This story is part of a Northwest Herald series about how local, state and federal officials are trying to mitigate flooding in the Fox River watershed and how northern Illinois residents have been and could be impacted by past and future flooding and stormwater policies.
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This project was made possible, in part, through a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.
Watching the floodwaters in 2013 approach the Spring Grove area home Jamie Sanderson had inherited from his grandmother was the ultimate motivating force he needed to finally move away.
The property had been in Sanderson’s family for decades, and he grew up visiting, becoming friends with the neighbors.
The 2013 flood, however, “was the final straw for my wife,” Sanderson said.
While several reasons drove the decision to move away, one central reason was that dealing with the yearly threat of flooding had become too stressful.
Flooding in the Dubell Park subdivision – located south of Route 12 along Nippersink Creek just before it drains into the Fox River – means having to worry about whether it was time to move their cars toward the front of the neighborhood, where they would be protected from flooding. It means having to either wade through feet of water or canoe home from the few dry parking spots in the area for days at a time.
After recent floods of the residential area, some residents moved on, including some who fell into foreclosure on their homes. At one point, the owners of more than 50 homes in the neighborhood expressed to local officials an interest in leaving if they could find a way to sell their homes through a federal buyout program.
In other flood-prone spots, local officials in McHenry County teamed with the state and federal governments to acquire dozens of properties in the past 10 years, demolishing the homes and turning the properties back into green spaces.
Since 1998, neighboring Lake County has bought more than 150 properties using state and federal funds, Lake County Stormwater Management Commission records show.
“Property acquisition/demolition is one of multiple sustainable actions to reduce or eliminate long-term risk to people and property from future flooding disasters,” Federal Emergency Management Agency officials said in a written statement.
The buyout programs also benefit the federal government by permanently removing from the flood plain structures protected by FEMA-run National Flood Insurance Program, though a study by nonprofit First Street Foundation questions whether the flood plain maps used by the federal government cover all the homes most at risk for flooding.
With potentially unmapped or understated risk, the federal government could face losses when floods are more disastrous than expected, and property owners who have been given no indication they are at risk of flooding could end up getting hit while uninsured.
Even with the challenges, the Dubell Park subdivision has seen new, often younger, residents replace those that have left.
They hope that the flooding problem could be mitigated; that the canals of the creek could be improved to provide better space on the water to maneuver boats into the Chain O’Lakes just downstream; and that they could have more peace of mind the area and their belongings are safe from being damaged in a flood.
Their desire to stay makes the main tool wielded by local, state and federal officials to address flooding – buyouts – more difficult to deploy.
And despite moving after the 2013 flooding, Sanderson, too, found he couldn’t stay away for long.
The family spent a year in Wisconsin before moving back to Illinois and then in 2017, back in the house his grandmother had owned, right across the street from Nippersink Creek.
Just days after their return to the home on Nippersink Drive, Sanderson said, the subdivision flooded and he lost a lawnmower. He nearly experienced much more damage to his home as the water level crept to within an inch of entering his dryer vent.
He has no intentions of leaving again, citing the beauty of the creek and the neighborhood’s quiet life.
“It’s too peaceful here,” he said.
More flooding hit the neighborhood in September 2019, said fellow resident Kittie South, who moved in just a few months before. She said she knew she risked having to boat to her property, which backs up to Nippersink Creek.
She, too, is not ready to give up her home to get away from the threat of flooding even though it has been completely surrounded by water, with flood waters in 2019 mere inches away from entering her dwelling.
“I’m never leaving. It’s a different life down here,” South said.
Turning the flood plain back to green space
Beginning in 2018, dozens of property owners in the subdivision expressed an interest in participating in a buyout program aimed at purchasing flood-prone properties and turning them into green space, according to McHenry County records and McHenry Township Highway Commissioner Jim Condon.
“I thought to myself, we have this area that completely inundates more frequently than the Fox River. You go in there and you’re driving through roads that are underwater. It seemed like if there was a place to buyout, it should be this place and turn it back to nature,” Condon said.
Such buyout programs work by buying eligible properties at fair market value using local and federal government funds, so the homes can be demolished and the parcels
, turned into parks or other public lands and left to safely serve as natural flood plains. These transactions happen only if a property owner is willing to participate.
But McHenry Township was not in a position to put up the funds to cover the 25% local match required by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which runs the federal flood buyout program, so homes in South and Sanderson’s neighborhood could be bought.
The project could have cost more than $8.2 million total and required $2.1 million in local funds, if each of the several dozen interested property owners in the area stayed committed to a sale, according to records of preliminary estimates shared by Condon.
