Assessing Frequent Flooding: Property Owners, Towns Consider Options

  • Sherry Greene, owner of Greene's Oil and Propane in Hartford, Vt., takes a call from a customer Friday, September 22, 2017. Greene is attempting to sell the property after flooding threatened the building during Tropical Storm Irene, and in July. Greene brought her Realtor's sign inside the office after some customers worried that the business itself was being sold. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Chuck Gordon looks over debris on July 3, 2017, carried by flood water onto his property from a railroad embankment two days earlier in Hartford, Vt. Gordon owns a series of buildings on Old River Road in Hartford that were damaged in the flood. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Tony Wells, service manager at Greene's Oil and Propane, remembers wading through chest-deep water behind the company's Hartford, Vt., office to secure a tanker truck as the flooded White River threatened to carry it downstream during Tropical Storm Irene. A storm in July caused turbulent water in a nearby drainage ditch to threaten the building. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Sherry Greene looks into a void created by floodwaters in July rushing through a drainage ditch next to the office of her business, Greene's Oil and Propane, in Hartford, Vt., Friday, September 25, 2017. Greene is worried that another severe storm could cause more erosion, undermine her parking lot and expose the foundation of her building. The Town of Hartford is considering purchasing some properties that have been damaged by more than one flood in recent years through FEMA's hazard mitigation program. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Sunday, October 01, 2017

Hartford Village — After 66 years of marriage, Margaret and Edward Parker felt the grassy slope had grown far too steep for them to risk walking down to the riverbank, where the White River flows past the lower edge of their property on Ferry Boat Crossing.

But on July 1, the river came to them. Bolstered by at least 3 inches of rain, it overflowed its banks in the morning, and then, by early afternoon, began lapping at the short stone wall that marks their flowerbed.

Police officers came by, said Margaret Parker, and stood outside in the rain, which by that time was falling at a rate of an inch per hour, asking whether the retired woolen mill workers intended to evacuate.

“It depends on how much water will come,” Parker answered.

“Probably another five feet,” they told her.

That decided it.

“I’m out of here,” she said, turning to gather a few personal belongings so they could spend the night at a relative’s house.

The next day they found their basement was covered in four feet of mud that had destroyed a furnace, two refrigerators stocked with food, an oil tank and a water heater.

On Aug. 16, the federal government formally declared the June 29 to July 1 flooding a federal disaster for seven Vermont counties, including Orange and Windsor, which triggers partial reimbursement for public property damage, and the possibility of some aid to private property owners, in local communities.

The storms wreaked widespread havoc throughout the Upper Valley, with some of the hardest hit towns including Orford, which reported more than $4 million in damages and the loss of miles of roads; Lyme, which estimated $6 million; and Thetford, which reported about $1 million and damage to 75 percent of its roadways.

Between 2011’s Tropical Storm Irene, and this year’s disastrous thunderstorms, Upper Valley residents are developing an ever-keener sense of what it means to live in a flood plain.

Kevin Geiger, a planner with the Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Commission who specializes in regulating flood plain development, has some bad news for flood plain dwellers.

“Irene wasn’t the movie,” he said. “It was the trailer.”

A flood, drought, or other federally recognized disaster has happened in Vermont every year since 2000, and climate change scientists predict floods will become increasingly common in the coming decades. Those predictions have federal and local governments slowly ratcheting up the pressure for property owners to abandon their riverbank domiciles and businesses — but that approach is expensive, and not all of those property owners want to leave.

The Parkers, for example, say they have no plans to retreat to higher ground.

“He’s 85. I’m 83,” Margaret Parker said. “What the hell? We’ll stay.”

The New Luxury

It’s not impossible to live in a flood plain. But it is expensive.

FEMA estimates 10 million households, and about $900 billion in property, is located in flood plains along the oceans and 3.5 million miles of rivers and streams.

In a larger sense, the homes and businesses of Hartford Village that can be seen along the river today are the last vestiges of a community that was already largely wiped out by floods — Hartford’s Master Plan notes that “several fires and floods around the turn of the century crippled Hartford’s commercial sector to the extent that it never fully recovered.”

Decades later, the November 1927 flood destroyed another series of structures, including a former schoolhouse that had been converted into the original West Hartford Library (the library was wiped out again during Irene). As extreme weather events continue to pound the country, it’s triggered a raging national discussion over how to deal with the problem — and who should pay for it.

During the first half of the 20th century, private insurance companies essentially walked away from flood-prone properties as poor investments; in 1968, the federal government responded by creating the National Flood Insurance Program, which offers flood insurance to 5.5 million property owners in participating communities (including about 90 percent of Vermont communities, and nearly 100 percent of New Hampshire communities). The FEMA-administered program encourages homeowners in flood plains to purchase policies by requiring them as a condition to get federally insured mortgages.

The system worked, for a while.

