Location: Birmingham, Alabama

Highlighted Element: 522.a. Buildings Acquired or Relocated (bAR)

Point of Contact: Denise P. Bell, CFM, Natural Hazards Administrator, City of Birmingham, AL

Interviewee: Amber L. Gray, CRS Coordinator/Senior Planner, City of Birmingham, AL

The City of Birmingham, Alabama is a historic southern city established in 1871 ("Birmingham, Alabama," no date). Located between the Cahaba and Black Warrior river-basins, the city stretches the length of the Jones Valley and is home to more than 212,200 people (City of Birmingham, no date; TrekBirmingham, no date; Ellis & Reutebuch, 2002). Within Birmingham there are several major creeks: Village Creek, Valley Creek, Shades Creek, and Five Mile Creek as well as other small creeks. Flooding of these creeks and other areas has historically challenged Birmingham. Since 1970, flooding has caused more than 17 federally declared disasters (Revell & Pruitt, 2008). Tens of millions of dollars have been spent on flood recovery and more than 30,000 structures have been impacted (Revell & Pruitt, 2008). As a direct response to flooding, the city worked diligently to develop a floodplain management program tailored to its own hazards, character and needs. In October 1993, Birmingham entered the Community Rating System program to minimize flood insurance costs, reduce flood damage to insurable property, and to encourage and promote its floodplain management program through outreach efforts. Furthermore, the city joined CRS after recognizing the cost of flood insurance was a major source of economic and mental stress for residents living in the floodplain.

City of Birmingham, AL Floodplain Map. Map courtesy of Birmingham's Department of Planning, Engineering & Permits Geographic Information System.
Village Creek. Image courtesy of Denise P. Bell, City of Birmingham, AL.

Over time the adverse economic and social impacts of chronic flooding on residents became a major concern for city staff. The city experienced a significant flood event in December 1983, which lead to the Village Creek Flood Control Project through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Residents in the Ensley and Pratt area along Village Creek were hit by Hurricane Opal in 1995 and several severe storms followed, which caused back-to-back flood events. The resulting public outcry was heard by city staff. They knew Birmingham needed a long-term solution to flooding. Staff took action to break the cycle of flooding by seeking partnerships and assistance from the State Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, USACE, elected officials, Bethel-Ensley Action Task, and the Ensley Monroe Park/South Pratt Flood Coalition now known as the Village Creek Human and Environmental Justice Society to facilitate several buyout projects.

Did you know? Under the CRS program, credited buyouts must guarantee that acquired land will be preserved as open space. This newly created open space can also be counted for CRS credit. Learn more about how your community can take credit for land acquisition and open space preservation by checking out the Green Guide profiles of activity 520 Acquisition and Relocation and element 422.a. Open Space Preservation.

Over the course of approximately 15 years, more than five full-time city staff members led three consultant teams (including appraisers, attorneys, project title companies and project managers) to facilitate a buyout program for flood-impacted residents. The city provided approximately $12 million in cash contribution and contributed approximately $3 million towards in-kind contribution to leverage approximately $60 million in federal funding for floodplain property acquisitions. With this funding, the city has been able to acquire and relocate more than 1,200 properties from the floodplain, and permanently preserve these properties as parks and open space (Revell & Pruitt, 2008; "Major Accomplishments," no date). According to a 2008 loss avoidance analysis completed by city staff, the losses avoided as a result of these buyouts equal $2.3 million per year (Revell and Pruitt, 2006).

During the course of the buyouts, the City recognized that in order to prevent a significant loss in its tax base, a voluntary flood incentive program needed to be created. Hundreds of families living in flood-prone homes would not have been able to relocate in Birmingham if they were only given the market value for the homes. The Flood Incentive and Relocation Assistance Program was funded using Community Development Funds from HUD. The combination of funding given to residents for their homes during the buyout, along with the additional flood relocation incentive, allowed many residents to move out of the floodplain and remain in Birmingham. Of the individuals given the option of being voluntarily bought-out and relocated, an estimated 95% of qualified residents capitalized on the opportunity and were moved out of the floodplain. Over the course of approximately 15 years, more than five full-time city staff members led three consultant teams (including appraisers, attorneys, project title companies and project managers) and orchestrated a buyout program for flood-impacted residents. The city provided approximately $12 million in cash contribution and contributed approximately $3 million towards in-kind contribution to leverage approximately $60 million in federal funding for floodplain property acquisitions. With this funding, the city has been able to acquire and relocate more than 1,200 properties from the floodplain, and permanently preserve these properties as parks and open space.

Quality of life improvement examples. Pictured on left, Saint James Baptist Christian Center before and after acquisition and relocation. Pictured on right, buyout program participant moves from a "shotgun style" home to a split level home. Images courtesy of Denise P. Bell, City of Birmingham, AL.

This buyout program has had several benefits in addition to permanently reducing flood losses and claims. The implementation of these buyout programs has led to the creation of W.C. Patton Park, Ensley Trail and Village Creek Linear Park. Through the creation of these parks, the city has increased residents' opportunities for recreation and interaction with nature. The buyout program also assisted with the restoration of the floodplain from developed land to its natural state, contaminant loads of pollutants such as fecal coliform, organic matter, nutrients and sediments have been reduced by an estimated 97-99% compared to pre-buyout conditions. This has significant beneficial impacts on the water quality of Birmingham's creeks (Revell, 2011).

WC Patton Park. Images courtesy of Denise P. Bell, City of Birmingham, AL.

This community’s success can also be attributed to city-staff’s dedication to organization and information sharing. Since the city joined the CRS program in 1993, three different individuals have served as the CRS Coordinator. That said, all previous CRS Coordinators are still employed by the city of Birmingham. This has prevented the loss of institutional knowledge on the CRS program when previous coordinators moved into new positions.

Example file structures. Images courtesy of Amber L. Gray, Senior Planner/CRS Coordinator, City of Birmingham, AL.

Furthermore, the city’s current CRS Coordinator and Senior Planner, Amber L. Gray, has developed a system for organizing and maintaining the city’s CRS-related information. Critically, CRS-related information has been organized and filed in file cabinets and electronically such that there are hard and digital copies of all important CRS information. All electronic CRS information is backed-up regularly to prevent the loss of critical documentation in the event of an emergency. Additionally, all files that are no longer relevant are archived in a separate location. In doing this, Gray has ensured that the information the city is required to provide to ISO/CRS Specialists is up-to-date, easy to find, and resilient to disasters.

Finally, the city of Birmingham’s CRS Program has a unique organizational structure. This so called “matrix structure” organizes individuals by both division and function. While the city only employs one formal CRS Coordinator, all support-staff are trained in CRS such that they can provide assistance effectively. According to Gray, the matrix structure is also flexible which helps to facilitate the “efficient use of specialized staff and resources.” Taken together, these best practices for participation in the CRS have cultivated an environment in which the CRS Coordinator can thrive and has helped to facilitate the city’s success in the CRS.

Best practices that can be shared by this community include:

  1. Have a comprehensive acquisition, relocation and property reuse strategy or similar plan for every step of the buyout process prior to starting the buyout program or process. This will help to guide future decision making and outline the process.
  2. Develop and document your story for historical purposes and new staff members and residents.
  3. Have staff designated for specific roles. Having a dedicated CRS coordinator is critical due to the level of effort associated with the program and this element in particular.

Through this buyout program and other efforts for which the city can receive credit, Birmingham has reached a Class 5 rating in the CRS which will be effective October 2017. This will result in a 25% reduction in the cost of flood insurance for Birmingham’s policyholders.