In De Soto, we need a way out of repeated flooding

January 19, 2023 6:15 am

Susan Liley says that when the rain falls in De Soto, the entire town has to brace for a potential flood. By updating its rules, FEMA could help everyone in the town — and in the country as a whole (photo submitted).

Imagine for just one second that this was you.

In the center of my town of De Soto, more than 200 of my neighbors are living in a flood plain – and many are looking for a way to get out.

It wasn’t always a dangerous area to live. In fact, for decades and decades this area near downtown never flooded. But with storms getting stronger and new construction up the hill forcing torrents of water down on them, some of these homes have been inundated time and time again over the past six years.

All of them are at risk in the next storm.

We need help from the federal government — and we need it now.

The National Flood Insurance Program sets basic standards for land use and minimum building codes that 20,000 communities like ours must meet in order for residents to buy flood insurance. But the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which administers the program, hasn’t updated those standards since Laverne & Shirley was America’s favorite TV show in the 1970s.

FEMA took the first step in updating these rules and limit development that makes flooding worse. Now it needs to follow through for the good of my neighbors in De Soto and those in towns like ours across the country.

There are two main reasons for our problems.

First, rainstorms are getting more intense, leading to flash flooding. The science shows this is because of climate change. You might disagree, but no one can dismiss the floods that hit here over and over again in the recent years.

Second, new development is sending more water into Joachim Creek, which runs through the center of town and that’s causing flash flooding. They are taking the land, filling in the holes and building. I don’t know where they think that water is going to go, but I do know it ends up in Joachim Creek. At one point this past year, the creek was rising at a rate of almost two feet an hour.

By updating these rules FEMA could help everyone in our community and people across the country, whether they buy flood insurance or not. By updating its rules FEMA can ensure that future development isn’t done in flood prone areas and that the homes that are built can better withstand storms and flooding.

A year ago, FEMA asked for input on updating these standards – and it got it. Dozens of community groups like the one I lead in De Soto, the Citizens Committee for Flood Relief, detailed the threats from flooding in their towns and told FEMA to act and act now.

A year later, we are still waiting for FEMA to act.

A key change FEMA could make is updating land-use rules so that these “fill and build” developments can’t just come in and flood nearby areas with new runoff. Guiding where and how development and redevelopment occurs is the most effective means to reducing flood losses. This would do so much for many in De Soto who never lived in a flood zone before, but do now because of new homes, driveways, roads and businesses that were constructed upstream.

In addition, FEMA should also update building codes so that new or refurbished homes in flood zones can better withstand the next flood.

And there are other things that it should consider beyond this particular rulemaking. In De Soto, the Army Corps of Engineers deemed 229 homes, including much of our historic two-block Main Street, at severe risk of flooding. Of those, it said 79 are at such risk that they should be bought out — but the Army Corps doesn’t do buyouts, FEMA does. So, 22 of those homeowners applied for a buyout from FEMA. They were denied. FEMA said we should start smaller. So five homeowners applied – and were again denied, but FEMA then told them that they were in “the stack,” a kind of waiting list.

Now they are all waiting and wondering if they will still be forced to live in their home next month, next year or, even, in ten years.

These kinds of repeatedly flooded properties are responsible for a huge share of damages paid out by the flood insurance program. If people are tired of flooding and rebuilding, then FEMA needs to prioritize home buyouts. The agency is wasting a lot of taxpayer dollars to repeatedly rebuild homes when the residents would prefer to live somewhere that doesn’t flood. Unfortunately, as the case in De Soto shows, buyouts are too bureaucratic and take too long — the average is 5.7 years — making them useless except for the few with the money and patience to wait.

Across the country, there are thousands of us fighting for our towns, but we need the support of the federal government.

I got called to this work after standing on a hilltop with my granddaughter in 2016 and feeling so helpless as the water rushed through the historical center De Soto. The flooding that day trapped drivers in their cars and killed horses that couldn’t get out of their barn. I had never led anything like this before. A few days later we formed our group and have been working ever since to try and prevent the next tragedy.

With the help of some outside groups, including the Army Corps, we have made progress. But new home buyers keep coming into the town, buying homes that have flooded before and at risk in the next storm. We need to stop this cycle and FEMA holds the key to a real breakthrough.

It’s time for FEMA to do its job and update these standards for the sake of my neighbors, De Soto and thousands of people like us across the country.

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Susan Liley
Susan Liley

Susan Liley co-founded Citizens' Committee for Flood Relief in 2016 after witnessing with her granddaughter the catastrophic consequences of De Soto’s fourth flood in just three years. The community group advocates on behalf of flood victims and for flood-resistant infrastructure. As a result of her work, De Soto has gotten several grants to make the community safer. Citizens Committee is part of the nationwide Anthropocene Alliance, and Susan has connected with “flood friends” all over the U.S. -- and worries about each and every one. Susan is a helper and a dot connector. She hopes to never stop learning and watching, helping and teaching.