After one of the most expensive natural disasters in U.S. history, Cedar Rapids plans to turn a flood-prone strip of land next to the Cedar River into a 220-acre greenway. But a few stubborn homeowners and businesses are refusing to leave.
City officials say an important step in recovery from the June 2008 flood that submerged most of the downtown and caused about $6 billion in damage is moving houses out of areas most likely to flood again.
They plan to use $27 million in federal money to buy out property owners and create a city park or wilderness trail along the river. A levee built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will separate remaining neighborhoods from the greenway and provide protection from another surge.
Residents who don't take the federal buyout will be caught between the river and levee, trapped in a kind of soup bowl where flood waters could do even more damage.
But 58-year-old Rick Ellis remains undeterred. After last year's flood, he hauled 14,000 pounds of debris from his home, which he hopes to have it fully habitable by October. He said he's willing to stick out the next flood and the one after because the federal buyout isn't enough for him and his girlfriend to buy a new home.
'I'll fish' off of roof
"If (a flood) hits again, I'll fish off the front-porch roof," Ellis said.
More than two dozen of the 192 property owners the city tried to buy out with $27 million in Federal Emergency Management Agency money didn't take the deal or later backed out.
The city offered Ellis and his girlfriend the pre-flood assessed value of their home and land — about $86,000 — but subtracted about $25,000 the couple received in initial disaster assistance from FEMA.
"You can't get a house for $61,000 out here," Ellis said. "I would know. We looked at probably 100 (of them)."
FEMA's Hazard Mitigation Grant Program has been used nationwide to help buy out properties in flood plains. FEMA money bought out 22 homeowners in Lawrence, Mass., so the Spicket River's flood plain could be made a city park. It has bought 75 properties along the Fox River in Kenosha County in southeastern Wisconsin over about 14 years and allowed that to go natural.
In cities where residents decided not to leave a green space, they have become more vulnerable to flooding, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spokesman Ron Fournier said.
Each spring that serious flooding hits in Grand Forks, N.D., Burke Addition, a small subdivision south of the levee, needs help, especially with sandbagging, Grand Forks Greenway Specialist Kim Greendahl said. This spring, talk radio teemed with callers who protested the subdivision's existence after the Red River flooded again.
"It was a struggle for some people who said, 'You chose to be out of the protection system,'" Greendahl said.
Trails and a park
The details have not been worked out in Cedar Rapids, but officials say 30 percent to 80 percent of the greenway will be natural, with the city doing minimal maintenance. That part might include wilderness trails. Another portion will have a city park.
The city has said it won't use eminent domain to force the property owners off their land. But the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers could designate the properties as risks to the flood-protection system and force the owners to sell for pre-flood assessed values plus improvements. Fournier said that would be a last resort.
Some business owners in Cedar Rapids' flood plain say they've received a worse deal than homeowners: They were offered only the value of their land. And if they stay, there's no guarantee the Army Corps won't remove electric, water and sewer lines from under the levee to prevent them from undermining the system.
Jason Beauregard, 34, thought he was getting a bargain when he paid $350,000 for commercial property near the river after the flood.
"I went to the city, and I was told that not only would it be not a problem, it would be beneficial for me to buy it," said Beauregard, who owns the Superior Services janitorial company. "If anything, they said it could turn into a decent investment."
He spent $70,000 cleaning and furnishing his office space and a 8,000-square-foot garage, but now the city is offering him about $95,000.
"If it's (a choice between) land value or being on the wet side of the wall, we're going to be on the wet side of the wall," Beauregard said. "I guess if that happens, we'll be cleaning up a flood every time."