Community uses local sales tax to help fund flood mitigation
After a devastating flood in 2004, this Minnesota town focused on proactive mitigation efforts, building structural protection around high-value commercial areas. With funding from FEMA, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) grants and a sales tax initiative, the city was able to implement $24 million worth of projects to reduce flood risks to residential and commercial property, including the plant of Hormel Foods, a key local employer. These efforts prevented losses during another major flood in 2008 and have helped to attract new business and economic development to the city.
Photo courtesy of flood mitigation staff
Sitting at the fork of the Cedar River and two tributaries, Austin, MN is a community of about 25,000 people. The town has endured repeated flooding events, with several exceeding the 1-percent-annual-chance flood level. Initially, flood mitigation focused on acquiring damaged homes in the floodplain that were deemed cheaper to demolish than to protect—which saved millions of dollars in damages and evacuation efforts during subsequent floods.
In 1991, Austin joined the Community Rating System (CRS) program, which incentivizes communities to invest in floodplain management activities. Since then, its rating has improved from Class 9 to Class 5, raising discounts on flood insurance premiums for property owners from 5% to as much as 25% currently.
Benefits of mitigation
One of the key challenges for the community was pulling together funding
After the 2004 flood, citizens demanded a more proactive approach to reducing flood risks to Austin’s most valuable assets. The city proposed a 20-year, 0.5-cent sales tax to fund proposed mitigation projects, explaining how the monies would be spent and how the whole community would benefit. Passed in 2007, that initiative, along with Minnesota DNR grants, FEMA grants and state money, has funded $24 million worth of projects to date.
So far, 11 of the 12 mitigation phases are complete, including a $1 million floodwall and berm to reduce the flood risks to the lift station near the Hormel plant and a $5 million project to build 1,100 (lineal) ft. of floodwalls and berms along Main Street. The city has also built levees, raised roads, extensively upgraded storm sewers and pumping stations, and launched the Cedar River Watershed District to reduce flooding from farms due to wetland tiling.
“Having a local funding source has made our projects more economically feasible to the state and other funding agencies... It shows that we are coming to the table with our own dollars, which extends the ability of the grant dollars to go farther”
"The city of Austin has strived to remedy as far as possible the effects of major flooding events," notes Austin's mayor, Tom Stiehm. "While we will never be able to mitigate all the effects of our floods, we have extensively limited major damages through our efforts."
Austin’s efforts have paid off significantly. In 2008 the city experienced the third-highest flood in its history, yet this had minimal impact on homes and businesses. The project investments have also helped city leaders attract new businesses and support Hormel’s expansion plans, with assurances that their facilities will be protected.
Flood-prone neighborhood is converted into a park
Riverine flooding, Flash flooding