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Published July 01 2009

Forum editorial: Between rock and wet place

It appears Cass County and the Federal Emergency Management Agency have achieved a level of consensus that will result in buyouts of a handful of homes damaged in the record flood of 2009. That’s good news, but it’s not all that good.

The bad news is the delay built into the process that leaves homeowners between a rock and a wet place. The waiting, more than any other factor, multiplies the stress of an already stressful situation. There has to be a way to expedite the process.

Bureaucracy need not always move at a glacier’s pace. Floodwaters damaged the homes months ago. The extent of individual property damage is known in most cases. The county wants to buy the homes using federal resources as soon as possible, but negotiating federal regulations associated with the program is a numbingly slow process. Homeowners wait while bureaucratic wheels creak along.

Flood Mitigation Assistance, part of FEMA, is a fund that has

$25 million available for buyouts. But because of the way the agency must assess damage under federal law, the county is being forced to segment purchases of damaged homes.

The law emphasizes flood plains over real flood damage, a formula that both ignores reality and puts dozens of homeowners in a waiting mode.

The county will first buy homes that meet a cost-benefit ratio above the dollar-for-dollar standard. Properties that fall below the standard will have to wait longer while new cost-benefit calculations are made.

There are many homes that don’t meet FEMA’s primary cost-benefit standard, but nevertheless suffered extensive damage from the flood. But because of the way the federal agency uses a flood plain standard rather than an actual damage measure, those homes might not qualify for buyouts. And if some ratios don’t work in FEMA’s formula, the homeowners are out of luck.

It’s a clumsy way to operate. It appears to have scrapped common sense in favor of a relatively rigid – and unrealistic – assessment of flood damage. Of course, FEMA is merely acting within federal regulations, so maybe the regulations need modification. Maybe North Dakota’s congressional delegation should call the appropriate federal officials on the carpet to explain why a necessary clearing of the Red River’s flood plain could be stymied by an agency that is supposed to be helping flood victims.

Meanwhile, homeowners in the most flood-prone tracts in the flood plain don’t know whether to fix their damaged homes, invest in flood protection that won’t help in a big flood, or abandon their homes altogether and take a financial hit most can’t afford.

The situation is unacceptable. Cass County has done its best, but the county can’t proceed when it’s caught in a federal regulations tangle that is making a bad situation worse.

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.