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Homeowners in Vermont weigh whether to repair or take a buyout after floods

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Nearly two months after rain and floods pummeled Vermont, the immediate cleanup is over. Now the hundreds of people whose homes flooded face a difficult choice. Should they rebuild, especially as climate change is expected to bring more frequent severe weather? Home buyouts can be complicated, but they do eliminate future flood risks. And as Vermont Public's Liam Elder-Connors reports, it's often a deeply personal decision.

LIAM ELDER-CONNORS, BYLINE: There's a stream in Andrew Gibbs' backyard in Wolcott, Vt. You can hear the rushing water from his back door. That stream runs right into a river, which is across the street from Gibbs' house. During the heavy rainstorm in July, both waterways burst their banks. Gibbs' house filled with six feet of water.

And you want to just show me around a little bit what happened with the flood?

ANDREW GIBBS: You want to look inside the house?

ELDER-CONNORS: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

About a month after the floods, I visited Gibbs' small, yellow, two-bedroom house. There's plastic wrapped around the outer walls and a few no trespassing signs posted outside.

GIBBS: Walk right in there if you want.

ELDER-CONNORS: I can't really go too far.

The smell of mildew and sewage hung in the air. The hallway was nearly impassable. Floodwaters had knocked over shelves, torn cabinets down and even wrenched the hot water heater off the wall. Gibbs pointed to the bathroom, where the toilet and walls were covered in brown muck.

GIBBS: That's my bathroom. It pushed everything out of my sewer tank. My leach field is on the other side of the barn here. I do believe when the water came through, it went through my leach field into my sewer tank and pushed it all up into the house.

ELDER-CONNORS: Gibbs is thinking about a buyout, which is one flood mitigation measure. State and local officials work with homeowners to apply for federal money to buy flood-prone homes and then knock them down. Some of Gibbs' neighbors, like Cole Pearson, are also looking into buyouts. Pearson says floodwaters left an inch of mud inside his home and destroyed most of his belongings.

COLE PEARSON: I don't want to put a brand-new place there. And then, you know, who knows when it will flood again? And I'm sure it will. So it just makes sense to not go back.

ELDER-CONNORS: There appears to be significant interest in home buyouts in Vermont following the July storm, according to Vermont Emergency Management. The agency says nearly 200 households have filled out an initial intake form. The state is still a few months away from sending applications into the federal government. But the buyout process could still take months or years, says Kevin Geiger with Two Rivers Ottauquechee Regional Planning Commission.

KEVIN GEIGER: If you don't have a house, you're trying to make do with what you can until the money arrives, and it'll be quite a while until that happens.

ELDER-CONNORS: There are other challenges. FEMA only pays a portion of the buyout cost, meaning Vermont needs to set aside matching funds to cover the rest. Some towns are worried about the loss of revenue that would come from having fewer homes on the tax rolls. There are also personal hurdles. For Gibbs, whose sewer system backed up in his home, he's torn about leaving. His family has owned the land for four generations.

GIBBS: I'm a country boy, you know, born and raised here. And I like it.

ELDER-CONNORS: Gibbs' family used to milk cows and farm here before selling off most of the 200 acres. Now Gibbs is thinking about saying goodbye to the final piece.

Does it make you sad at all to think, like, to leave the family?

GIBBS: Yeah. It's hard, real hard. Don't really seem it right now, but once I have to walk away, then it'll probably hit me.

ELDER-CONNORS: Gibbs says it's hard to leave something you've had your whole life. For NPR News, I'm Liam Elder-Connors in Wolcott, Vt. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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