Location: Vicksburg, Mississippi

Highlighted Element: 522.b. Buildings on the Repetitive Loss List (bRL)

Point of Contact: Victor Gray-Lewis, CFM, Director or Building and Planning – Vicksburg, MS

Incorporated in 1825, Vicksburg is located in Warren County, Mississippi at the confluence of the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers. Vicksburg has a population of 49,644 (2010) and is 35.3 square miles (“Vicksburg, Mississippi,” no date).

Vicksburg’s first buyout program occurred in 1990 of about 50 homes under the 1362 FEMA flood buyout program (unfortunately, this program no longer exists). The city orchestrated a second buyout in 1993 which resulted in the acquisition of approximately 28 properties under the same program. These early buyouts occurred in the Hamilton Heights area, an established neighborhood prone to flash flooding. At this point in time nearly all of the repetitive loss properties in the Hamilton Heights neighborhood have been removed. That said, the city of Vicksburg is still conducting buyouts today. All of the current buyouts have occurred north of Vicksburg in the Kings Ford region which is subject to riverine flooding. The biggest challenge between the buyouts conducted in the 1990s and the current buyouts is that the Kings Ford region is an impoverished area with a lot of generational land. As compared to the established neighborhood of Hamilton Heights, the Kings Ford residents are highly resistant to selling.

According to Victor Gray-Lewis, Director of Building and Planning at the City of Vicksburg, the 1362 buyout program was much less cumbersome than the buyout programs around today. The 1362 buyout program required less information and there was a much quicker turn-around time as compared to the buyout program leveraged by the community in 2011 when it took 2 years to close on a property. This also presents a significant challenge to the city because the best time to acquire properties is right after the flood event since that is when homeowners see the damage. It is difficult to acquire property two years after a flood when the property owners are settled back in and want to stay where they are. Due to the difficulties associated with modern buyout programs, Gray-Lewis says the city chooses to deal with flood losses in their own way. Specifically, through their enforcement of the city’s Flood Plain Damage Prevention Ordinance, code enforcement ordinance, property maintenance code ordinance, and existing building code ordinance, and the use of a city-developed Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) the city is able to work directly with the homeowners to mitigate properties that are severely damaged.

Flooded homes in Vicksburg, MS. Image courtesy of Howard Greenblatt, FEMA.
Flooded homes in Vicksburg, MS. Image courtesy of Howard Greenblatt, FEMA.

Both the early and more recent buyouts were conducted using grant programs that required a 75% federal, 25% local split; meaning the city was responsible for 25 percent of the cost. In terms of maintenance, all of the acquired properties are under deed restrictions so they must have the grass mowed a few times a year. Gray-Lewis estimates that this maintenance costs the city approximately $2,000 a year and that there really aren’t any other maintenance costs associated with buyout properties.

Rather, the largest amount of staff time associated with buyouts is invested in efforts that occur after a flood event. For example, in 2011 the city chose to perform all of their flood damage assessments in-house. The in-house assessments are more in depth and provide estimates on the cost to repair the property based on insurance rates. To conduct these assessments, staff go through an itemized list to assess substantial damage estimates. When their assessment indicates that a property has reached the level of substantial damage, they notify the property owner via letters explaining that their property has been substantially damaged and that mitigation must occur. The assessment also prompts a phone call from the city to discuss the substantial damage determination and to explain what the options are. They essentially treat each homeowner on an individual basis. Vicksburg’s ordinance has a cumulative effect of flood damage component that goes back 10 years. Substantial damage is determined in consideration of this 10 year damage history. Gray-Lewis noted that after a recent flood 3 building code enforcement officers were needed to collect damage assessment data. And that in total, Gray-Lewis had 2 office workers, himself and three building code enforcement officers working full time following the flood event to complete the damage assessments alone.

Vicksburg’s floodplain damage prevention ordinance specifies that once a property is substantially damaged the property owner is required to mitigate the property either by demolition, relocation, or elevation. The property owner is not able to occupy the building until they address the issue. Because the city does not want to force people that either cannot afford to mitigate or have no desire to leave out of their homes, Vicksburg has created a Memorandum of Understanding. The MOU states that if the property owner cleans out the property and moves back in they are in violation of the Floodplain Damage Prevention Ordinance. If the property owner moves back in, they will be taken to court and if found guilty, they are in violation of article 1316 of the National Flood Protection Act. This violation means they can no longer receive any assistance after future flood events. In effect, it prevents the homeowner from being eligible for any flood insurance or disaster mitigation benefits.

Flooded homes in Vicksburg, MS. Image courtesy of the City of Vicksburg.
Flooded homes in Vicksburg, MS. Image courtesy of the City of Vicksburg.

As was previously mentioned, at this point in time, many of the buyouts that are occurring in Vicksburg are in the Kings Ford neighborhood. Many of the properties in this area are generational, meaning a family lives in the same house their parents, grandparents, and/or great-grandparents did. These homeowners are far less interested in money but very interested in keeping their property because they want to continue that family legacy. As a result, the MOU, in essence, gives the authority back to the property owners. This is because the property owner gets to decide how many times they want to personally repair their homes before voluntarily deciding to tear them down. In addition, the MOU allows the homeowner to keep the property in the family even though the physical structures were forfeited to the flooding. According to Gray-Lewis this aspect of the MOU seems to have helped the city to overcome property-owners resistance to relinquishing their homes.

In addition to the MOU, Vicksburg also has a very strong code enforcement department. Regardless of whether or not a property-owner has signed an MOU, they still have to be compliant with the city’s property maintenance code. Property-owners must keep the grass mowed and keep the property in repair. Some of the property-owners with MOU’s get tired of having to maintain their properties even though they no longer live there. According to Gray-Lewis the property maintenance code and the building code have been key resources that have allow the city to be effective in reducing flood risk. This is because if properties are in violation of these other codes the city is sometimes forced to step in and demolish properties or take other mitigation actions. See the Vicksburg website for downloadable versions of these documents.

Learn more about how your community can take credit for property acquisitions in the floodplain. Check out the Green Guide profile for Activity 520.

Through his experience orchestrating buyouts in Vicksburg, Gray-Lewis has learned that the generational landowners appreciate their land much more than they appreciate your help. Critically, Gray-Lewis noted that it is important to understand the personal motivations of those you are attempting to help and these interactions can take a bit of creativity.

Within the City of Vicksburg, there have been many benefits associated with removing properties from the floodplain. Having fewer properties in the floodplain means that there will be less damages associated with future events. In addition, the city is turning their old neighborhoods, such as the Hamilton Heights area, into natural areas. There is also talk of letting these lots return to forest but keeping the streets and street lights active to act as lighted sidewalks. This plan would also save the city money because these lots would no longer have to be mowed.

Best practices shared by this community:

  1. Take time to understand the motivation of the property owners for not wanting to sell their property and then work with them so that you are not perceived as the villain.
  2. Curate an arsenal of good ordinances and codes when buyout programs are not feasible or available- these will help both the city and the property owner. Make sure they are adopted prior to the flood event- before you actually need them.

For the city of Vicksburg’s efforts to buyout floodplain properties they are receiving credit for CRS element 522.b. Buildings on the Repetitive Loss List. Through this and other efforts for which the city can receive credit, Vicksburg has reached a class 6 rating in the CRS. This has resulted in a 20% reduction in the cost of flood insurance for policyholders.