PLYMOUTH TWP. — A group of 30 Plymouth Township households awaiting a second round of hazard mitigation home buyouts can expect payments to be ready in 12 to 18 months, state officials said during a meeting Thursday.
While that might not be fast enough to satisfy all those awaiting buyouts, Thomas Hughes, of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, said it’s well within the three-year window from the buyout authorization date required by law — and faster than the process has ever moved before.
“I know you folks have been out of your houses,” Hughes said. “We’re moving faster than we ever have before.”
The township is one of 11 Luzerne County municipalities seeking buyouts for residents through the federal hazard mitigation grant program, and one of three opting to seek the buyouts on its own, rather than turning to the county or an outside consultant.
Residents attending the meeting are on the township’s second-round buyout list. A first round of eight households, whose homes suffered a “significant loss” of more than 50 percent of their pre-flood value, is further along in the process, Hughes said. Seven applicants who sought buyouts under the Pittsburgh snowstorm disaster of 2010 have received their buyouts or have them pending, added township Supervisor Gail Conrad.
To qualify for the latest round of buyouts, as a whole they must meet a cost-benefit ratio of 1.0, meaning the cost of buying out the properties would be less than or equal to the value of future disaster assistance for the same properties. Hughes said there was “no problem” meeting that criteria.
Hughes said the state has taken unprecedented action in expediting its end of the buyout process, and that he expects to have PEMA’s portion of the grant contract ready for the township within three months.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency pays for 75 percent of the buyout cost, funneling the payment through PEMA, while the remaining 25 percent comes from state and local shares. Of that, the state will contribute 22 percent, and the state Department of Community and Economic Development will make up the remaining 3 percent — about $2 million in Luzerne County — using a disaster mitigation block grant from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The smallest portion of that funding is the one that will likely delay payments the longest. Donna Enrico, of DCED, said the Housing and Urban Development funds have more stringent requirements attached to them than those from FEMA, including stricter guidelines on environmental testing and a requirement for a full eight-stage floodplain analysis. For that reason, Enrico said she expects the process will take an additional 18 months.
While Hughes, Enrico and other officials shed light on exactly how the buyout process works and answered questions about what recipients can expect going forward, Conrad said the mechanics of the system wasn’t the foremost thought on the minds of most.
“The folks pretty much just wanted to know: Are we getting bought out, how much and when is it going to happen,” Conrad said.
Still, she said she was satisfied with the outcome of the meeting.
“I think people are much happier,” Conrad said. “I think they have a sigh of relief because they know they’re going to get bought out.”
Before the meeting, FEMA and PEMA officials toured properties on the buyout list as part of the assessment process to determine pre-flood home and property value, which will dictate buyout payments. After the meeting, residents learned for the first time how much they can expect for their damaged properties.
“I was satisfied with it,” Michelle Kinney said about the appraisal of her home on Canal Street. “It was pre-flood value. Basically it wasn’t depreciated at all.”
“I think it was very fair,” said Cindy West, who is awaiting a buyout for her home on East Poplar Street. “Nothing’s ever quick enough, but there were a lot of answers given tonight that were positive. It’s looking good.”
Once their buyouts are finalized, recipients are free to do with the payments as they please, but Conrad and Hughes urged them to think twice about moving to another floodplain residence. Conrad rattled off a list of statistics about local floods of the Susquehanna River clipped from a newspaper: 10 floods between 1972 and 2011, all between 8 and 21 feet above the normal flood stage; seven floods since 1993; and three floods in a 22-month window between 2004 and 2006.
“Quite frankly, it’s not going to stop,” Conrad said. “I think the government knows that. That’s why we did qualify and it’s on a fast track, and that’s a good thing.”