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This post was co-written by Mary Tiger and Lexi Kay

For about 20 residents in North Topsail Beach, NC, the new year brought a new fix for a lingering problem. This month construction began to address severe erosion and flooding that has been affecting these homes for years. Though the homes are oceanfront now, they were never intended to be. Several years ago the residences in front of these homes had to be condemned due to the erosion, and now as the sand dunes continue to shrink in size, current homeowners face the same fate. As a temporary solution, the town is investing in sandbag revetment, which will serve as a barrier between the homes and the ocean. This will buy the town and homeowners more time to craft a more permanent solution.

Unfortunately, this scenario is becoming more common in communities around the country. But what can homeowners do to manage these problems, and what role should local governments play?

Local Governments on the Front Line

Photo courtesy of Dirk Frankenburg.
Photo courtesy of Dirk Frankenburg.

A changing climate, increasing populations, and waterside development are changing the way that water flows through and around our built environment and the corresponding risk associated with flooding. On the front lines of managing this water flow and development are cities and counties, but they can’t manage it alone.

The cooperation of private landowners is critical to a flood resilient community. Investments in on-site building modifications can help mitigate the detrimental impacts of a flood on human health, property, and the environment. But for the individual homeowner, these flood mitigation solutions can be expensive, complicated, or not practical. A recent New York Times article estimated that the cost of elevating a house can range from $10,000 to $100,000 depending on its size, weight, and when it was built.

Local governments are in an opportune position to assist – and even incentivize – these types of investments on private property. Upfront investments in mitigation can eventually save both private and public dollars and resources. According to an analysis conducted by the Multihazard Mitigation Council of the National Institute of Building Sciences, every dollar spent on hazard mitigation can save an average of four dollars in avoided losses.

Local Governments have the Capacity to Help

Most local government agencies have a planning role in their community and the expertise to interpret flood maps to take into account current development and future growth. Many already regulate floodplain development with zoning and building codes. Additionally, cities and counties have access to low-cost capital and the revenue sources to secure that capital.

Some local governments, like Mecklenburg County, NC, have implemented “buyout” programs to acquire privately-owned land for the public purpose of flood mitigation. Buyout programs involve the purchase of existing structures and property in the floodplain to “break the cycle” of development-destruction-redevelopment in floodplains. But buyout programs are difficult to apply to existing development, are expensive, and often result in a “patchwork” of parcels of land.

A Local Solution

Sometimes all that is needed is a modification to buildings in the floodplain to make them more flood-resilient. To meet this need, the State of Connecticut kicked off a program last summer to provide low-interest loans for flood mitigation efforts. The program, called ShoreUp, offers homeowners and small businesses in areas subject to flooding a loan at a 2.75% interest rate. These loans can be for anywhere between $10,000 and $300,000 and can be used to elevate buildings one foot above the 500-year flood height. Borrowers can take up to 15 years to pay back the loan. The funding for the program comes through Connecticut’s Department of Housing. Although at the state level, a similar program could be adapted for one or more local governments.

Though innovative programs like Connecticut’s loan program are still in their early stages, it is clear that state and local governments will play an important role in alleviating the financial burden homeowners face. A locally implemented financial incentive program will help individual homeowners prioritize investment in flood mitigation efforts in the areas most at risk of flooding. Over time, these efforts have the potential to save the homeowner, the local government, the state government, the federal government, and taxpayers valuable resources and money.

2 Responses to “Incentivizing Flood Mitigation Efforts on Private Property before the Waters Rise”

  1. Michael Powell

    I was under the impression from some NFIP issues that North Topsail Beach, NC was in a CBRA designation. Is that correct? Any connections between CBRA and the funding that is used for these assistance programs?

    • Mary Tiger

      You are correct that the Coastal Barrier Resources Act (CBRA) affects nearly 70% of North Topsail’s beach land mass. So in this case, flood insurance was not available to those landowners. But even in the cases where it is offered, coordinating with federal programs is an important consideration in establishing local assistance programs. For example, at a community meeting in Fairfield, Connecticut in August 2014, residents questioned whether they could use a FEMA grant to pay back the loan (link to article). As the State of Connecticut answer these and other questions that come up, communities and states will likely be watching the outcomes of these discussions in order to help inform the potential structure of similar individual flood mitigation loan program in their jurisdictions.

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