Home News and Features Floodplain Homeowners Still Reeling From Flood Damage, Post-Flood Choices

Floodplain Homeowners Still Reeling From Flood Damage, Post-Flood Choices

0
Katie Swick stands amid the flood-damaged debris pulled from her Elm Street home on July 14, 2023. Photo by John Lazenby.
Six months after the July 2023 flood, several Montpelier homeowners are still living in limbo with substantially damaged homes, repairs on the order of $300,000 (sometimes on a home valued at less than that), and no information about if or when they might qualify for a Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) buyout, or if they are required to raise their homes above flood levels (which could cost $100,000 or more).

At least three of the 10 homes the city of Montpelier wants to see elevated (or bought out by FEMA) are owned by single mothers. All three told The Bridge they bought their homes in the floodplain because there were no other affordable homes available; they each rented out space to help make ends meet. They all have flood insurance, and all three have kids in Montpelier schools and want to keep them here.

“They did everything they were supposed to, and they were responsible, and they got hurt,” said Mike Miller, Montpelier’s director of planning and community development.

Mary’s Story

A nature educator, special education teacher, and single mom, Mary Zentara thought long and hard about buying a house at 189 State Street, next to U.S. Route 2 and the Winooski River, roughly across from Montpelier High School’s athletic fields. She studied the maps showing the highest historic flood level, which was about one foot onto her lawn and about 10 feet from her house, she said, with some basement flooding. She decided to buy the house, built in 1850, and hope for the best until her daughter’s graduation from Montpelier High School, even if the mortgage did require flood insurance that cost $3,000 per year with a $10,000 deductible.

Two years before graduation, the July 2023 flood destroyed Zentara’s home. She’s been in limbo ever since. On the days of the heavy rains and eventual flooding, July 9 and 10, Zentara’s daughter stayed at her father’s house while Zentara and her housemate moved valuables and household items up to the second floor.

“We worked as fast as we could to move things upstairs. … As we were doing this the water came across the street and came across the yard. We could no longer evacuate by car.”

At one point, she said, “Somebody drove through the water and the water was up to their window. They just stopped in front of the house. They were frozen with fear.” Zentara and her housemate called 911 and tried to help the person out of his car. The fire department arrived, somehow making it through the waist-deep water. At that point “the water was basically almost pouring into the back of the house.”

Zentara’s home was caught between the fast-rising Winooski in front and a raging torrent (normally a stream) pouring down the steep wooded hillside behind. Zentara and her roommate grabbed the backpacks they’d prepared the day before and hiked uphill through the woods to safety. They stayed with a friend for the next few days, then at a vacant home for the next few weeks.

In the weeks that followed, Zentara gutted the place down to the studs, as did so many others affected by the flood that summer. Six months later, though, nothing has happened since then. The house sits unlivable, walls open to the studs, without electricity, heat, insulation, or running water, flimsy plywood covering joists above an open basement. Zentara followed protocol and removed everything in the home including the walls, floors, furnace, and sheetrock from four-feet down, and it now awaits an expensive repair.

Meanwhile, she is paying on a mortgage and flood insurance for a home she can’t occupy and still doesn’t know if she qualifies for a FEMA buy-out, or if she should pay the hundreds of thousands of dollars to repair and elevate her home per city zoning requirements. The FEMA flood insurance only covers part of the cost to repair the home and won’t cover any flood mitigation.

Believing she had no other options, Zentara tried to sell the house for $220,000, as did another flood victim at 120 Elm Street. (That house, which shows signs that it, too, was stripped down after the flood, is listed on Zillow for $149,000 and marketed to “flippers, contractors, investors, and those looking for an amazing investment opportunity with the ability to put in loads of sweat equity …”).

In the intervening months, Zentara has started a new job as a special educator in Burlington and is staying in an apartment with FEMA subsidized rent. The FEMA rental assistance lasts 18 months, Zentara said. Her concern, she said, is that her two options — either a FEMA buyout (the city has applied on her behalf, but only recently) or the repairs and elevation — could take years.

“Without a buyout or financial assistance to elevate the house, I would have to finish paying the mortgage, lose all the value of my house, and then I would have to pay to demolish my house and move it away,” Zentara said. “That is a possibility. How can that be a possibility? How can that be?”

Mary Zentara in the remains of the kitchen of her house on lower State Street in Montpelier. Photo by John Lazenby.

It’s Complicated

Talk to anyone who was dealt a blow by the July floods and you’re likely to hear a story about the complications involved in dealing with FEMA. As planning director Mike Miller puts it: “Anyone who’s dealt with FEMA knows it’s dealing with FEMA.”

For example, Miller said the city has aligned its flood hazard regulations with the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), a FEMA program that happens to also be the main source of flood insurance for most homeowners. One of the FEMA-based regulations the city has put into place is the requirement to elevate a “substantially damaged” home at least two feet above the flood level. Barre City follows the same guideline, except it has a one-foot above flood level requirement. The “SD” designation means the cost to repair flood damage comes to more than 50% of the pre-flood value of the home, Miller explained. 

