How Long Does It Take to Get a FEMA Buyout for a Flooded Home?

Millions of people in America could be displaced by rising sea levels and repeated flooding. Yet, as Kentucky resident Olga McKissic learned, it can take years to get the help needed to move to higher ground.
Olga McKissic in front of her former house in Louisville, Kentucky, May 2019. Her home flooded five times before she received a buyout through the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s buyout program.

Photographs by Luke Sharrett for NRDC

When Olga McKissic first heard about the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s flood buyout program in 2006, she figured she should apply. At that point, her Louisville, Kentucky, home had been flooded twice since she moved there in 1986.

The program allows local or state governments to purchase and demolish properties damaged by floods from voluntary sellers at pre-flood values. The land is then turned into open green space. But little did McKissic know that it would take more than a decade—and three more floods—to finally get her buyout.

What happened to McKissic is unfortunately not an anomaly: Most homeowners who want a FEMA-funded buyout have to wait more than five years to get one. Our federal government’s broken flood buyout system must be fixed—especially as the climate crisis will cause millions of Americans to cope with rising sea levels as well as the more frequent, more intense extreme weather events that lead to dangerous flooding. Here, McKissic recounts her long, painful experience.

Q: When did you realize that getting a buyout was not going to be easy?

Olga McKissic: I applied for a buyout after learning about the program at a 2006 community meeting facilitated by the Metropolitan Sewer District of Louisville. They put us on a list. Then we found out that everybody on our block was denied. That was a little disheartening, but we didn’t really pursue it again until the October 2013 flood. That’s when I really started pushing to say, “You have been talking about this for a number of years, and it seems to be talk. What progress have you made? What grants have we been placed on? What are the updates?”

I hadn’t really heard anything, so in July 2014 I sent over a 10-page packet to remind them of all the things they said were happening, all the material that had been printed about the progress that they were making in reducing and eliminating flooding in our area. I requested an update on the buyout option they talked about.

After the April 2015 flood, that’s when I knew, “I’m not going to stop until I get this buyout. You’re going to know who I am, and you’re going to feel my pain, and you’re going to see my face.” I wasn’t just fighting for myself. I was fighting for my neighbors too. Someone on my street had already received a buyout, so I knew it was possible.

Were you worried that the house would flood again while you were waiting?

Absolutely. There was no doubt. I didn’t put anything on the lower level. It was, like, you can’t put anything there, because it’s going to flood.

What was most frustrating about the process?

I just didn’t feel like they were compassionate enough—it was a job for them. It was “Oh, well, you know how it is” and “Oh, well, the government takes a long time.” I’m like, “Well, if you’re not going to push this envelope, then let me be an outside contractor, and I’ll push it for you, because this is frustrating. I don’t think you’re understanding my plight here.”

If it’s raining outside, OK, you put up an umbrella. Meanwhile, my thoughts are “OK, how long is it going to rain? Let me look at the weather report. Let me see what’s going on. Let me stand on my deck and see how far the creek is coming up.”

When did you learn that the buyout was really going to happen?

I didn’t get an offer until after my home flooded for the fifth time in February 2018.

How did you feel when the final buyout was completed on November 9, 2018?

I was happy. I was just glad it was over.

Your home was demolished in July 2019. When you visited the newly made green space, how did you feel?

Even though I am happy that I am not there, I’m still concerned for my neighbors. The people across the street, they don’t get a lot of flooding. It’s the people on my side of the street that have the creek behind their backyards. I think all of those houses should be bought, and all of them torn down—there shouldn’t be any properties on that side of the street now.

What’s the most important thing other homeowners should know if they experience repeated flooding?

You need to know the process. If you repeatedly are getting flooded, you need to go to the board meetings, ask for a plan for the area, work that process, do follow-ups, and hold them to it. Get on a grant if you want a buyout, and let them know, “I want a buyout.” You need to understand FEMA, the [terminology], the “severe, repetitive loss category, the “repetitive loss” category. FEMA has booklets that talk about that.

What’s the biggest problem you think policymakers need to address?

It shouldn’t take so long. When you have folks that have been flooded repeatedly and you take them through this long process, somebody needs to go in and revamp that. Stop giving them these monies to rebuild and rebuild. That’s just insanity. Why do they think folks want to go through that every couple of years to rebuild, get insurance, and rebuild? They need to revamp the process and make it quicker.

McKissic returned to the property where her house once stood shortly after it was demolished.

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