Karen Niece loves her idyllic bungalow in the Indiana countryside, but when storms dumped nearly a foot of rain on her 19-acre property in 2008, flash floods left mold in the foundation — and gave Niece a lung infection she will have the rest of her life.
After the water receded, Niece and thousands of other flood victims around the Midwest stayed in their damaged homes, despite health risks, because they had pinned their hopes on a federal program that helps buy flood-damaged properties. Two and even three years later, many are still waiting for relief.
"I really don't want to leave, but I don't want to get sicker," the 66-year-old homemaker said, sitting at her kitchen counter about 60 miles southwest of Indianapolis. "But I haven't heard anything. I don't know what they'll do or if they'll do anything."
The Federal Emergency Management Agency helps local governments purchase flood-prone properties to save on future cleanup costs. But the buyouts are not automatic, nor are they quick, which is raising questions about whether the program is worth the limbo it creates for homeowners.
"The last thing you need when recovering from a disaster is wondering whether FEMA is going to have the money to pay what they owe," said Rep. Earl Pomeroy, a Democrat from North Dakota, another state where the buyout process bogged down after FEMA's disaster aid ran dry.
More than $13 million was on hold in North Dakota alone, delaying the buyouts of more than 100 homes affected by floods last year.
Communities that participate in the program must agree to take the properties off the tax rolls and maintain them as green space. Homeowners must decide whether to accept the government's offer. The process can take months in the best cases.
In western Indiana's Vigo County, time has virtually stood still since June 2008, when storms dumped up to 10 inches of rain on parts of the state. The floodwaters killed three people and caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage. President Bush declared 39 Indiana counties disaster areas.
FEMA still has not approved any of Vigo County's seven buyout plans.
"There are days when it's just really hard to think about," said Honnalora Hubbard, Niece's former neighbor. "Two years later, you're still not able to put a traumatic experience behind you."
The delays in Indiana have created "a big, long line of black holes of people waiting," said Dean Bruce, a member of the town board in the southern Indiana community of Spencer, where 23 flooded properties still don't have FEMA approval.
Congress passed a war funding bill July 27 that included $5.1 billion to replenish FEMA's disaster-relief fund, but there's been little improvement. Spokeswoman Rachel Racusen said the agency has a backlog of "thousands of projects" from floods and other disasters.
"It will still take time to resume work on longer-term response and recovery projects from previous disasters," Racusen said.
Homeowners in Wisconsin, where floods in 2007 and 2008 caused extensive damage, are experiencing similar delays.
In Gays Mills, a village about 80 miles northwest of Madison, FEMA purchased 25 homes after the floods.
But Michelle Engh, a housing specialist with a Wisconsin nonprofit group called CouleeCap, said none of her clients are in new homes yet. And many homeowners who did receive buyouts did not get paid enough to buy new homes, with lots of their properties appraised for around $40,000.
"There's this gap that exists between what people received and the cost of the new home," Engh said.
In Indiana, some homeowners affected by the floods have moved to new homes where they pay rent or second mortgages while still paying off the old properties.
Kellie and Darrin DeVault still do not know how much they will get for their waterlogged house about 15 miles south of Indianapolis.
Floodwaters from the June 2008 storms bubbled up from drains into a bathroom, bedroom, family room and fireplace on the first level. When the water receded, the DeVaults hired a contractor to remove damaged drywall and seal off the basement with a new door at the top of the stairs. They continued living on the other two levels.
It was their third flood in about six years. So when the county offered a buyout, they jumped at the chance. In August, they moved into a new home on higher ground several miles away.
But the Indiana Department of Homeland Security says it could be months before they receive any money for the old house.
"Every week that ticks by, we're just incurring more costs," Kellie DeVault said.
Indiana has 25 local buyout projects involving more than 400 homes valued at more than $39 million. Eight projects have FEMA approval, said Manuela Johnson, hazard mitigation director for the Indiana Department of Homeland Security.
Johnson said her agency made clear to homeowners that the process would take time. She said the first buyout applications did not go out until six to eight months after the June 2008 floods.
Mike Pringle, director of the Wabash Valley Long-Term Disaster Recovery Coalition, said local governments are hamstrung by their own budget problems, and there's only so much money available each month to take elevation surveys or gather other geographic information.
"One of the lessons we've learned: It would be better for people not to go through the buyout program" if they have alternatives, Pringle said. "So far, we have not seen any positive results from the FEMA buyouts. People are waiting."
Associated Press writers Todd Richmond in Madison, Wis., and Dave Kolpack in Fargo, N.D., contributed to this story.