National flood insurance statistics from FEMA show that New Hampshire has $1.8 billion in property covered by more than 8,000 policies, including 121 policies in Lebanon, 26 in Hanover, and 33 in Enfield. In Vermont, $854 million in property is covered by another 3,800 policies, including 73 in Woodstock, 67 in Windsor; 44 in Hartford; 28 in Bethel; 34 in Springfield; 20 in Norwich; 28 in Thetford and 24 in Randolph.

But in recent years, the cost of running the flood insurance program has skyrocketed, leading the government to begin phasing out subsidies for flood insurance policies in 2012, which has essentially shifted more of the cost of living in floodplains onto the private landowner. At the same time, longtime homeowners who were grandfathered in against federal requirements to buy flood insurance are turning over, leaving new owners to be socked with high flood insurance premiums that have less subsidies.

“It’s about $4,000 a year,” said Geiger. “It can be a lot of money.”

A lot of Geiger’s floodplain work involved giving advice to communities and individuals who are trying to evade that requirement, by challenging the flood plain maps, filling in their basements to reduce risk, or certifying the elevation of their homes relative to the water level, rather than allowing a worst-case-scenario assumption drive the costs.

“We’ve been dealing a lot with the town of Chelsea, because they have several dozen residents in the flood zone,” he said.

This year, insurance payouts associated with Hurricanes Harvey and Irma have helped to exhaust the National Flood Insurance Program’s $5.8 billion borrowing limit, and Congress now has until December to re-authorize the program.

Double Disaster

Running parallel to and above Ferry Boat Crossing, Sherry and Joe Greene run a fuel oil company next to the post office on Route 14 in Hartford Village.

Just a year after opening at that location in 2010, the company was among those hit during Irene, when Vermont saw $63 million in insurance claims, $153 million in state and local costs, and $603 million in federal payments, according to Vermont’s flood readiness program. Amid all that destruction, the Greenes used a combination of insurance payouts and their own money to rebuild their business. They replaced lost inventory, and bought or repaired equipment that had been damaged or lost. They got new vehicles, all while trying to hang onto their customer base.

But now, after the July 1 storms, it’s all gone, again.

In addition to losing another round of equipment, vehicles and inventory, their basement was filled with eight feet of muddy floodwater and the flat membrane roof was pulled away from the wall at its seams. Sherry Greene said she’s had to take out a loan to keep the business running.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office finds that structures like this, which it calls “repetitive loss properties,” cost their owners, and the public, a hugely disproportionate share of total flood damages. They make up 1 percent of insurance policies, and 38 percent of the claims.

And those claims are more costly, according to a 2015 study published in the Journal of Risk and Insurance, which found that the average repetitive loss claim is for $36,200, as compared to $27,800 for claims overall. Greene has watched in dismay as her flood insurance costs have skyrocketed. When she first moved in, she purchased $250,000 worth of insurance for about $900 a year. Now, about $100,000 in coverage costs the couple $1,400.

She said she’s frustrated by her interactions with insurance companies, state and federal agencies, and the town for a variety of reasons. She feels that better drainage and culvert maintenance might have prevented the damage, she doesn’t like that a recent townwide reappraisal found that the value of her flood-prone property had significantly increased to $177,800, and she says insurance agents have been both slow to act and non-communicative.

“I just want to get out of that building,” said Greene.

Greene said that she was not fully covered for the damages she incurred in the aftermath of Irene, and all indications are that she won’t be fully covered for the July 1 flood either.

“It’s a very difficult situation for property owners,” Lori Hirshfield, Hartford’s planning director, told the Hartford Selectboard during a Sept. 12 update on the town’s efforts to help connect them with the appropriate services through state agencies, federal programs, and volunteer groups like Upper Valley Strong. “Every time I talk to them, they’re on the brink of tears.”

Scars from the July 1 flood are still apparent throughout Hartford, with the town Highway Department working long hours to catch up on a sudden backlog of high-priority road repairs and washouts.

One of the worst areas is a low-lying stretch of Old River Road, where a few structures are pinioned between the White River and a high embankment that supports the railroad tracks.

Mara Mullen, mother of a White River School student who lives across VA Cutoff Road, said that, on the day of the flooding, she at first thought the people and trucks loitering around the intersection indicated an accident.

Not until Mullen went outside did she understand that Old River Road was underwater for as far as she could see.

“It didn’t look like a road,” she said.

Buying Security

When it comes to reducing flood risk to property, you can keep your flood walls, vegetative buffers and high-cost insurance, according to a new philosophy that is taking increasing hold in FEMA and across the nation.

“You can’t be any more risk-reduced than not being there,” said Geiger.

Recognizing this, FEMA, which administers the National Flood Insurance Program, has begun taking more aggressive steps to discourage flood plain development; it has jacked up insurance premiums for repetitive loss properties by as much as 25 percent per year, created assessment formulas that tend to move these properties to the top of the list for buyout grants and, in 2013, changed the rules to make it easier for those with inexpensive properties in flood plains to be bought out.

