Resolving a Natomas family's inability to rebuild after fire gutted their home is such a simple matter of common sense that it shouldn't even need to be debated. Yet, thanks to a maze of bureaucratic idiocy, the matter cries out for discussion.
Forget, for a moment, your views on living in a floodplain. I'm with you. When my family moved here, we wouldn't move there. Floodplain. End of story. This story involves more than that.
The Taylor family bought their home in 1998, assured by the federal goverment's recertification of the 42 miles of Natomas levees as meeting the 100-year flood standard. Natomas housing construction exploded. Then, in 2008, three years after Hurricane Katrina, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers revised its assessment formula and determined the Natomas levees could only protect against a much smaller flood event than it originally assumed. That reclassification is preventing the Taylors from rebuilding, unless:
The rebuilt home is elevated above 20 feet, the projected depth of a Natomas flood, but a cost the Taylor's insurer doesn't cover.
Restoration costs less than half the home's value, in which case, the home doesn't have to be elevated. The home's post-recession value is $71,000, and $35,500 ain't making a fire-ravaged home habitable.
Nearly a dozen Natomas homeowners are seeking restoration permits, but FEMA's rules include no exemptions for fire damage. Though the Taylors' insurer is ready to pay $190,000 to rebuild and is currently paying rent for them to live elsewhere, FEMA says it has no legal authority to grant exemptions.
The moratorium also prohibits any new construction in Natomas until levee upgrades are completed. Timeline for completion, we were told, was two or three years. It's now four years, repairs are barely halfway done and seven more years are needed to complete the job.
It appears Sacramento officials have resented this ban since its inception. Natomas, the city's fastest-growing neighborhood, was a cash register for city coffers with plenty of land still poised for development.
In a 2008 press conference, then-Mayor Heather Fargo was outraged that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reclassified the Natomas levees as "less safe." Why, because it would affect development in the basin? Someone tells you Natomas residents face a annual risk of flooding even greater than one-in-100 and you're angry because you can't build there, putting more people at risk?
Is City Hall still counting dollars slipping through their fingers? Last week, Councilwoman Angelique Ashby told local television, "We've got to get our way out of this moratorium. It's critical not just for the families in these situations but for the next group of families that could find themselves in these situations."
Hopefully, she means making exceptions for homeowners in limbo like the Taylors. Otherwise, I'm not seeing the wisdom of lifting the moratorium before the levees are upgraded. If one questions the wisdom of building in a floodplain and many do shouldn't we question the wisdom of building homes in a floodplain when levees aren't completely upgraded to protect them?
FEMA, however, is prepared to lift the ban once Congress approves the other half-billion dollars for the remaining 24 miles of levees still needing repair. But funding is blocked by a congressional ban on earmarks even though the ban isn't supposed to block public works projects essential to flood safety.
Meanwhile, for their gutted house, the Taylors must continue paying the mortgage to preserve their credit rating; are required by the city to continue paying property taxes, trash and sewer; and are federally mandated to continue paying for flood insurance on an uninhabitable home. You'd think FEMA would at least lift that requirement. You'd think if the city wants FEMA to lift its moratorium, it might lift the fees for people paying them on properties in which they can no longer live. How serious are they about helping this family? How serious is anyone?
The solution here is as obvious as it is simple: FEMA made the rules; it can adjust them. Do so. Let the family rebuild. Or do you care more that levees are half-fixed so developers can start throwing up houses again, while not caring whether existing homeowners are pitilessly displaced by preposterous regulations?
Members of Congress: Are you stupid? If the levees fail, the region floods and 82 square miles end up underwater, how much more will that cost in disaster relief? Or shall we dismiss preventive measures at home and continue spending billions on nation-building abroad?
City Hall: Stop charging this family fees for a home they can't live in.
Constantly we hear how government is supposed to help its citizens, yet you can never be certain of anything until it's been denied by government. How ironic that the only way the Taylors can rebuild now is if a devastating flood washes away what's left of their home. How ironic that the Achilles' heel in a government town is government.