People need help facing mitigation

BY GEORGE PIPER | New Richmond, OH | October 14, 1998

When emergency management officials buy out flood prone properties, it's not just the homes that disappear.

Riverside communities throughout the nation often also lose an irreplaceable resource: people. Long-time residents are forced to relocate, sometimes far away from the town they have called "home." Particularly in these cases, the faith community needs to play a more active role, says one pastor who leads a congregation located near the Ohio River's banks.

Dean Griffith grew up along the Ohio River and has seen his share of floods. The pastor of the Mount Zion-St. Paul United Church of Christ in New Richmond, Ohio, said buyouts displace people and sometimes create situations where people are homeless or severely underhoused.

"I don't think it's intentional, but it's one of those realities no one's even thought about," he says, adding that the financial crisis is magnified for low-income people whose property is worth little money.

Officials at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) prefer to construct culverts and levees to buying property, said Barbara Yagerman, a FEMA public affairs officer. But in some cases the agency believes removing the property costs less in the long run than flood-proofing.

In communities where buyouts have occurred, Yagerman said subsequent flooding has avoided disaster declarations because no people were affected. "The best preparation to flooding is not to be there," she said.

FEMA spent more than $107 million to purchase about 3,000 flood-prone properties in the United States in 1997, most of them in areas damaged by the Red River Valley floods.

The National Wildlife Federation is pushing for increased property buyouts in flood plains. The organization issued a report this summer, that identified 31,574 properties in 300 communities as prime candidates for voluntary property buyouts. These areas, the organization said, while comprising one percent of National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) insured properties, comprised almost half of NFIP repetitive loss payments and one-fifth of all loss payments nationwide.

The study of NFIP properties from 1978-1995 also suggests allowing land to revert to its natural state.

But the timeframe between the disaster and a buyout can be months, often leaving flood survivors in limbo. "One of the problems with the whole system is the time it takes," Griffith said. "You can say, 'We're gonna take care of you,' and their first response is, 'When?'"

In New Richmond, a rural river town about 25 miles east of Cincinnati, the population fell about 25 percent after the Ohio River flooded in March 1997. The faith community in general, often has housing options for elderly and disabled people, but little is available for disaster survivors, said Griffith.

"We do a very, very fine job of shipping money off when there's a disaster," he said. "But we have many resources other than money, and we have to look at applying them."

Griffith, formerly a representative of the Ohio Conference United Church of Christ Disaster Recovery team, is working with the New Richmond Community Improvement Corporation. The flood revitalized the quasi-government enterprise, that Griffith said is helping the town recover from floods.

During the Red River Valley floods in the Upper Midwest, Christian Disaster Response (American Evangelical Christian Church) Executive Director Ron Patterson found several examples of people needing advocates to help get through disaster relief efforts.

"They really need someone to walk them through that so they don't have to fight the government," he said.

That advocacy role could include making people aware of buyout plans, helping families relocate or reviewing options for those who do not participate in the voluntary buyouts, said Stan Hankins, of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (Presbyterian Church USA).

Patterson believes the faith-based community must educate people about the dangers and problems of living and building in flood plains.

"I think we'd rather be involved in the mitigation than the response," he said

The faith-based community is in a good position to fulfill this role because people rely on clergy when disaster strikes, Griffith said, calling for more involvement in long-term solutions to disaster mitigation.

"Maybe churches need to be the place where dialogue happens," Griffith said.

FEMA's Yagerman echoes that idea.

"Churches can come to the table as partners in the community to define roles and responsibility," she said. "The federal government alone can't make the nation safe from disaster, and neither can states or local governments."

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