"FEMA Won't Let Us Rebuild Our Home"

Sacramento family screwed by federal bureaucrats


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The Taylor family lives in the Natomas community in Sacramento, California. On August 24, 2012, Brad and Jennifer were driving home with their two young children when they saw smoke in their neighborhood. As they got closer to home, they realized that their house was on fire. Jennifer jumped out of the car to get the family's elderly dog and two cats to safety while Brad drove the kids to their grandmother's house down the street. Though shaken, both Brad and Jennifer were relieved that no one had been hurt. "It's just a fire," Brad said. "It can all be replaced."

The Taylors initiated the long process of rebuilding less than a week after the fire. It was then that they found out that their troubles were just beginning. The city told the Taylors that due to a recently implemented Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) regulation, they would need to raise the habitable part of their home above the area's base flood elevation. In the Taylors' case, that would mean raising their house some 20 feet off the ground. Raising their home was not covered by their insurance and, even if it were, such a structure would be impractical and odd looking in a development of mostly single-story ranch houses.

When the Taylors' bought their home in 1998, they thought they were making a safe investment. Though Natomas, like most of Sacramento, is located in a floodplain, the area was designated an X Zone (or moderate-risk area). In the wake of Hurricane Katrina and extensive criticism of the federal government's response to the disaster, the Army Corps of Engineers changed its standards, decertified the levees surrounding Natomas, and redesignated the area an AE Zone (or high-risk area). Residents were told that the change meant mandatory flood insurance for everyone with federally backed mortgage loans. The Taylors complied and have been paying for flood insurance through the National Flood Insurance Program ever since.

But the Taylors weren't told something else. Beginning in 2008 for structures in AE Zones, renovations that cost more than 50 percent of the value of a structure are prohibited unless they are raised above the base flood elevation. In the Taylors' case, the house that burned was valued at just $70,000 and reconstruction estimates are nearly $200,000—not including the cost of jacking the house 20 feet up in the air. Because of the low valuation of the property, the Taylors could only spend $35,000 in renovation before the new FEMA regs kick in. That might be plenty of money to renovate a kitchen, but it isn't nearly enough to rebuild the Taylors' home.

Seeking answers, Jennifer Taylor contacted the city. While sympathetic, Sacramento officials told the Taylors that they couldn't grant a variance because non-compliance with FEMA regulations would get the city booted from the National Flood Insurance Program. So Jennifer contacted FEMA. The first thing she found out was that it is very difficult to find anyone at FEMA who knows what they're talking about, let alone someone who can help. The second thing she found out, when she did finally get a straight answer, was that FEMA doesn't have the authority to create an exception in the Taylors' case.

The Taylors will be allowed to rebuild their home once the Natomas Basin is redesignated an X Zone, but that won't happen until the federal government ponies up the money to complete major repairs to its levees. It's unclear if and when that money will be made available.

Five months after the fire, the Taylors are stuck in legal limbo, living in a rental property down the street from their ruined home. They're still paying for flood insurance and they're still paying their mortgage. Their mortgage company suggested that the walk away from the loan, but the Taylors believe it's their responsibility to fulfill their obligations.

At this point, the Taylors' best hope is that Congress will bail them out by allowing exeptions to federal law. Legislation written by their local member of Congress, Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.) would give FEMA the authority to grant a variance to the Taylors and other homeowners trapped in similar situations.

In the meantime, the Taylors are trying to raise awareness about their plight; go to the "Burned OUT in Natomas" Facebook page to learn more.

About 7.30 minutes.

Produced by Paul Feine and Alex Manning.

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