Extension given homes in flood area

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Six residents on Williams and Ford streets whose homes were damaged in spring flooding were given 90 days by the Vicksburg Board of Mayor and Aldermen Tuesday to begin to elevate their homes or face having them torn down.

“If you’re making progress and it looks like you’re coming into compliance we’ll give you as much time as you need,” said Mayor Laurence Leyens to the dozen residents of Ford subdivision who attended Tuesday’s meeting.

However, Leyens said the city must demolish homes in flood areas or face losing the eligibility of residents to buy federally subsidized flood insurance.

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“We’re trying to hold the federal government back, but they’re putting a lot of pressure on us,” he said. “In 2001 we basically ignored the rules so (flood victims) could go back to their homes. The federal government has made it very clear that we cannot do that anymore.”

To break the cycle of repeated claims, longstanding National Flood Insurance Program rules say that once flooded, buildings receiving substantial damage in a flood area must be brought up to all codes, including elevation requirements, before utilities can be reconnected. Significant damage is defined as 50 percent or more of the total appraised value.

Several of the residents who received extensions addressed the board with criticisms. Mary Jenkins, whose home at 123 Williams St. had floodwaters nearly reach her roof, accused Leyens of wanting properties in the flooded areas for himself — an accusation Leyens quickly repudiated. 

“I am still hurt by the way you have treated us. You don’t consider us as human beings. You have violated our civil rights,” said Jenkins, adding she did not yet know what she wanted to do with her property.

The discussion lasted more than a half-hour, and several times Leyens had to repeatedly slam down his gavel to quell the shouting.

“There is never a positive outcome when you come in and scream at the board, and accuse the mayor of stuff that is absolutely untrue. It’s a non-constructive meeting,” said Leyens. “I do care about Ms. Jenkins and her family home, and I don’t want to see her lose her home either. As much as we feel bad for Ms. Jenkins, we have got to get her house in minimum standards.”

As waters began to rise toward a crest almost as high as 1973 flooding, city officials said they would work with each property owner individually to try to obtain federal buyouts, but also saying they could not return to homes severely damaged.

At a Nov. 17 board meeting, five other flood-affected properties on Williams Street were given 30-day extensions to begin work to elevate their homes and bring them into compliance. Buildings and Inspections Director Victor Gray-Lewis said two property owners who did not show up at Tuesday’s meeting could face having their homes torn down, but did not provide any time line on when it could happen.

“No homes have been taken down at this point,” Gray-Lewis said. Those affected “have the right to be heard and to explain to the board why the city shouldn’t take action on their property. If they’re properly notified and they sign for the (certified) letter (they’ve been sent), then they need to be at the meeting at the prescribed time or they pretty much give up that right.”

Gray-Lewis estimated 30 to 50 letters have been sent to property owners in the Ford area who need to bring their homes into compliance, and said more properties could come before the board at future meetings.

Thus far, 16 residents have signed up for the FEMA flood buyout program, said Director of Housing Beatrice Moore, and a resident who owns five properties has expressed interest in a second round of buyouts. While she had been told by the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency those who applied would be approved within six weeks of applying — which was done in July — Moore said she is still waiting for the final go ahead.  

“During this process I have called many times, and many times they have told me they’re working on another disaster,” she said. “It is expected to happen any time now.”

FEMA will provide 95 percent of the total buyout cost of approximately $400,000, leaving the city to pick up about $20,000 of the tab. One problem for homeowners is that while they can be paid the full, pre-flood appraised value of their property plus a relocation stipend, many do not want to give up their homesteads. Another problem is that even if provided full value, there are no other properties for sale for the same price and the flood victims, many of them retirees, cannot qualify for a mortgage.

Once given the green light, Moore said the city should be able to begin purchasing the properties immediately unless they are required to advertise for bids for an appraiser. She said she has asked MEMA if they would be required to do so, and they have yet to give her a definitive answer.

“From where we sit it would be considered an emergency” and we would not be required to advertise for bids, said Moore. “We have some people who, for lack of a better term, are basically homeless.”

The Mississippi River at Vicksburg rose above flood stage of 43 feet on March 29, crested at 50.9 feet on April 19 and did not recede below flood stage until May 10. It was the highest recorded river stage in the city since 1973, when the river crested at 51.6 feet.

According to MEMA, 201 Warren County residents received $1.259 million in individual, household and other needs assistance from FEMA following the spring flood.


Contact Steve Sanoski at ssanoski@vicksburgpost.com.