As the state hazard mitigation officer for the Maryland Emergency Management Agency (MEMA), JaLeesa Tate (below) develops policies and strategies to address threats from natural disasters. Her department works with state agencies, communities, and local federal offices to reduce the impact of flooding on neighborhoods across a state with a diverse geography and mix of urban and rural communities. That sometimes includes buying out properties that have experienced repeated flooding.
The Pew Charitable Trusts’ flood-prepared communities team spoke with Tate about how government can help people and communities with the tough decision to leave a home in a high-flood-risk area. Tate’s responses have been edited for clarity and length.
Hazard mitigation officer for Maryland must be a big job. How do you identify places with flood risk, and how does that risk vary across the state?
Being a state hazard mitigation officer is all-encompassing. I work closely with a strong network of resilience professionals in Maryland and, in particular, three state agencies—the Department of the Environment, Department of Natural Resources (DNR), and the Insurance Administration—to share and analyze data on flooding and sea level rise. Maryland’s United States Army Corps of Engineers Silver Jackets Team is also a vital partner and forum for information exchange. Most importantly, we have strong relationships with our local jurisdictions, as they know best the local risk. Collaboration is critical to ensuring the data is ground truthed, as it’s used to inform our decisions.
Maryland is often called “America in Miniature”: In the western region, we have mountainous terrain subject to flooding from ice jams and snow melt; the central region is more developed and susceptible to urban and flash flooding; and the south and east experience coastal flooding, nuisance or tidal flooding, and storm surge. These flood risks are compounded by erosion and land subsidence.
What are some of the costs and benefits to homeowners of a buyout, and how does quality of life factor into your decision to offer buyouts?
The greatest benefit for buyout programs is allowing homeowners to relocate outside of a hazard-prone area. This protects life and property and aids in building the community’s overall resilience. The hard costs to homeowners are often reimbursed under the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Hazard Mitigation Assistance programs. The emotional costs relate to abandoning their homes and communities, some of which they have been in for multiple generations. But relocating to safer areas can increase quality of life and provide reassurance to homeowners.
When evaluating potential projects, I look at risk to the residents. I also evaluate how the parcel can increase the quality of life for the community—for instance, as a park or green infrastructure to mitigate flood risks.
What are the advantages of neighborhood buyout projects compared with individual buyout incentives?
Buying out multiple properties at once can serve as a demonstration project: Showing the benefits to other communities helps build support for similar projects in their own flood-prone areas. A neighborhood buyout eliminates the flood risk to a larger portion of the population and increases opportunities for reusing the property. Community-scale projects can also help us get the most out of our resources—funding, staff, equipment, maintenance, etc. Finally, individual buyouts can create a patchwork pattern and unintentionally diminish the character of the community.
How is Maryland helping residents of lower-income neighborhoods relocate from flood-risky areas before disasters strike while maintaining the social fabric of their communities?
We take a multidisciplinary approach from start to finish. Partnerships are critical to provide all services and resources the community may need. For example, we are implementing a buyout program in Allegany County, partnering with the county, the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD), and the mobile home park owner to carry out the project. DHCD will use funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grant to assist tenants with relocation, while FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program will support the buyout and restoration of the waterway.
Another example is an ongoing project in Baltimore City. After flooding in 2018, the city didn’t meet the Stafford Act to activate federal assistance, so Maryland’s Silver Jackets Team offered technical engineering and outreach assistance to the Frederick Avenue Corridor community. Organizations at the city, state, federal, and community levels joined forces to provide preparedness information to residents and start feasibility studies on ways to address flash flooding, including the possibility of removing a multifamily structure and relocating its residents from the flood-prone area.
We are continuously trying to improve. There is evidence that disaster assistance programs disproportionately benefit certain populations and widen socioeconomic disparities. In Maryland and elsewhere, we must re-evaluate how disaster assistance is administered to ensure diversity, equity, and inclusion are incorporated through the process.
After properties have been bought out, what’s the best use of the land? If it becomes a neighborhood amenity like a park, how does the state ensure there’s funding to maintain it?
Following buyouts, the land should be for flood mitigation with co-benefits for the community. We’ve found it’s beneficial to host visioning sessions for the community on potential reuses. This ensures community buy-in and active participation in maintenance of the property. We also seek out partnerships with “mitigation champions” for additional resources that expand the possibilities for alternative uses, especially since FEMA’s mitigation grants don’t support the reuse and maintenance of properties.
How do buyout programs complement other mitigation approaches?
Maryland has a variety of multiagency committees focused on the resilience. They make sure projects align with statewide risk reduction goals and fully leverage state resources.
We work closely with Chesapeake and Coastal Grants Gateway, a DNR program that provides resources for communities to plan and carry out nature-based risk reduction projects. A study on the effectiveness and feasibility of buyouts while integrating nature. The program sometimes identifies buyouts as a solution, and then MEMA can fund those activities.
This article was previously published on pewtrusts.org and appears in this issue of Trust Magazine.