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On the Minnesota River, Carver awaits the flood, and pays through the nose

The Minnesota River has flooded the town of Carver several times historically, including one in 1965 that damaged 50 homes, and another in 2014 that damaged city hall.

The Minnesota River has flooded the town of Carver several times historically, including one in 1965 that damaged 50 homes, and another in 2014 that damaged city hall. Star Tribune file

Mary Williamson still has the newspaper listing for her “historic home in historic Carver.”

When Williamson and her husband bought their 150-year-old house in 1999, it was due for some updates. The paint was peeling and laced with lead. Windowpanes were cracked. Doors wouldn’t close. They bought the house knowing they’d need to put time and money into it. But their new home came with a more obscure cost, one that has plagued them for the past two decades.

The Williamsons’ home sits in the Minnesota River’s floodplain, which means they're required to buy flood insurance through FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program. Congress created the program in 1968 to provide insurance for an unpredictable threat that private insurers had no interest in covering. Half a century later, the program is marred in problems. It’s $25 billion in debt and barely held aloft by rising premiums based on out-of-date floodplain maps that disproportionately burden small towns and low-income communities.

John Oliver explored the program's exorbitant costs, and how taxpayers get stuck with the bill, in a 2017 episode of Last Week Tonight.

Issues with the flood insurance program are often spotlighted in coastal states like Florida and Texas, but Minnesotans have been feeling the effects too.

The average flood insurance policy in Minnesota costs $500 a year, according to the Minnesota Department of Commerce. The Williamsons live in a high-risk area, so they pay around $3,000 a year. Those premiums have become a sinkhole for money they could’ve put towards their aging home.

“We’re a hardworking, self-employed family with not a lot of excess money,” says Williamson, who owns an art studio in Carver. Her husband Andy owns a boat restoration business. They chose to live in Carver because they love the historic home and the small town. But after 20 years of living in their house, the repairs they'd planned remain unfinished.

“You look at it today, and still think it’s a piece of junk,” said Williamson. “Having flood insurance is like a scarlet letter.”

The Williamsons' situation is a common one in Carver, where flood insurance costs often run into the thousands. Rising premiums have put strain on the town, depressing property values and constricting development. Some are unable to maintain their century-old homes, and others have been forced out altogether. Potential solutions are expensive, and locked in a bureaucratic logjam, anyway.

The city is one of many in the state struggling to pay for protection against high water and higher insurance premiums.

“Those that can’t afford their flood insurance could end up losing their homes,” says Carver resident John von Walter. “I’ve had several neighbors and friends walk away from their homes, because their flood insurance payments were more than their house payments.”

Von Walter sits on the board of the Carver Heritage Preservation Commission, and says it’s ironic that the river that made the city’s downtown is now slowly undoing it.

In the 1850s, Carver boomed as a trading hub on the river. The steamboats and barges that frequented the town and drove its growth have long since disappeared, but many of the houses and buildings from that period remain. The Carver Historic District was among the first places in Minnesota listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Some buildings in town are older than the state itself.

In April 1965, the Minnesota River swelled 34 feet, inundating Carver with floodwaters that reached second-floor windows. Some 57 homes and 20 businesses were heavily damaged, according to the Minnesota Historical Society.

A few years later, Carver constructed a makeshift levee of mostly sand, clay, and, as the local mythology goes, "junk cars," according to Carver Mayor Mike Webb. Being behind a protective levee would normally spare Carver’s residents the financial burden of mandated flood insurance. But Carver’s levee has never been certified by FEMA, and because of that, FEMA treats Carver as if the levee doesn’t exist, charging residents the full high-risk rate for flood insurance.

“The cost of flood insurance is getting higher, and it’s getting harder for people in Carver to live and do business,” said Carver city manager Brent Mareck.

And the situation is only going to get worse. FEMA recently announced premiums will jump an average of 8 percent this year, continuing a trend, as the government reduces its role in subsidizing high-risk areas. For policy holders, this means rising premiums could outpace their ability to pay.

The Williamsons have debated whether staying is worth it. Depressed property values, coupled with years of repair and premium payments on their 1862 home, means selling it would be a financial hit.