The county government wasn’t in a place to make a match for a quarter of the project’s price either, said Jack Franks, who was County Board chairman at the time.
Franks in statements to the Northwest Herald confirmed the project could have cost millions of dollars, and expressed reservations about using local funds to provide a way out of homes people bought knowing they were in a flood plain.
“It was a pipe dream of his without any funding and without any analysis and without any discussion with anyone,” Franks said of Condon’s initiative.
“He just said somebody else should pay for his problem and never formally presented it to the board because he never identified any funding sources. He used it quite frankly as a political maneuver to bash the board,” Franks said.
Condon said he explored the program only to be helpful and saw nothing to gain politically. He also pointed out the county government has participated in federal property buyouts just upstream from Sanderson and South’s subdivision.
“Why is it OK over there and not over here?” Condon said. “Everyone wants to criticize townships. God forbid you try to do something right. It is property that should not be built on and it’s built on. I learned of a program. I shared it with the people. I thought I was doing something good.”
The county used the buyout program in the past to team up with federal funding sources to buy flood-prone residential properties, using state dollars instead of local for the match, according to McHenry County Water Resources Manager and Chief Stormwater Engineer Joanna Colletti, as well as state and federal records.
Between 2014 and 2019, McHenry County used a grant from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources as leverage to access funds through the FEMA Hazard Mitigation Grant Program to buy out properties mostly in unincorporated Spring Grove, upstream from South and Sanderson’s neighborhood on the Nippersink.
Properties bought included seven residential structures and several vacant lots at risk of flooding. The county did not have to provide any local funding match for the project. Rather, the county was reimbursed by the federal government for $119,359 for the project and matching funds of nearly $1.1 million were supplied by the state, public records show.
The county now is targeting another set of about 10 homes and lots nearby, mostly in unincorporated McHenry and Spring Grove, as well as one in unincorporated Crystal Lake, for buyouts through an Illinois Department of Natural Resources grant, county records show.
Similar to the previous grant, no local match will be required for these proposed purchases as all funding would be covered by state grant money. The county hopes it could make the transactions for around a total of the $1.4 million available for the project, Colletti said in an interview.
But coming up with the local funds to meet the 25% match requirement to obtain federal funding has been an obstacle to performing buyouts more quickly.
“From the federal government, there is always a local cost share. That’s one hurdle we have always struggled with, trying to do more with less,” Colletti said.
McHenry County is far from the only jurisdiction that has a hard time coming up with the money to participate in federal buyout programs, researchers from the University of North Carolina and the Environmental Law Institute wrote in a paper published in December.
They also noted the programs don’t have reputations for being speedy, and more local governments are trying to create or find financial instruments that provide more independence when considering property buyouts because of flood risk.
Nunda Township also has some homes that are eligible to be bought out, said Mike Lesperance, the township’s highway commissioner.
“There are houses that are supposed to be bought out within our township. We have cooperated and agreed to participate to whatever extent necessary to see that come to pass. There are just places where houses shouldn’t be,” he said.
While some Nunda Township properties on the Fox River are in this situation, some others in Holiday Hills on tributaries and channels that lead to the river also are at risk of being damaged by flooding, just like South and Sanderson’s neighborhood, Lesperance said.
Like Sanderson and South, some homeowners in Nunda Township on properties exposed to flooding aren’t ready to leave yet, and the township helps them combat floodwaters by providing thousands of sandbags to stack against homes to try to limit damage, Lesperance said.
“The residents are the ones that decide if the home should be bought out or not. They have to decide if they want to keep fighting or look for another avenue of relief,” Lesperance said.
Reassessing the risk
To qualify for buyouts, in most cases, properties need to fall within the flood plains mapped out by FEMA, which administers the buyout program as well as the National Flood Insurance Program.
A study published in February by the nonprofit First Street Foundation found many flood-prone properties across the nation, including Illinois and McHenry County, fall outside the FEMA-designated zones where property owners are required to buy insurance through the National Flood Insurance Program.
Many owners of flood-prone properties outside these areas also need flood insurance, and First Street found many are underinsured.
First Street Foundation’s work – which has gained significant attention from news media since publishing a study last year showing FEMA’s regulatory flood plains are under drawn in many parts of the country and thus do not properly account for risk – shows McHenry County homeowners are paying less than half of what they should be in flood insurance premiums.
