For seven years, Ann Green, 74, lived at a garden-studded home on Sutton Hill Road, in the neighborhood known as Battlemont. She describes herself as "semi-retired," and works part time at home doing bookkeeping for a church. But in May 2010, a torrent of floodwater overran the banks of nearby Browns Creek, leaving her home in ruins, her garden strewn with mud and debris. She wanted to get a permit to rebuild, but couldn't.
"Rebuilding would have cost more than 50 percent of the value of the house," Green says. "I had more damage than probably anyone else out there. Water got to six feet in my house."
So she moved last April into a condo in a retirement community. A photo of her garden in full bloom sits on her entertainment center. Her new condo is smaller than her old home, but at $652 for her monthly mortgage payment plus a $250 monthly condo fee — compared to her old $400 monthly mortgage — it's somehow more expensive.
"My living expenses are so much more now than they were before the flood," Green says. And now that she owns a condo, she's not receiving FEMA's rental assistance, as she did when she was renting a home in Sylvan Park for 10 months after the flood.
"I couldn't have lived there without it," Green says. "The rent was $1,285 a month. With utilities on top of that, there's no way I could have been there if I hadn't of gotten [assistance]."
For many, the May 2010 flood has passed into history. But for Nashvillians like Green, who are still dealing with the flood's aftermath as its second anniversary nears, the process has left them feeling like they're only just now coming up for air.
After the May flood, Metro Water Services acted. Quickly. On June 22, 2010, Metro Water sent out "Letters of Interest" offering homeowners whose homes were ravaged by the flood a buyout option through the FEMA-funded Hazard Mitigation Grant Program. When Green received her buyout letter, offering to purchase her flood-damaged home, she took it.
"I truly felt I had no choice," Green said. "Since I couldn't rebuild, what could I do?"
Green was not the only one in her neighborhood affected. The waters also stranded nearby residents such as Lars Frederiksen, his wife Marla Faith and their 15-year-old daughter Nila; Jason and Stacy Perry; and housemates Patti Zimmerman and Kathy Felts. With a stroke of Browns Creek's waters, all became former neighbors.
That was only the beginning of their troubles. Last fall, the congressional freeze placed on FEMA's budgetary funding put a freeze on their lives too. The freeze, announced in a Sept. 1, 2011, press release from Mayor Karl Dean's office, placed $30.4 million on an indefinite hold due to a series of natural disasters that spread FEMA's funding thin.
The problem this caused for Metro — and for the remaining 122 "parcels" like Green's being purchased through the FEMA buyout program — was that there was no money to finish the sales.
Plus the "122 parcels" number only accounts for each individual piece of property. The actual number of people living at each parcel is unknown.
According to Jeremy Heidt, Tennessee Emergency Management Agency's public information officer, FEMA developed the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program to enable local governments to get people out of floodways. Local governments such as Metro — which has been involved in the Hazard Mitigation program since 2002 — submit buyout projects that meet FEMA's flood mitigation criteria. The point of the project is to remove homes from hazardous properties.
"They're going to be demolished. That's the project," Heidt says. "The goal for us is to get the property owner and the property out of the flood-prone area."
Property owners were solicited by Metro Water Services to sell their flooded homes. The program is completely voluntary, and homeowners are offered pre-flood prices.
"Until homeowners sign the actual papers to transfer the property, they can back out at any time," Heidt says. "If you're a homeowner, you're in a hard place. You're stuck with a piece of property you can't rebuild and you can't sell and move away from, so this mitigation project helps them move on with their lives."
That feeling — of being stuck in a hard place, unable to move forward — is exactly what Green and her neighbors have experienced.
"We had no choice — we're not allowed to rebuild," Lars Frederiksen says. "What am I going to do now? I own the house, and I own the property. I owe the bank. I have to take the buyout. I'm pleased that I think the offer they made was fair, and I'll be really happy once it's all over with. Sitting around waiting — it's hard."
The Perrys' story is the same.
"Take it. Immediately," Stacy Perry says. "At that point we knew that we would never sell it, because when we bought the house we knew it was in a 100-year flood plain. But we were thinking to ourselves, we're not the 100-year family."
After the May 2010 flood, Metro took strides to expedite the lengthy process of getting flooded homes purchased through the Hazard Mitigation program. According to Sonia Harvat, Metro Water Services' public information officer, past mitigation projects took two years or more before the first homes were demolished. Special concessions were made for flood victims, since they had no homes to return to.
According to Harvat, Metro Water originally identified 305 eligible properties. Of those, 226 owners proceeded with the buyout. The 226 properties were then divided into five application groups according to various criteria such as location and "cost-benefit ratio" — essentially FEMA's return-on-investment gauge for government requests on home buyouts.
