Flooded residents get OK for utilities

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, March 11, 2009

In a breakthrough of sorts, people whose Vicksburg homes flooded a year ago may have their utilities turned back on beginning Friday and make repairs — but only if they sign away their rights to receive any federal money in the future.

“This has never been done anywhere in the country — ever,” said Mayor Laurence Leyens. “We’re cutting new teeth here.”

The Vicksburg Board of Mayor and Aldermen announced the compromise Tuesday. However, signing away the right to future disaster relief money doesn’t allow the approximately 50 homeowners to move into their homes — at least immediately.

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“If you move back into your home you will be in violation of an ordinance and we will cite you and have to take you to court,” Director of Buildings and Inspections Victor Gray-Lewis told the nine flood victims who attended a special hearing.

After being trapped by water from near-record Mississippi River flooding, the homeowners are trapped by competing regulations.

To participate in the National Flood Insurance Program, which allows residents of known flood areas to purchase taxpayer-subsidized policies, cities and counties must enforce ordinances against issuing permits for repairs to “substantially damaged” properties. The idea is to prevent repeat claims.

Insured homeowners are paid for the damages, but often can’t afford or qualify for mortages allowing them to move away from homes some have owned for decades.

Gray-Lewis said citations and city court appearance for “violators” who do move back in will be more of a formality than a punishment, and is required to have documentation of a violation of the local floodplain management ordinances. Then, he said, Section 1316 of the National Flood Insurance Act can be invoked, by which FEMA officially recognizes the forfeiture of rights to any disaster assistance and thereby allows residents to move back into their homes.

The board set a special called meeting for Friday at 10 a.m. in room 109 of the City Hall Annex, 1415 Walnut St., to accept the contract drawn up by city attorneys that will allow residents to begin the process.

Robert Brown, whose parents are still displaced from one of five substantially damaged homes on Browns Alley he owns, said he is ready to sign away his rights on two of his homes and demolish the other three — and speculated most of his neighbors would do the same.

“Forget about FEMA. Half of them don’t have any insurance, anyway — of any kind,” he said. “All of them want to go back. They don’t have anywhere else to go.”

Flooding last spring hit areas north of Vicksburg the hardest, where homes have repeatedly flooded through the years and had pre-flood appraised values of $10,000 or less in most instances.

Other options for the homeowners have included accepting buyouts and relocation money in a separate program or elevating their homes on stilts.

Sixteen residents have agreed to buyouts.

Leyens acknowledged Tuesday that some residents were not interested in the buyout because the value of their homes made “the buyout offer ridiculously low in some cases.”

The buyout applications were sent to the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency as early as July, but Gray-Lewis said the city is still waiting for the agency to approve the applications.

The Mississippi River at Vicksburg topped flood stage of 43 feet on March 29, crested at 50.9 feet on April 19 and fell below flood stage on May 10.

It marked the highest recorded river stage at Vicksburg since 1973, when the river crested at 51.6 feet.


Contact Steve Sanoski at ssanoski@vicksburgpost.com.