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Nashville flooding renews federal push to tear down homes

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Baylie McDaniel, a public school teacher in Nashville, stands in her home among damage caused by floodwaters.

Baylie McDaniel is a public school teacher in Nashville who is starting the long process of rebuilding after floodwaters inundated her home in late March. She says she'd prefer the city to focus on controlling Seven Mile Creek rather than buying homes to tear them down. Blake Farmer/WPLN News

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In more than 30 years, the creek in Mary Jane Ingram’s backyard has risen to her house twice. Once, in Nashville’s historic flood of May 2010 — and again in late March of this year.

“I’m flooding again!” she exclaimed, taking some video at around midnight. “Holy comoly!”

Murky brown water washed around Ingram’s ranch-style home, trapping her and her dogs inside. Dozens of people around the city had to be rescued. Several people died, including along Seven Mile Creek, which ripped through Ingram’s neighborhood.

In the days that followed, she launched into cleanup mode, just as she had in 2010. Though this time felt different, Ingram said; she realized she needed to be prepared for heavier rainstorms. “This is the season for it, but they’re getting worse every year,” she said. “So now my 100-year flood plain is an 11-year flood plain.”

Climate change is one of the main reasons the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers are buying up more homes and knocking them down.

Increasingly, cities are fighting floodwaters by getting out of the way, more or less. The federal government is buying houses just to tear them down. A federal disaster declaration could trigger another round of buyouts for flooded homes in Nashville.

Being eligible for a buyout, however, doesn’t mean people will take it.

Buy-in for buyouts

In Nashville, some homes never should have been built where they are in the first place, said Sonia Allman of Metro Water Services. Allman said that flood plain building restrictions weren’t in place until the 1980s.

“A developer could purchase a piece of farmland … and they did not pay attention necessarily to low-lying areas along creeks,” she said.

Since Nashville’s 2010 flood, which swamped even landmarks like the Grand Ole Opry House, the city has aggressively pursued buyouts — mostly through a partnership with FEMA — paying fair market appraisal values to 400 homeowners, then clearing out the homes.

“Many of these areas are turned into parks. They are turned into community gardens, and those property owners are not stuck in a home because of the history of flooding,” Allman said.

So far, a federal disaster has not been declared for the flash-flooding this March. If it is, Allman said, the city plans to ask for money to do even more clearing of the flood plain.

Thanks, but no thanks

Buyouts — while voluntary — aren’t always widely welcomed in the neighborhoods where they’re available.

Along Seven Mile Creek, Nashville has already purchased 15 homes through a program with the Corps of Engineers, which has just approved another 85 for purchase. The water department has sent reminders of the program, and a local council member has been going door-to-door to gauge interest.

Residents, though, are largely gutting their homes in preparation to rebuild instead.

“It just seems strange to me that y’all’s best solution is to flatten houses,” said Baylie McDaniel, a resident whose home backs up to one house that has already been torn down. “We’re talking about a creek.”

McDaniel, a teacher in Metro Schools, said she and her husband had more than a foot of water in the main level of their home during the recent floods, meaning everything below that has to be replaced. It will likely take a year to rebuild.

They were hoping the most recent flooding might start a more urgent conversation about controlling the creek with dams, or even just cleaning out the drains. If her house is deemed eligible for a new round of buyout offers, it could take a year or more to finalize.

“For now, it’s kinda just like, we’re gonna rebuild it and hope for the best for the next couple of years, I guess,” McDaniel said

Buyout complications

McDaniel said the house still seems far more valuable as a place to live than an open space, even if she decides to move and rent it out or sell. Flood-prone or not, houses are selling like hotcakes right now in McDaniel’s neighborhood.

Nashville’s booming real estate market is complicating the buyout equation. Aaron Farmer, who lives a few houses down from McDaniel, said he and his husband already have an offer from the last buyout program.

“However, you also have to think: If I’m going to sell my house, where am I going to go?” he asked.

Even if the government paid top-dollar, the process takes so long, he said, that it’s likely his house would be worth even more in a year or two.

“I don’t think there’s going to be a lot of interest in it, honestly,” he said. “A few people, they may leave, but the majority of my neighbors, we intend to stay.”

Many also say they may get better flood insurance — just in case.

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