"We're competing with other communities as well for this money," Harvat says. "We had to make sure that the packages not only met the criteria, but FEMA saw a true cost benefit. We couldn't do one whole package because that's too much money, and if FEMA were to decline it, you'd lose it all."
Patti Zimmerman says she's not mad at the process that Metro had to use to get the buyouts under way. In fact, she says, the time frame is very close to what Metro estimated.
"We felt like — from the get-go — we have been given a set of information, and everything has gone that course," Zimmerman says. "Even from us waiting for the buyout. Even though it's time for it to be over now, we were led to believe that it would be around this [amount of] time before things would be closing."
Green, however, says she was told a different story.
"They told me that the people who could not rebuild would be given priority in the buyout," Green says. "That changed when they divided it all up into different groups and different applications."
Once the FEMA funding froze, only the first two application groups got the money needed for their buyouts. The remaining 122 properties in groups three, four and five were still waiting. That's when the property-tax issue came into play.
On Oct. 4, 2011, Metro Council unanimously passed RS2011-38, a resolution requesting Tennessee lawmakers to pass legislation providing property-tax relief for flood victims who had been stalled in selling their flooded homes to Metro through FEMA's Hazard Mitigation Grant Program. District 25 Councilman Sean McGuire drafted the resolution, and was heading the effort in response to his constituents' calling attention to the problem.
"It's really a terrible situation, and it's no one's fault," McGuire says. "It's not FEMA's fault that they're in a budget crisis. It's not Metro's fault. It's not the homeowners' fault that they agreed to sell to Metro."
While the property-tax resolution was unanimously passed by the council, it's "non-binding" — which, according to McGuire, means it only expresses the council's consensus on a particular topic. Metro would have to bring it before the state legislature before any further action could be made on it.
"It's basically saying we feel that the state should take action and provide property tax relief for these homeowners," McGuire says.
There was, however, good news for homeowners like Green. On Nov. 16, 2011, Dean announced that the $30.4 million FEMA funding freeze had been lifted, and the buyouts were back on track.
"It was unfortunate that FEMA delayed these funds to flood victims in Nashville," Dean said in November, "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."
According to Harvat, attorneys began working on the property closings in mid-November. The affected homeowners in groups three, four and five are now awaiting closing dates on their flooded properties.
"The closing attorneys will have to complete the title work, and the closings will follow as the title reports come in," Harvat says. "The closings will be done as the individual title reports come in."
Ann Green says she's been notified that buyout funding is available again, title searches are in progress, and closing will following soon after.
"When the buyout comes in, this mortgage will be paid off," Green says. She'll still have her monthly condo fee, but living expenses will be $652 cheaper every month for the semi-retiree.
Even so, property taxes were assessed on those flooded homes, bills were sent out from the Davidson County Tax Assessor's office the first week of October, and taxes are due on Feb. 28.
According to Metropolitan Trustee Charlie Cardwell, the tax collection agency plans on waiving the penalty fee of 1.5 percent interest on due taxes per month if closing doesn't happen until 30 to 60 days after taxes are due.
"We are going to work with [homeowners] to make sure they're not penalized," Cardwell says.
In addition to waiving fees, the assessor's office assessed the flooded properties at a reduced rate.
According to Councilman McGuire, since the "indefinite" freeze has been lifted, and buyouts are back on track, there's a sense of relief.
"When the buyout proceeds were frozen, there was the possibility of the property owners retaining the property with no end in sight," McGuire says. "With the buyout back on track, the owners will be able to pay whatever back taxes are owed out of the proceeds from the sale — as is commonplace in real estate transactions. The difference, of course, is having the sales proceeds in hand vs. not knowing when the proceeds would be available."
As far as the property tax relief resolution, McGuire is going to hold off on it for now.
"At this point, I don't intend to push for property tax relief at the state legislature now that the buyout is back on track," McGuire says. "My sense is that the flooded homes will close or be in the process of closing by the time taxes are due. Of course, if there is another freeze I would like to push for the relief again."
McGuire says the resolution is good for as long as this current council is in session: three years.
In the roughly two months since the freeze was lifted, closing dates were assigned to the homeowners in Ann Green's neighborhood. For the Frederiksens, the Perrys, and Zimmerman and Felts, closing happened around Christmastime. For Green herself, the closing took place Monday, more than a year and a half after the flood took her home. The homes that housed the neighbors' old lives will soon be demolished, and a new chapter will commence for both the former residents and their former neighborhood.
This past spring, Ann Green spent her time digging up some remnants of her old life. She went home to find annuals coming back up in her former garden.
"Shrubs and plants and things popping up," Green says. "Giving them away to friends and neighbors, and taking them to church to the plant sale. I had a beautiful, beautiful, beautiful yard. It was my haven — my sanctuary."
Evidently there are some roots even a flood can't sweep away.
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