As residents return to flood-damaged homes along the Catawba River, Charlotte-Mecklenburg officials are asking a big question about their future: Should the government buy out their houses or help pay to repair them?
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Storm Water Services buys roughly 20 homes a year in flood-prone neighborhoods or helps owners pay to elevate them. Without government help, some residents now face the prospect of paying thousands of dollars to rebuild.
But buying or lifting more than 40 houses near Mountain Island Lake could cost taxpayers millions of dollars in an area that has long been considered less dangerous during heavy rains than some other parts of the county.
The proposal also comes as some residents blame Duke Energy — not the homes’ location in a floodplain — for damages sustained during rains last weekend. Mecklenburg County estimated $3.3 million in damage to 107 homes inspected along Riverside Drive, Lake Drive and Riverhaven Drive, but that number could go higher after more interviews are conducted with residents.
“There needs to be more due diligence on how this was handled by Duke before we spend public tax dollars,” said Sam Perkins, a Charlotte environmental activist. “Somebody needs to force them to the table.”
Tim Trautman, Mecklenburg County flood mitigation program manager, said authorities are weighing whether to buy some homes to help save taxpayers money.
Obtaining the properties and converting them to open space can lower the costs of disaster relief, emergency rescues and government-backed insurance by reducing the number of homes likely to be impacted during severe weather and creating green space that can soak up rainfall and ease flooding, Trautman said.
Since 1999, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Storm Water Services has made offers to buy houses, apartment buildings or other structures built along rivers, lakes and creeks that run along some of the Charlotte area’s most desirable neighborhoods. Many of the homes were built before the 1970s when the government did not have the data to warn buyers about flood risks.
The issue is growing more significant now because a broad consensus among scientists says that climate change will bring more extreme weather events in coming decades, including heavy rains from storms and hurricanes.
For areas prone to flood, Trautman said, it might become necessary for the government to buy houses or help residents pay to elevate their homes to protect people from dangers posed by flooding.
In Mountain Island and other places “there are homes in areas where it doesn’t make sense to elevate them” because the cost to do that could easily reach $100,000, Trautman said. “It may be more cost-effective to buy them.”
‘A war zone’
Days of rains caused flooding along the Catawba River and damaged more than 100 homes in Mecklenburg County, many in northwest Charlotte along Riverside Drive, emergency workers and other officials said.
Now residents confront the challenge of figuring how they will pay to repair or rebuild.
Some of the houses had up to eight feet water, Mecklenburg County said in a news release. At least 60 sustained mechanical damage, which includes broken water heaters and air conditioning.
Most home insurance policies exclude floods. People need to purchase separate flood insurance, but many in the impacted area don’t because policies typically cost between $6,000 and $9,000 a year or they don’t believe their homes are at risk.
Federal rules require flood insurance in specially designated high-risk areas to obtain a mortgage from a bank. However, some people bought their homes with cash, Trautman said.
He said officials are still trying to determine how many people affected by the rains have flood insurance. Historically, he said, about half of property owners in that area carry flood insurance.
Most private insurers dropped flood coverage in the 1900s after they were swamped by claims. In 1968, the federal government created the National Flood Insurance Program, which is now the primary source for flood coverage in the U.S. with 5 million policies, a fraction of the number of homeowners who may need it.
Sabrina Hilario, who lives in the Mountain Island area, has flood insurance, which she said makes her fortunate.
“It’s a war zone over here,” Hilario said Friday, while piling destroyed items in a Dumpster.
Because there was little time to evacuate, she said, precious items were lost in the flooding.
Her next-door neighbor lost her wedding album and a copy of the Bible from the 1800s, Hilario said.
Emergency workers said the area often sees flooding in yards, but damage to houses is not as common. Residents and emergency officials last recalled severe flooding in 2013 and 2004.
Mecklenburg County Storm Water Services Director Dave Canaan said that some people offered home buyouts in the past have chosen to take their chances living close to the water.
“Knowing several of the property owners down there (in Mountain Island),” Canaan said, “they would say, ‘Yeah, but look at the value to my life of living on the river.’”
Who’s to blame?
Some residents have blamed their current predicament on Duke Energy for how it manages the flow of water down its string of 11 lakes on the Catawba River.
Perkins, the local environmentalist, told the Observer the flooding in Mountain Island shows that tax money should not be spent before local officials examine whether better management of the water can reduce the threat.
“It doesn’t HAVE to be this way,” Perkins said in a Facebook post. “These incidents don’t need to be so dangerous and disastrous. I hope folks will discuss, contemplate and approach both Duke and elected officials in hopes of creating better outcomes for future high-flow events.”
As heavy rain was about to send the Catawba River over its banks last Sunday, Duke Energy opened floodgates to Cowans Ford Dam that impounds Lake Norman — releasing more water than had ever rushed through the gates in the dam’s 56-year history.
Floodgates are opened to protect a dam’s structural integrity and control the flow of water downstream.
Water gushed downstream toward the Mountain Island area that appeared to sustain the most severe damage from flooding in Mecklenburg County.
Some residents claim their homes sustained damage because Duke did not keep water levels on Lake Norman low enough to allow it to soak up the 7 to 9 inches rain that fell.
Duke spokesperson Rick Rhodes said the company started moving water from the upper Catawba River basin on Wednesday, passing it through Lake Norman. The lake had about 1.5 feet of storage, which Duke said was enough based on the rain forecast of 4 to 6 inches.
Floodgates on the Cowans Ford Dam were only opened when Lake Norman had no water storage left because there was more rain than forecast, Rhodes said.
“It was like a mini-hurricane,” he said.
Trautman, Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s flood mitigation manager, did not offer an opinion on Duke when asked by a reporter.
He said the officials would work with Duke to make sure flood maps are accurate.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg officials are now assessing whether they should buy or help repair homes along the Catawba River that are most threatened by potential flooding.
Authorities surveyed the area in recent days and found that homes that met modern building codes meant to prevent flooding or had been elevated after 2004 did not sustain flood damage on the inside, Trautman said.
Since 1999, Charlotte-Mecklenburg has bought more than 400 homes, apartments and other structures built in floodplains. Officials spend about $3 million a year with tax money from storm water fees paid by residents and state and federal grants.
Trautman said he anticipates that authorities would purchase “a small number homes” in the Mountain Island neighborhood and recommend others be elevated.
Under the Retrofit program, Charlotte-Mecklenburg reimburses residents in flood-prone areas between 75% and 90% of the costs to raise their homes with stilts and other lesser steps such as placing air conditioning units in higher places.
Officials say that only about a dozen people have taken advantage since 2015 because elevating a home can costs tens of thousands of dollars and some do not have the money to pay upfront and wait for reimbursement from the government.
Asked about the costs to taxpayers, Trautman said he and other officials carefully scrutinized which homes they buy to make sure the government maximizes safety and saves money in the long run.
He said Charlotte-Mecklenburg has not offered to buy houses in Mountain Island in the past because its location has given resident time to evacuate before flood waters reached their homes.
In other parts of Charlotte, Trautman said there is less advance warning about flooding.
But for the first time since 2012, Charlotte-Mecklenburg leaders are re-examining the parameters they use to determine where they will target for home buying and repairs.
“The impetus is on making sure people are not in danger,” Trautman said.