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Floodplain buyouts in eastern Kentucky are 'the fastest in the program’s history'

A house against a mountain with a light dusting of snow.
Kentucky Emergency Management
Kimberly Sapp-Allen's home is one of 376 flood-damaged properties purchased by local government in Kentucky through FEMA's buyout program.

Local governments use federal funds to buy hundreds of homes damaged during last year’s deadly floods.

When floodwaters rushed through the town of McRoberts in July 2022, Kimberly Sapp-Allen and her husband packed what they could in their vehicles, left their home that sat along the rising creek and headed for higher ground.

The floods scoured several counties across eastern Kentucky, including Letcher County — where Sapp-Allen lives. In the end, 45 people died and thousands of homes were destroyed.

“It was the darkest dark I have ever seen in my life,” Sapp-Allen, 59, said. As they waited out the storm, flashes of lightning revealed their cars were surrounded by black water and floating debris.

They returned the next day to a home severely damaged by floodwater, but still standing.

And that’s where they’ve lived since — despite the mold and the constant worry with every rain that the nearby creek would flood again.

But last week she sold the place to the Letcher County government through FEMA’s property acquisition program. This will get Sapp-Allen out of her damaged house and, hopefully, into a new home out of the floodplain.

The federal buyout program is one part of FEMA’s hazard mitigation strategy. The idea: get people and homes out of the floodplain so there will be less risk and costs associated with future disasters. FEMA provides most of the funding for local governments to purchase homes at fair market value. The properties are then demolished and county governments are prohibited from building anything on the land that could flood again.

A previous Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting analysis of FEMA's hazard mitigation grants found the resources have been distributed unevenly throughout the state. Communities most at risk and struggling to overcome recent disasters have received fewer hazard mitigation dollars than other, more affluent areas.

The housing buyout program suffers from many of the same barriers. Usually, the program is slow and cumbersome, which prevents many rural, under-resourced communities from getting funds and frustrates survivors who can’t afford to wait years before moving on with their lives.

But in Kentucky, state officials and FEMA implemented a new, expedited buyout process after the eastern Kentucky floods — and the changes seem to be working.

Sapp-Allen’s is one of 376 properties in eastern Kentucky purchased through FEMA’s buyout program, a total cost of $63.8 million, according to Kentucky Emergency Management spokesperson Jessica Elbouab. She said the eastern Kentucky buyouts have been “the fastest in the program’s history.”

The buyout process that once took years to complete ended up taking just months, Elbouab said. Officials closed the deal on the first 13 properties in Perry County — next to Letcher County — just 93 days after the flood.

Kentucky has also taken advantage of other buyout programs like one administered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Letcher County is seeking final approval for 118 buyouts through the NRCS, separate from the FEMA program.

Sapp-Allen said she’s been pleasantly surprised by the speed and relative painlessness of the buyout process. She thanks government officials who took action to help people, like her, who were in need.

“It will allow us to turn our life around,” Sapp-Allen said. “It’s been such a blessing.”

FEMA’s buyout program

A September 2022 report from the Government Accountability Office found FEMA’s property acquisition program can be hugely beneficial. It removes flood risks, lowers the cost of disasters and reduces strain on the federal flood insurance program, the GAO analysts concluded.

But the GAO also found the process took three to five years to complete — too long. That deterred many eligible people from applying, or caused others to back out.

The analysts also found that local governments struggle to keep up with the administrative and financial burden that comes with the program.

As a result, resources for disaster management have been distributed unevenly across the country, says Jim Elliott, a professor of sociology at Rice University who studies social inequality and the environment.

“You can imagine some cities and areas have quite a few resources. So they're able to have the personnel who have the technical expertise to be able to submit these applications upstream to FEMA and then receive the funds,” Elliott said. “In other areas, not so much.”

Normally, county governments are responsible for packaging applications and completing the complex cost-benefit analysis required to unlock FEMA funding. But after the floods in eastern Kentucky, FEMA officials allowed Kentucky Emergency Management teams to do most of the paperwork, said Scott Alexander, the Perry County judge executive. This, he said, cut out a middleman and allowed under-resourced counties, like his, to apply.

And he’s to credit, in part, for the change.

Scott Alexander stands and talks with a man.
Kentucky Emergency Management
Perry County judge executive Scott Alexander helped get FEMA to change policies that expedited the home buyout process.

Shortly after the flooding, Alexander said he asked FEMA officials to help eastern Kentucky make the most of the buyouts. After that conversation, FEMA made the changes to the program that Alexander said have helped make it a viable option for people in Perry County.

Oftentimes, FEMA’s disaster assistance grants fail to cover the cost of repairing or buying a new home, Alexander said. So for many people in eastern Kentucky, the buyout program is the best option to get their lives back on track.

“It’s the only thing that actually gives you back at least the worth of the property,” Alexander said. “It allows people to actually move on, otherwise they are just staying in their situation and fighting and scratching to get out of it.”

Where to go next

The first question most people will face if they are considering fleeing a floodplain, Elliott said, is where to go next.

Elliott’s research tracked the outcomes of nearly 10,000 property buyouts across the country. He found that people are more likely to take a buyout if they have a clear place to go that is close to their former home and maintains or improves their current lifestyle and community ties.

But in areas like eastern Kentucky, affordable housing was already in short supply before the floods.

A report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition determined that 8,950 homes were damaged in the flood. This, coupled with the report’s finding that an average of 600 people have left eastern Kentucky each year since 1984, make displacement and population loss a real concern.

That’s why Elliott says disaster planning needs to coordinate relocation programs like FEMA’s housing buyout program with other planning efforts such as building affordable, resilient housing.

Kentucky has announced plans to build seven new “high ground” communities using money from the Team Eastern Kentucky Flood Relief Fund to help meet the region's housing needs, but more housing is a top priority for local and state officials.

Sapp-Allen has 45 days to leave the home she recently sold to the county through the buyout program. She’s not sure where she’ll go next, but knows it has to be close to Letcher County.

Her husband needs to stay local to make regular dialysis appointments while he waits for a kidney transplant. Sapp-Allen plans to stay in eastern Kentucky until that transplant comes. Then, she said she can retire and the two of them can move down to Tennessee where she has a pair of rental properties that she let her sister and family friend use after their homes were destroyed in the floods.

It’s something to look forward to, but still, the idea of giving up the home she’s lived in for over 15 years was difficult.

”You know, it's like, you work and you work and you work, and it's the American dream. You obey the law and you vote and you're good to your neighbors,” Sapp-Allen said. “And then you're almost 60 years old, and here you have to start all over.”

Jared Bennett is an investigative reporter and deputy editor for LPM. Email Jared at jbennett@lpm.org.