Jefferson County, Wisconsin

County uses grant funding to acquire more than 100 homes

Faced with almost annual flood damage in some of its poorest communities, the emergency management team in Jefferson County, Wisconsin has worked with FEMA and other funding organizations to acquire and remove more than 100 homes in the floodplain during the past 20 years. There are still more properties to raze, but the impact of the flood mitigation program has already helped avoid millions of dollars in losses and improved local water quality.

Photo: Brian Christianson

Community facts

Population
84,559
Businesses
6,180
Homes
35,313
Source: US Census Bureau.

Mitigation actions

Over a period of several decades, flooding in Jefferson County, Wisconsin happened so often that many homeowners became accustomed to it. Some properties were repeatedly affected by the flooding. This led to the ongoing use of public funds for emergency services during flooding and insurance claims afterward.

Following a flood in 2008, a zoning ordinance requiring that properties with 50% damage must be acquired allowed local officials to take action. They are gratified by the improved quality of life for residents who have been able to move out of the floodplain, and also by the reduced cost of evacuation and clean-up efforts. In most cases, the properties acquired and razed could not otherwise be sold due to frequent flood damage and high insurance rates. “When I acquire their home, it allows them to move out of the floodplain and out of harm’s way,” says Jefferson County's director of emergency management, Donna Haugom.

Even in floodplain areas where houses remain, those that have been demolished create space for floodwaters to flow, reducing the risk to adjacent homes. Moreover, some of these spaces have been converted into recreational areas open to the public.

Benefits of mitigation

Economic benefits
$2.3 million
Total monetized benefits
Return on investment
7%
Estimated return on investment
Benefit-cost ratio
1.1
Benefit-cost ratio of the Jefferson County projects
Source: Federal Emergency Management Agency (2009). Loss Avoidance Study, Wisconsin, Property Acquisition and Structure Demolition.

Project challenges

The county came up with a 12.5% match to secure the funds

The community has faced challenges in funding flood mitigation. Each grant program has its own set of requirements, and this adds time and complexity to the process, according to the local director of emergency management. “I'm constantly examining various grant options to acquire additional properties,” says Haugom.

Grant funding typically does not cover the entire cost of the acquisitions, meaning that the county must pick up a percentage of the budget. The process of buying and razing properties has been time-consuming. Homeowners must voluntarily sign up for the program, and acquired properties are rarely adjacent to each other, limiting the county's ability to create useful open spaces.

“Having a flood mitigation plan is very beneficial for the community in terms of reducing loss of life and loss of property”
Donna Haugom, director of emergency management, Jefferson County

Future considerations

Floodwaters engulf local homes and businesses.
Photo: Brian Christianson
The county has 45 properties on a waiting list for acquisition

To date, Jefferson County has acquired 110 properties, with 45 on the waiting list and more likely to come once word gets out that new funding will be available, says Haugom. When the homes are razed, she invites Habitat for Humanity to take what is salvageable, and the land is then returned to wetlands.

While Haugom does not have specific savings calculated for Jefferson County, she points to the rule of thumb that for every dollar invested at least four dollars are saved: “I think that is indeed true and we've proven that over time.”

Flood mitigation resources

Below is a non-exhaustive list of other flood mitigation information resources.