Kentucky

New ground for easement program

Frank Justice, a 30-year resident of Winn's Branch, is on a list for a federal buyout of flood easement property. He's trying to decide whether he should rebuild, if the government will demolish his home anyway. Residents blame construction of a four-lane U.S. 119 for repeated flooding -- in May 2009 and July 2010 -- of Winn's Branch and Raccoon along John's Creek Aug. 6, 2010, in Pike County, Ky. Photo by Dori Hjalmarson
Frank Justice, a 30-year resident of Winn's Branch, is on a list for a federal buyout of flood easement property. He's trying to decide whether he should rebuild, if the government will demolish his home anyway. Residents blame construction of a four-lane U.S. 119 for repeated flooding -- in May 2009 and July 2010 -- of Winn's Branch and Raccoon along John's Creek Aug. 6, 2010, in Pike County, Ky. Photo by Dori Hjalmarson

PIKEVILLE — A U.S. Department of Agriculture program to buy flood land to create flood easements hasn't traditionally been used to buy homes and developed land.

But after severe flooding in May 2009, and after federal economic stimulus money was used to buy homes for floodplain easements in three other states, Kentucky requested similar funding.

About $14 million — $10.5 million to buy farmland easements and $3.5 million to buy homes for flood easements — from the Natural Resources Conservation Service's emergency watershed protection program has been allocated to buy homes in Pike, Floyd, Breathitt and Owsley counties, in areas such as Winn's Branch and Raccoon in Pike County.

"That's kind of a new, relatively new direction for our agency," said Jack Kuhn, assistant state conservationist for the conservation service.

About 235 applications had been received. The agency was about to start appraising and choosing sites to buy, then 6 to 8 inches of rain fell on July 17 in Pike County.

Frank Justice had taken out a Small Business Administration loan after the May 2009 flood damaged his home. He finally finished rebuilding his home on Thanksgiving.

Justice and his wife moved back in and applied for a buyout, hoping they would get enough money to move up the hollow, upstream from U.S. 119's new construction. They planned to put a mobile home on property near Justice's brother's home.

On Friday, Justice stood in his bleak, gutted living room and wondered whether to bother rebuilding again. He's on a list of applications for the emergency watershed protection buyout, and he has no idea when his home would be appraised, bought and demolished.

"What would you do?" he asked.

Kuhn said last week the agency had to get a ruling on whether to use pre-storm or post-storm conditions in appraising property. They can use pre-storm conditions, he said.

The Kentucky Housing Authority, Kentucky Division of Emergency Management, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and others all have different programs to help flood victims relocate, and some involve buying out property, Kuhn said.

"We're all trying to get together so we can best leverage all the resources that we have," he said.

Lawyers and state legislators are promising to put pressure on those seen as having contributed to flooding.

A Lexington law firm held a public meeting for Pike County residents interested in seeking compensation, possibly from builders of the recently completed U.S. 119 four-lane highway.

"Thus far we've not reached any conclusions" on whom to pursue, said Dale Golden, a partner with Golden & Walters.

The firm has hired consulting expert to examine the area, he said.

"The burden that these flood events have place on those families has been catastrophic," said state Sen. Ray Jones, D-Pikeville. "It's not reasonable to expect those families to rebuild knowing that next week we might have another flood."

Jones said he was drafting a letter to the state Transportation Cabinet, seeking an investigation of the watersheds affected by U.S. 119.

Buyouts for a flood easement are intended for areas that are flooded repeatedly, to reduce future payouts from FEMA and other emergency programs, Kuhn said.

"Winn's Branch has a floodwall there now. In the past that particular community has flooded. Flooding in that community is not new," he said.

"We wanted to help some of these people get some relief."

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