting the situation Weber described, Louisiana also had significantly fewer buyouts than states like Missouri and North Carolina, where wait times were shorter.

According to the report's findings, relatively little FEMA money goes toward moving people out of flood-prone areas when compared to the nearly $70 billion in taxpayer dollars spent since the late 1970s to help rebuild homes that have flooded in disasters.

The NRDC report concluded that “simply offering buyout programs in lower income neighborhoods is not enough; the buyouts need to be accomplished within a time frame that actually allows people to participate.”

Flood-prone homes often have depressed values and high flood insurance rates that further drive down the amount homeowners can get for them. The Restore program is able to provide more because it's based on the average price to purchase a home in the area.

Forbes said a 25% match normally required for buyouts is often a hurdle people face that has discouraged participation.

"A lot of the FEMA programs tend to skew toward people who can afford to pay a 25% match," Forbes said. "That's leaving our most vulnerable folks out of the process, but for our ability to combine these funds and make it work for them."

Louisiana is pooling various resources to help people cover that, he said.

"We're finding that funding to provide their match," he said. "That's not been done before to facilitate a buyout for folks who otherwise would not likely be able to take the buyout."

Buyout homes are demolished and turned into green space that can help alleviate future flooding.

Louisiana is also developing creative programs to buy out whole neighborhoods where there has been chronic flooding, Forbes said.

For example, the Pecan Acres neighborhood in Pointe Coupee Parish and Silverleaf in Ascension Parish are both being completely relocated.

In Pecan Acres, the nearly 40 lots have flooded 17 times since the 1970s, Forbes said. most can no longer tap into normal federal assistance because they've received aid from in the past for their frequently-flooded homes. If they haven't had flood insurance, they likely cannot get it now or afford it.

The government is building an entirely new neighborhood to replace the flooded one and will convert the old neighborhood to wetlands, to help prevent future flooding in surrounding areas.

"We know we're still learning how to do it," Forbes said. "We want to get better at it, and we want to help others get better at it."

Note: This story has been updated to clarify FEMA's role in distributing money through state and local-run programs.

Email Elizabeth Crisp at ecrisp@theadvocate.com and follow on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp.