Flooded Onion Creek residents voice frustrations at open house

Sandra Herrington, a retired school counselor, says she doesn’t usually raise her voice.

But at an open house Monday night at Perez Elementary School about the floodplain buyout and permitting processes, Herrington was one of those yelling as city staffers and a mediator took questions about buyouts in the aftermath of the Oct. 30 flood, which left three people dead and hundreds of properties damaged in Travis County.

Some of the shouts: “It’s not working.” “You don’t understand.” “Unless you flooded you don’t understand.”

“Where is that in writing, to use our flood money?” Herrington asked at a session on buyouts. “Most of us have gone through the second flood. We’ve lost so much.”

The City Council decided Sunday that, in the buyout process, homes would be appraised at their pre-flood value. The buyout amount would be based on that value minus any insurance payments above $15,000 — which some at the open house questioned, asking where the number came from and why the city was deducting money from insurance they paid to have.

Alex Gale, who works in the city’s real estate office, said federal regulations prohibit the city from providing a “duplication of benefits.”

Others living in the 100-year floodplain by Onion Creek — an area the City Council approved $60 million to buy out last year, after homes were hit in the 2013 Halloween flood — asked how much longer it would take the city to purchase their homes.

Emilio Cano, who was waiting in line to talk to a city staffer after the open house and is one of those on the buyout list, said, “It’s been two years now, so hopefully they can learn from that and get everyone out.”

One key change, city staffers said, is that people can receive financial relocation benefits as long as they were in the house as of Oct. 29. In other words, owners don’t need to stay in their homes.

City staffers have said it could take two years to finish buying out the 270 properties remaining in the Lower Onion Creek floodplain, as there simply aren’t enough homes in Austin that fall within the price range of buyout offers.

Buyouts could be accelerated at a cost of $20 million, which would increase the relocation payment by $75,000 per home, staffers said. The City Council asked staffers for more information on options for expediting buyouts and the cost.

“I know that’s frustrating, that we can’t give you an exact date and time we’re going to call you,” Pam Kearfott of the city’s watershed protection department told attendees Monday night.

Jimmy Esquivel, who lives in Upper Onion Creek, said his house flooded with 4 feet of water in 2013 and 2 feet of water on Oct. 30. His neighborhood isn’t part of the city’s current buyout plans, but the city had led him to believe there was a possibility his home might one day be purchased, Esquivel said.

But after hearing from people in Lower Onion Creek whose homes had been flooded three or four times, he no longer thinks a buyout is in his cards.

“They kind of give you hope, then you go to a meeting and it’s like your chair is swiped out from under you,” Esquivel said.

Esquivel said Monday’s open house showed how different city staffers are on different pages. He’d heard the city wasn’t going to give out permits for flood repairs for another six weeks, but he found out at the meeting the city had already started processing permits.

Norma Garcia, who lives in Travis County by the Circuit of the Americas, said her house, which is on a hill and had 4 to 6 inches of water in it Oct. 30, had never before flooded. She blames Travis County’s work on Kellam Road for creating a dam that caused the flooding. She lost her van in the flood, and more recently, her kitchen counter started separating from the wall, Garcia said.

“It’s causing more damage than I thought,” Garcia said.

Herrington, the former school counselor, bought a house in Onion Creek for her son, a veteran, five months before the Halloween flood in 2013. By the time the recent flood hit, his girlfriend and her nine-year-old daughter were also living there, she said.

“I don’t like to criticize,” Herrington said, adding that she’s “grateful” the city’s buying the home and that they’ve already met with city staffers. But, she said, “They have been slow to do anything.”

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