SACRAMENTO — For the first time in California, government authorities are considering buying several hundred homes in flood-prone areas as part of an effort to reduce damage in future deluges.
Officials in Malibu, the Sacramento area and Sonoma County are among those who may offer to buy anywhere from a few homes to more than 100 parcels in the paths of creeks and rivers, and help owners move to higher ground.
The talk comes as growing numbers of state and federal officials question the high cost of disaster assistance, and they suggest that people should not be allowed to rebuild on property that floods when there are heavy rains.
"The new factor is we cannot afford it," state Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica) said. "I don't know if the public understands that yet."
Under a 1993 federal law, the Federal Emergency Management Agency can set aside 15% of the cost of disaster aid for various programs aimed at reducing loss in future calamities.
The latest California floods caused $300 million in damage in 38 counties. Federal disaster officials say up to $45 million can be spent on mitigation programs, including buying privately owned land prone to flooding.
In several parts of California, local officials already have plans to buy property if they can obtain the federal money, and if the landowners are willing sellers.
In the city of Malibu, this winter's floods and mudslides have produced disaster assistance claims from 183 property owners, totaling $4.5 million in damage. The Las Flores Creek area alone accounted for almost a fourth of that cost.
Malibu officials want to buy four pieces of property in the Las Flores Creek flood path at a cost of about $2 million. Unable to raise the money on its own, the city turned to FEMA last year for help, but at the time the agency was not prepared to make the expenditure. Now that the floods have hit, that may change.
"I think FEMA is tired of seeing Malibu on the 11 o'clock news," Malibu City Manager David Carmany said.
Las Flores landowners contend that the city's offer is too low for land once worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. But only one of the Las Flores Canyon houses under consideration for purchase is standing. The others were were destroyed in the 1993 fire.
"The homes never should have been built there," said Sarah Maurice, spokeswoman for Malibu. "I don't think they'll be able to rebuild."
In Roseville, a Sacramento suburb, Tom and Diana Wilson bought their three-bedroom home in 1991 knowing it was in the path of Cirby Creek. But the creek was part of its appeal.
"It was neat to have a creek in the back," Wilson said.
Last month, however, the creek turned to a river, and now the Wilsons want to sell. Theirs is one of four homes under consideration for purchase by the city. "Seeing how quickly it rose," Wilson said, "it puts a whole different perspective on how you view rain."
Roseville Public Works Director Larry Pagel said the homes in question were built in the 1960s before the creek's floodway was properly mapped. "If we knew then what we do today, we wouldn't have allowed them to build," he said. The city hopes to use the four parcels to build flood walls to better protect 220 other homes from Cirby Creek.
Any buyouts in Roseville and Malibu would be small, but officials in Sonoma and Sacramento counties have far bigger plans. In Sonoma County, where officials met with FEMA representatives Monday, as many as 125 homes on the Russian River and its tributaries are candidates for acquisition, said Pete Peterka, head of the county office of emergency services.
"The county is going to look at it in great detail," Peterka said. Noting that Sonoma County would have to compete for the money with 37 other counties that suffered flood damage last month, Peterka added: "It's not a done deal."
In Sacramento County, officials are looking at buying 200 homes and other structures in the paths of various creeks, including Dry Creek, which was anything but dry when it turned into a torrent and flooded Rio Linda last month.
"It is clearly very expensive to compensate people repeatedly," said Sacramento County Supervisor Roger Dickinson. "From the standpoint of the victims and the taxpayers, it makes a lot more sense to move people out of harm's way."
In order to get the money, the state Office of Emergency Services must come up with a plan for spending it. The plan is in the works. In order to get all the $45 million, state and local governments would have to put up an additional $15 million. State legislation is needed before the state could contribute, an Office of Emergency Services spokeswoman said.
For landowners who fail to take steps to reduce the hazards of floods, and fail to buy flood insurance, there is a possibility that they would not be eligible for government aid in future floods, officials say.