Nashville Begins Tearing Down Some Homes To Prevent Future Flooding

Sep 7, 2017
Originally published on September 7, 2017 4:37 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Now to another city that has faced a natural disaster and come out stronger. In 2010, a flood devastated Nashville. And the city wanted to make sure homes never flooded again, so it offered to tear some of them down. Blake Farmer of member station WPLN reports.

BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: DeeDee Brickner shakes her head by the pool she just upgraded in this neighborhood of one-story brick houses. The pool is full of brown water from when the remnants of Hurricane Harvey camped out over Tennessee and dropped 10 inches of rain in some spots.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SPLASHING)

DEEDEE BRICKNER: Beautiful new liner and...

FARMER: It looks like a muddy lake.

BRICKNER: Yeah, it does.

FARMER: Brickner bought this as a rental property a few years ago and fixed it up. It had already been rehabbed after the flood of 2010. And yet again, the ranch home on one acre had more than a foot of water in the living room and kitchen. The hardwoods buckled and the drywall smells moldy.

BRICKNER: Why would you repair a house once you realize what you've got? I mean, it shouldn't be repaired. It shouldn't have been repaired after 2010.

FARMER: But it was, even though the city basically put out a blanket offer to buy low-lying homes like this one. A few years later, Brickner purchased it sight unseen in a foreclosure auction before realizing it was across the street from a creek notorious for rising out of its banks. It's now surrounded by empty lots. The government's offered to do the same for Brickner.

BRICKNER: But I've known that for a couple of years - three maybe.

FARMER: But her tenants were happy, so she held off. After the latest episode, she's ready to hand over the keys.

BRICKNER: I'll throw up if I find out they aren't going to buy it.

ROGER LINDSEY: We've actually gotten phone calls from some of those owners saying, I'm ready to talk buyout again.

FARMER: Roger Lindsey oversees flood mitigation for Nashville, which has purchased 260 homes since the epic 2010 flood. They're mostly houses built before the 1970s. That's when the city raised the standards for how high a new structure had to be above the floodplain. It's not as expensive for cities as it seems. FEMA pays for 75 percent of the cost of buyouts. The federal agency sees it as a good investment. Otherwise it would be helping fund the flood insurance for the property or paying to help rebuild every few years.

LINDSEY: The focus is to take houses that are repetitive loss houses, to offer a homeowner fair market value for the house. And then we demolish that home and return the land to a natural - a more natural state.

FARMER: Right where I'm walking along Whites Creek in Nashville, the grass and brush in these empty lots is still bent over from the most recent flooding. The homes have been razed, leaving about 20 acres to play with here. And now it's up to the neighborhood to organize some kind of community garden or lobby for a park to be put here. It's a little lonely looking at the moment, but city officials say it's the only practical way to make sure a home never floods again, especially given the uptick in extreme rainfall.

CAROLYN MCCLAIN: They weren't just houses. They were homes.

FARMER: Back in 2010, Carolyn McClain hated to give up her house overlooking the Cumberland River, but it was under five and a half feet of water and she couldn't afford to fix it.

MCCLAIN: If the government had just given me the money to rebuild, I would still be there because I loved that river. So - and most people who live on that river, that's why they're there. If you got worries, you can just throw them in that river and they're gone, like most of my furniture (laughter).

FARMER: McClain moved into a condo across town. Her old street is starting to look a bit more like a ghost town. But each teardown is one less home to worry about, be it flooding or someone in need of a rescue. For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Nashville.

(SOUNDBITE OF BADBADNOTGOOD'S "CONFESSIONS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.