On average, the National Flood Insurance Program charges $1,013 in premiums across 2,058 McHenry County properties projected by First Street’s flooding model to suffer structural damage during a 100-year flood. Those premiums would need to more than double to cover the actual flood risk, according to First Street’s latest study, published in February.
A 100-year flood is an event that has a 1% chance of occurring in a given year. FEMA uses models to project where flooding is likely to happen during such a flood and then requires properties in that area to be insured against flood damage.
A “great deal of risk” exists outside of these areas, too, however, First Street wrote in its study.
Homes outside these special hazard flood areas can buy a policy through the National Flood Insurance Program at a discount.
These properties account for only 2% of National Flood Insurance Program policies but 20% of all claims and receive 33% of federal disaster assistance for flooding, the nonprofit said, citing FEMA records.
In Illinois, nearly 90,000 properties located outside the special hazard flood areas had an average expected annual loss of $1,735 per property for flood damage, First Street found. It estimated those homes paid on average $484 in National Flood Insurance Program premiums.
To account for this difference in risk, premiums would have to increase by 3.6 times for these homes, the nonprofit found.
Public records show in 2014, the federal government allocated $782,438 to acquire four structures in McHenry County that are not only outside the 100-year flood plain, but also outside the 500-year flood plain, or an area where the chance of flooding in a given year is 0.2%. It still is working to close out those deals.
“They were determined to be cost effective,” the federal record said of the four targeted properties outside the drawn flood plains.
But FEMA officials on a call with reporters this month insisted its new method of calculating risk across the flood insurance program, set to debut later this year for some property owners and next year for others, would not need to increase premiums on average to that degree.
Regardless of the scale of the miscalculated risk, flooding in McHenry County caused millions of dollars in damage in the last decade.
In just the years 2017 and 2013, both years with major flooding in the county, more than 100 claims were made on National Flood Insurance Program policies that resulted in a payment to homeowners in unincorporated McHenry County alone; there were many more claims on properties in municipalities in the county that were processed and approved for payment by FEMA, records show.
In 2017, homeowners in unincorporated parts of the county made 44 claims, and 32 were closed with a payment, for a total of more than $603,000 paid out by the insurance program in that year alone.
Johnsburg saw an additional 13 claims, and 10 yielded payments totaling more than $323,000. In 2017, the average payment was $32,347, the most expensive average for any jurisdiction in the county that saw more than one approved claim in a year since at least 2011, the federal data shows.
The year 2013 was even worse in terms of insurance claims for unincorporated pockets of McHenry County. There were 84 made and 73 approved for payments, totaling more than $1.4 million.
The most costly average losses in 2013 occurred in Barrington, which saw a single claim made with a payout of more than $48,000; Fox River Grove, which saw four claims approved for an average $26,581 payout; and the city of McHenry, which saw six claims approved for an average $26,367 payment.
But losses are not the only thing to have resulted from flooding in McHenry County.
Sanderson said the periods of flooding in Dubell Park have helped him forge friendships with his neighbors, as they have all banded together to help each other limit the damage, such as by sharing trailers to move vehicles out of areas becoming inundated.
“Now we are family,” said Leanne Soltau, another neighbor of Sanderson’s.
Soltau’s garage filled with flood waters just months after she and her partner Andrew Pauley moved in, before the fall 2019 flood in the neighborhood. Fish were even caught in their chain link fence.
They still had boxes of belongings in the garage from the move, and some of their contents were damaged. Luckily, the flooding stayed out of their home because it has been elevated above the ground to prevent being penetrated by water, an improvement many of Dubell Park’s other homes have undergone.
But flooding on a property rarely leaves its owner completely untouched.
“All my shoes got ruined,” Soltau said.
She is hopeful the neighborhood’s issues with flooding could be addressed to prevent future losses of footwear or worse, damage to her home, in a bigger flood.
She has explored trying to get other residents on board with a request to the Fox Waterway Agency to dredge the canals faced by Dubell Park homes so they hold more water and won’t flood as easily.
Deeper canals could provide the added bonus of making it more possible to navigate a boat from properties in the neighborhood onto the creek and out onto the Fox River, too, she said.
But Condon, the McHenry Township highway commissioner and a professional engineer, is skeptical any amount of dredging could make a substantial difference in Dubell Park.
He cited the flood plain map showing the subdivision within not only the flood plain of the Nippersink, but the floodway, where FEMA requires land areas to be reserved in order to discharge base flood.
“The channel has 25% of the capacity you need to go through there,” Condon said as an estimate. “You can’t deal with that flooding every year or every third year. That gets old.”