- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 30, 2014

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - After riding out the Halloween flood on his roof with his wife and four terrified children, Abraham Perdomo would rather be living somewhere else. Somewhere safer, where his daughter isn’t afraid of sleeping alone and none of them have to fear every thunderstorm.

Instead, the 48-year-old construction worker has spent nearly every free hour working on his house since the flood.

“I don’t want my kids to stay in a dangerous place,” he said on a recent afternoon, plopping onto an overturned paint bucket in his garage. “But we really had no choice but to fix the house and stay here.”

Six months after the Halloween flood that destroyed or damaged 659 structures in Travis County, the Perdomos are in the same post-flood limbo as hundreds of other families near Onion Creek who haven’t received city or county buyout offers but can’t easily leave because repeated floods have eroded their homes’ values.

“I don’t know if they’re going to buy us or what,” Perdomo told the Austin American-Statesman (http://bit.ly/1hSLkN4 ). “It’s really complicated.”

It gets even more complicated. Hundreds of residents will soon receive letters from the city informing them that they’re in a legal limbo. Federal rules prohibit anyone whose home was “substantially damaged” (hitting more than half of the home’s value) from making repairs without raising it above the flood plain first - which can cost tens of thousands of dollars. But after the flood, the city gave them special permits to fix their homes.

The contradicting messages have confused and angered some residents, but city officials say it was a disaster-driven necessity. Strictly enforcing the federal rules would have prevented hundreds of flood victims from legally repairing their homes, said Kevin Shunk, a supervising engineer at the city’s Watershed Protection Department, and “we didn’t have anywhere else to put people.”

The city didn’t have the money available to offer buyouts to everyone immediately. City leaders authorized an emergency buyout for 116 homes after the flood, but more than 400 homes within city limits that flooded didn’t get an offer. The city suspended the federal rules for them, with the blessing of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which sets federal flood plain policies, Shunk said.

How long do they allow residents to live in a flood zone in violation of federal rules? Shunk said city leaders still haven’t decided on the next step, but “we’re going to have to deal with the ramifications” of that decision.

But long-term, the city’s goal is clear.

“The best solution for this neighborhood is a buyout,” Shunk said.

Using mostly bond money and federal grants, the city has been buying and demolishing homes in the area since the 1990s - 323 so far - after realizing that the flood maps in place when the neighborhoods were built in the 1970s severely underestimated the area’s actual flood risk.

After scraping together an additional $20 million immediately after the flood, the city has made buyout offers to 114 homeowners, and 94 of them have accepted, according to Watershed Protection Department spokesperson Stephanie Lott. The city had closed on 57 sales as of Friday.

Two homeowners wouldn’t consent to an appraisal and didn’t get offers, Lott said, and nine others rejected the city’s offer or didn’t respond to it. Meanwhile, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approved nearly $12 million last month for additional buyouts near Onion Creek.

And last week, City Council Member Mike Martinez unveiled a proposal to finish the job, using $108 million from bonds and increased drainage fees for all Austin homeowners to buy and raze 443 homes within the 100-year floodplain near Onion and Williamson creeks. Martinez said he will ask the council next month to approve the fee increase, which would cost the typical Austin homeowner $9 per year.

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