Usually FEMA provides the funds and enough oversight to ensure that the property won’t be a future flood risk.

“We demolish all the structures, remove a well or septic tanks, you name it. And then the site just kind of gets put to grass,” Geiger said.

Once a demolition plan is in place, ownership is transferred to the local municipality. Those who support the buyout approach like it because, unlike an insurance program that pays out every time there’s a flood, buying a property pays permanent dividends.

“Hazard mitigation is the only phase of emergency management specifically dedicated to breaking the cycle of damage, reconstruction, and repeated damage,” according to FEMA guidelines for the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, Pre-Disaster Mitigation Program, and Flood Mitigation Assistance Program.

The approach was first popularized in the region after Irene; about 150 properties have been approved for purchase with FEMA funds, and all but 10 of those transactions have been completed, according to Geiger.

And in Hartford, the Selectboard voted in September to explore whether the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program could help the town buy properties that had suffered under the July flooding. Hirshfield told the Selectboard that FEMA would support 75 percent of the cost to purchase qualified properties, with the homeowner likely asked to make up the difference, Hirshfield said.

Greene and two property owners on Old River Road have expressed interest in participating in the program, according to Hirshfield.

One is a commercial property at 68 River Road, which is assessed at $189,000 and owned by Alicia and Charles Gordon. Signs on the building advertise Den & Company Complete Hair Care, but since the July floods. yellow tape has blocked entry to the silt-encrusted wooden porch, and all of the windows have been opened to facilitate an airing out.

The other property being considered in the buyout program is next door to the Gordons at 130 River Road, where a mobile home is held over a concrete pad by a network of cinderblocks and chunks of wood. The backyard of the property, which belongs to Robert and Marie Stone and which is assessed at $79,500, is full of piles of soft dirt that have apparently washed down from the embankment that supports the New England Central Railroad’s tracks. Hirshfield said on Thursday that, in the aftermath of Irene, Hartford purchased nine properties, eight of which were done with FEMA flood mitigation dollars.

The approach is in keeping with the shifting federal authorities, but it is not necessarily in lockstep with municipal priorities.

When Hirshfield presented the program to the Hartford Selectboard, Chairman Dick Grassi said he wasn’t sure that the town should be purchasing the latest round of distressed properties, even with federal dollars, because he was concerned about the long-term responsibilities associated with owning the land.

“I certainly feel sorry for these property owners for what they could lose, but is that a reason to enter into a partnership to purchase that?” he asked “I think there’s a lot more we need to know to make a decision.”

The Selectboard voted unanimously to authorize Hirshfield to continue to explore the possibility, but stopped short of committing to the purchase.

Future Path

There’s another obstacle to consider — there just isn’t enough money to go around.

Even if Hartford moves forward, it isn’t the only town that might be chasing those dollars, according to Ben Rose, recovery and mitigation section chief of Vermont Emergency Management.

Rose said that, while the assessment of property damage hasn’t been finalized, current figures suggest the final tally will be somewhere in the neighborhood of $6 million, which has triggered about $4.5 million in federal disaster relief funds from FEMA. Fifteen percent of that money — roughly $675,000 — will go into the federal Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, to fund the purchase of distressed properties that represent a continued risk for future floods.

If Hartford submits applications for properties like that owned by the Greenes, it will compete with other communities that are also seeking funds through the program, which Rose said will accept applications through March of 2018. “When it really gets competitive, if two projects are equal in other respects the project that has the better cost to benefit ratio is selected,” said Rose.

In all, about 60 towns and water districts have applied for help through the Federal Hazard Mitigation Program, and two other programs — Flood Mitigation Assistance, and the Pre-Disaster Mitigation Grant Program, each of which have application deadlines in late October.

Even if Hartford decides to apply, and the funds are available for local residents, some property owners may simply choose not to pursue a path out of the flood zone. Greene said she isn’t sure whether she can eat the loss that might come with a 75 percent payout.

“It’s still a lot to understand,” Greene said. “I’m still learning the process.”

Geiger said that, as Congress reviews the program for possible reforms, he and other flood hazard planners have been pushing for a tweak to the law.

“Right now, you have to build a house in the flood zone and then have it destroyed and then we can buy your house for much more cost and tragedy,” he said. “It turns out it costs about $150,000 to $200,000 per site.”

If the change, which is advocated by the American Society of Flood Plain Managers, goes through, funds in the program could be directed to purchase undeveloped land, which is typically far less expensive.

With so many properties located along the Upper Valley’s waterways, Geiger acknowledge that the current round of buyouts under consideration will address just a tiny fraction of the total property that is at risk. But you have to start somewhere, he said.

“Even one at a time is a better way to look at the problem than never doing it at all.”

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.