This FEMA-based regulation, however, is not covered by the FEMA insurance program, NFIP. So what about Zentara’s $3,000 annual insurance payment with the $10,000 deductible? It only pays to put her house back the way it was. It won’t cover the cost — or even part of the cost — of elevating the home so it won’t flood again. And if she is accepted into the buyout program, FEMA takes back its flood insurance payout, unless she can provide receipts showing the money has been used to fix the home, said Stephanie Smith, state hazard mitigation officer for Vermont Emergency Management.

After the city designated Zentara’s home as “substantially damaged,” she sought quotes to raise her home. So far estimates range from $125,000 to $160,000, she said. That’s on top of the $265,000 to $300,000 to repair the home and get the furnace and electrical panel out of the basement.

In some cases, such as for Zentara’s neighbor Lisa Edson Neveu at 220 State Street, the “substantial damage” rule could mean elevating her 3,700-square-foot 1870s home as much as seven feet on a concrete slab. (The basement gets filled in).

Zentara said she may qualify for up to $30,000 from FEMA toward the cost of lifting and rebuilding the home.

The FEMA-based flood regulation tends to hit people of modest means harder than their wealthier neighbors. The “substantially damaged” definition of damage costing more than half the value of the home comes down to this: A flood-damaged home assessed at $250,000 with $150,000 in damage will be deemed “substantially damaged” and therefore subject to expensive regulations. A home valued at $400,000 with the same amount of damage as the more affordable home is not deemed “substantially damaged” and does not trigger the flood mitigation requirements.

The upshot: The lower the value of a home, the more likely it is to trigger this definition and elevating the house will be required.

“The way these systems are set up they disproportionately impact lower income folks,” Miller said. “It causes more heartache and is more difficult for people who are lower income and have lower-value properties.”

Although Zentara’s home may qualify for a buyout according to Stephanie Smith, it’s still in the application process, and, as Miller pointed out to Zentara in a Dec. 29, 2023 email, a buyout is “not a guarantee.”

“So technically if nothing comes to elevate or buyout, you may still have to pay to remove the building and own a vacant piece of land (which you can sell or rebuild on) or elevate the building. In many places around the country (and I know of people in Barre City) this leads to people who simply walk away from their property and leave it to their mortgage company,” Miller wrote to Zentara, noting “It’s a cruel system that FEMA has set up.” 

Katie’s Story

Like Zentara, Roxbury Village School kindergarten teacher and single-mom Katie Swick also isn’t sure if she wants to elevate her flood-damaged Elm Street home, or take a buyout. And just like Zentara, she still doesn’t know if she can even get a buyout, or if she’d want it if she could. Plus, she’d like to keep her kids in the Montpelier school system.

Her house came up for sale by owner six years ago. She and her then-husband moved fast. Properties were hard to come by, especially in the $230,000 range right in town. Located directly on the North Branch River, Swick knew the house had seen flooding in 1992, and twice in 2011. She, too, paid the FEMA-flood insurance as a condition of her mortgage.

“I watch the river a lot,” she said. And as it started rising on July 9 and 10, she began packing up — “essential stuff” into the car, and moving everything else upstairs. “I kept thinking, I’m going to have to put all this stuff back, this is silly.”

When the basement started filling and the sump pump failed, a friend came by to turn off the electricity. Swick’s kids stayed with their father, and Swick stayed with a friend that night. The next morning, she canoed to her front porch. Her first floor was flooded 32 inches deep. In her daughter’s room, a step lower than the living area, the water reached four and a half feet.

Swick applied for FEMA rental assistance, which still hasn’t come through, she said. She’s been living in a sublet apartment downtown with the $13,000 friends raised in a GoFundMe campaign. That money recently ran out, she said. Meanwhile, she is paying rent, plus mortgage and property taxes on her kindergarten teacher income.

“I’m trying to get an abatement, but that’s been pushed back a few months,” she said.

Swick said the cost to repair her home — $180,000 — is nearly 80% of what she paid for the property ($230,000). She still has $189,000 left on the mortgage. The flood insurance paid out $140,000, she said.

The question is whether to elevate (on Swick’s property she may need to raise the house as high as 10 feet) or apply for a buyout. While the buyout might make more sense financially, Swick wonders if she’d be able to find another home in Montpelier.

“They say ‘Oh, you can buy something else,’ but could I afford something else? In this town it would be hard to find a house that I could still afford,” Swick said. “Do I want to leave my community? It would be a risk if I did a buyout in that regard.”

Buyouts

In her role at Vermont Emergency Management, Stephanie Smith implements FEMA programs and manages hazard mitigation for the state, she said. So applications for many FEMA programs, including buyouts, go through her. 