“To move doesn’t quite make sense and to stay doesn’t quite make sense," says Mary Williamson. “Our hands are tied, and it totally blows.”

The solution to grant residents some reprieve is obvious: The city should get its levee certified. Carver’s been trying to do that for years. But financial and regulatory obstacles have slowed the town’s efforts to a glacial pace.

For FEMA certification, the levee would likely have to be completely rebuilt — already an expensive proposition, though the town doesn't even know how much it would cost without first having the levee assessed.

The assessment itself (known as a "feasibility study") would cost $330,000 according to Mareck, which has been a struggle to reach for the small town of 4,600. (Carver's total annual expenses come to around $6 million a year.)

“We all want it done,” says Carver resident Gregg Witt. “But how do you pay for it?”

Communities like Carver depend on the state to help pay for flood mitigation projects. The state will match their funding commitment, but big projects like levees and dikes need to be added to a capital investment (or "bonding") bill, and approved by the legislature, according to Pat Lynch, who administers the Department of Natural Resources’ flood hazard mitigation grant assistance program.

However, Lynch says that funding can only go towards projects that directly result in construction, not having something studied. The DNR can help cities fund feasibility studies with general funding (as opposed to the aforementioned bond funding), but flood mitigation general funding has waned in recent years.

And when it comes to the bigger projects, the demand for funds often exceeds the supply. There is $54 million of unmet need from communities trying to make themselves more flood resistant, in addition to $143 million requested by watershed districts. This session, the DNR requested $20 million to go towards these projects. That funding is at the mercy of the Legislature. Looking at recent years, there’s no guarantee the DNR will get all (or any) of what it asked for.

In 2016, the DNR asked for a similar amount and got nothing for flood mitigation. In 2017, the department got a little over half of what they asked for.

“Spending money is a political issue. It’s unusual that everybody gets everything they ask for,” said Lynch. “From a faraway look, you’d think that reducing risk now would decrease the need for funding in the long term.”

And long-term risk means factoring in climate change. The Environmental Protection Agency has estimated climate change will bring an increased threat of flooding to Minnesota. Heavy rain events are becoming more frequent. The rainy season is expanding, and the amount of precipitation over a season is projected to increase.

100-year flooding events like the one that submerged Carver in ’65 are expected to become more frequent, according to the DNR.

However, this future risk has not run true in Carver. Not yet, anyway. Its levee, though uncertified by FEMA, has been largely effective at protecting the town from floods. Mayor Webb says a 2014 flood did damage the aging city hall — which the city council recently voted to rebuild, this time with flood-proof features — but the burden from floods has largely manifested as high premiums for private citizens.

A feasibility study would determine if certifying the levee is worth the economic benefit. That could raise tough questions for a city where the historic district overlaps the FEMA floodplain almost completely. Namely: What if the cost-benefit analysis reveals it’s not worth saving the downtown?

“How do you put a value on the many properties we have on the National Register of Historic Places?” said Mareck. “It takes a different kind of cost-benefit analysis. This isn’t going to be quantitative.”

Webb fears there will ultimately be friction between the older part of Carver, the portion in the floodplain, and the newer part taking shape on the hill above. The Metropolitan Council estimates Carver’s population will balloon to 15,500 by 2040, pushing the reaches of the once-small town further away from the river and its historic core.

“We assume there is going to be some friction between people that don’t live downtown and people who do,” said Webb. “They’re taxpayers. They don’t have a vested interested in downtown, so they say ‘Why are we trying to save downtown for 8 million dollars?’”

Says resident Greg Witt: “We need whatever we can get to keep that downtown going.

Witt bought his house in the historic district with cash so he’s not required to purchase flood insurance, but he’s seen the effect rising costs have had on the area.

“Buildings sit longer unoccupied. It hinders development. A lot of people don’t want to deal with the premiums.”

Says Andy Williamson: “People come to the town because of the historic lore. Are they going to want to come here, and see a bunch of dilapidated houses people can’t afford to fix? I won’t let my kids move into a floodplain, ever.”