Nashville told to buy homes in flood area

Nashville told to buy homes in flood area

November 21st, 2011 By Michael Cass/The Tennessean in News

The Cumberland River overflows its banks near downtown Nashville, Tenn., Tuesday, May 4, 2010. Heavy weekend rain caused the Cumberland River, which winds through Nashville, to over flow its banks flooding part of downtown and other areas around the city. Floodwaters appear to be receding Tuesday. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

NASHVILLE - Lars Frederiksen and his family can't live in their old house anymore. The flood of 2010 ruined it more than 18 months ago. But they have continued to pay the mortgage, insurance and property taxes.

When federal and state money to help Metro buy the Melrose-area property got held up last summer, Frederiksen felt a sense of dread as his debts - including Small Business Administration loans and a new mortgage in East Nashville - continued to pile up. But his burden eased a bit last week when the Federal Emergency Management Agency told Metro Nashville the buyout money now is available.

"The only possible buyer is Metro," said Frederiksen, the sales director at Graffiti Indoor Advertising. "You can't build on it. So we're here thinking, 'If this FEMA thing doesn't happen, I am dead.' But now it's happening again, so we're breathing."

He said he hopes the sale will be complete by January.

Mayor Karl Dean's office said Wednesday that $30.4 million, including $3.8 million in Metro matching funds, now is back on track to help the city buy 122 homes, raze them and convert the land to open greenspace where water can flow freely. FEMA had put a freeze on long-term disaster relief spending after Hurricane Irene hammered the northeastern United States in August and Congress debated how to come up with new funds.

"It was unfortunate that FEMA delayed these funds to flood victims in Nashville, but I am grateful to Metro Water Services for acting quickly to get this money to homeowners on the buyout program as soon as possible," Dean said in a news release.

The buyout program, funded by FEMA (75 percent), the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency (12.5 percent) and the city (12.5 percent), covers five groups of properties, one of which still needs final FEMA approval. Metro has already closed on 97 of the 104 properties it plans to buy in the first two groups and has demolished 92 of them, Metro Water Services spokeswoman Sonia Harvat said.

The newly available money will buy an additional 98 properties, including Frederiksen's, in the next two groups. Closing attorneys have started working on title searches for those homes, Harvat said.

The new funds also are expected to pay for an additional 24 properties in the fifth and final group, though FEMA is still reviewing that application. Harvat and Jeremy Heidt, a TEMA spokesman, said the federal agency hasn't given any timeline for a decision.

In the end, the city expects to buy 226 of the 305 properties it offered to purchase.

Some homeowners chose not to sell, and property owners who have agreed to sell can still drop out of the buyout program at any time before closing. Metro gave first priority to homes that sustained damage exceeding 40 percent of their total value and stood in the floodway, the area where water flows fastest during a flood.

Harvat said it was "disheartening" when the FEMA money was derailed in August because "we were so close."

"But we pushed through it, and we were in contact with the property owners even through that process to let them know what was going on."

FEMA headache

The funding freeze wasn't Anita DePasquo's first problem with FEMA this year. Last spring she was one of more than 400 Tennesseans who received letters saying they had to repay some of the money the agency had given them for disaster relief.

In DePasquo's case, FEMA wanted to claw back $27,700 of a $29,900 grant, which it said represented a duplication of benefits. She said at the time that the agency was making her family's situation worse, not better, a year after they had to flee their Bellevue house in a canoe.

But when Metro Water Services got in touch last week to say it could move forward on buying the house on Newsom Station Road, DePasquo felt she could begin to move past the disaster of May 2010. She and her husband, Tony, who works as a contractor at an Air Force base in Qatar much of the time, and their two children now live on higher ground in another part of Bellevue.

"We probably should be seeing a closing before Christmas," she said. "That'll be a good Christmas present.

"It's another cloud that's been lifted. And with each cloud that's lifted, we feel a sense of closure. My words cannot express my excitement and my relief. I'm just glad it's about to be over, and we can move on with our lives."