The city fills out applications on behalf of individuals, she said, in part because the program requires both municipalities and homeowners to want the buyout. Smith’s state-led program makes the decision about which cases qualify for buyouts and go forward for FEMA approval. Right now, there are about $10 million of buyouts ready to be submitted for 25 properties statewide, Smith said.

“At least two in Montpelier I think will likely move forward in the next couple of months.”

Buyout purchase prices are based on market value the day before the storm, Smith said. FEMA pays 75% of the value, she said, and Vermont Emergency Management has a general fund allocation to cover the remaining 25%.

There’s a slew of rules for homes to be eligible, some of which simply require the home to be located in a FEMA-mapped “special flood hazard” area. Other rules involve caps on how much repairs cost, and there are special circumstances and waived regulations for those “substantially damaged” properties. Properties must have flood insurance to be eligible, she said, and any allocations of FEMA’s flood insurance program get subtracted from the final payout, unless the homeowner can show proof that the money was spent on flood repairs.

Lisa’s Story

Lisa Edson Neveu lives two doors down from Mary Zentara on State Street, except she’s at a slightly lower elevation, so her home filled up with even more water than did Zentara’s. 

“The water reached the countertop and then sucked up inside the walls, Edson Neveu said. “The insulation sucked the water up.”

Rather than ripping everything out up to four feet like Zentara and Swick did, Edson Neveu stripped everything out to the studs, up to the ceiling. Unlike some of her neighbors, Edson Neveu stayed in her home and paid $40,000 to insulate the outer walls, lay down subflooring and plywood counters, and screw in drywall (on the exterior walls only). Everything is still rough, but she has two kids in Montpelier schools, and she still has heat and electricity. 

While the response from friends, family, and neighbors has been “amazing,” she said, “The government response — from the city, state and federal — has been truly horrific. … The number of people who have been here, the number of packets I’ve filled out, the number of times I’ve had to file things within a certain number of hours or I’m off the list … all of this has gone on for seven months and my family has gotten nothing.”

“Like everyone else in this, I’m a single parent with two kids who live with me,” Edson Neveu said. “There is no other parent.” Edson Neveu bought the home in 2017, in part because of its proximity to the school, and it came with a separate rental unit for added income.

“I made a really logical decision. I work in Waterbury. My parents live 40 minutes from here. I wanted my kids in a good school system. I knew I couldn’t afford a single family home without a rental. I bought this house for $220,000 in 2017 because it was a smart financial decision … I knew I was going to pay a small fortune in flood insurance … I went into this with my eyes wide open.”

Like Zentara and Swick, Edson Neveu studied the flood maps and saw that water hadn’t reached the house since 1927. The furnace and electrical panel had already been raised out of the basement, and she kept her most important stuff on the second floor. 

“I had good homeowners insurance. I bought the federal flood insurance,” she said, adding that the flood insurance only paid out half the amount in the policy at first. “I had to fight and fight and fight,” until they finally eked out a little more, but would only cover flood damage up to 32 inches and below.

“Nothing above that is covered.”

At one point, when FEMA had planned to set up trailers at the city-owned Country Club Road site, “we were told that we would have a trailer. We were told not to do anything to our house while they decided stuff.” At another point, months later, FEMA offered Edson Neveu emergency housing in Cambridge, she said.

“If my kids go to the Montpelier schools, how are we supposed to go to Cambridge? We live downtown because I’m a single parent. I take care of my parents. I work in Waterbury.”

Edson Neveu said she received a letter saying “we have to either raise our house or we have to demolish it.” She’d like to hold out to raise it, despite the fact that, she said, only two companies do that kind of work, and it took her nearly seven months to get an estimate, which didn’t include excavation and survey work.

She doesn’t want a buyout. “The only thing (a buyout) does is make the bank whole,” she said. “What they’ve told us for fair market value, if I am lucky it will cover my mortgage. … they will leave us with no home, with no money, with nothing … the house would have to be knocked down. It stays green in perpetuity.”

This scenario is exactly the opposite of what Mike Miller said he wants, but he agreed that “usually you’re breaking even with your mortgage, if you’re lucky” with a FEMA buyout. However, there’s now state money to fill in the gaps, he and Stephanie Smith said. It’s a new program and Miller is still learning the rules, he said, adding, “We’re looking under every rock for what money is eligible that we can bring in.”

He also noted that if money were found to offset the cost of elevating houses, “they might actually come out with more value after getting done elevating and fixing the building … that’s been our goal. We’d like to make people whole. We don’t have the money to, but we’re going to do whatever we can to get as many people whole as possible.”

But after seven months of filling out forms and waiting for help, Edson Neveu said “I feel so betrayed by the system. I bought all the insurance. I paid all the fees. How is it possible that I am in a system and will be left with nothing?”

UNDERWRITING SUPPORT PROVIDED BY