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Austin still needs nearly $100 million for flood plain buyout

Friday, February 28, 2014 by Mark Richardson

Four months after raging floodwaters damaged and destroyed dozens of homes in the Onion Creek neighborhood in southeast Austin, city officials say it could cost between $80 million and $100 million to complete a buyout of homes in the flood plain and relocate the displaced families.


Officials with the city’s Watershed Protection Department told the Mayor and Council Thursday that there are 531 residences in the 100-year floodplain and the department plans to relocate all the occupants to homes safe from flooding.


“We will continue our partnership with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to purchase most of the homes in the 25-year floodplain of Onion Creek and restore the natural Floodplain,” wrote Victoria Li, director of Watershed Protection. “Immediately after the 2013 Halloween Flood, WPD put together an emergency buyout program to purchase 116 homes within the Corps of Engineers buyout area to avert the rebuilding of homes that were substantially damaged or destroyed during that flood.” 


However, millions of promised federal dollars to help the city with the Onion Creek buyout program are stuck in Congressional deadlock, leaving Austin to foot most of the bill. That drew concern from Council Member Mike Martinez.


Based on this memo, there are 415 remaining homes to be purchased,” he said. “If you just spitball the appraised value at $200,000, then you easily get to above $88 million. So give or take for higher and lower values you can see that getting close to the $100 million price tag is plausible.”


Martinez told the Monitor in an email that, “We have much more work to do with people being in harm’s way.” He added, “As we begin to think about the budget surplus and where we might want to spend the extra money via a budget amendment, we should keep in mind that there are many in our community who are still waiting for our help and they would certainly argue that their issue might be a higher priority than some of the measures being contemplated.”


Li said that as of Feb. 19, appraisals had been completed for 98 homes, adding that 78 offers have been made on the appraised homes, 49 offers have been accepted and the city has closed on six homes. She said Watershed Protection anticipates making all offers by early April.


The memo said that in March, Watershed Protection will be sending letters on floodplain regulations to those whose homes were “substantially damaged” in the Halloween Flood. The Federal Emergency Management Agency considers a building to be substantially damaged if the costs to repair it to its pre-flood condition would equal or exceed 50 percent of the pre-flood market value of only the structure (not including the land). Li said that substantially damaged homes must be brought into compliance with the city’s floodplain regulations, which could be achieved by agreeing to a funded buyout.


Li said that Watershed Protection would be informing the neighborhoods about a new flood warning notification system, ATXfloods Alerts!, that will send a text, email or voice message to those registered with the system. “With this system, WPD will have the capability to alert registered users to flood risks that could occur near their home,” she said.


The Watershed Protection staff is planning a series of community meetings in April in the flood areas in coordination with other city departments, including Code Compliance, Health and Human Services, Neighborhood Housing and Community Development, Public Works, Planning and Development Review, Office of Real Estate Services and Austin Resource Recovery.

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