TREVLAC — After the June 2008 flood ravaged northwest Brown County, about 30 property owners were left waiting up to five years for federal money to buy their property from them.
Others never considered leaving.
Charity Eck’s front porch is now elevated a full story in the air. When she and her husband Harry decided to rebuild in the floodplain, they went higher than the Indiana Department of Natural Resources required, allowing space for a garage under their home.
Eight years ago this week, when they were rescued at the end of Melvin Road, the boat they were in scraped something in the water, Eck said. It was the roof of a truck.
Story continues below gallery
The water from Bean Blossom Creek rose faster and higher than Eck had seen in the 35 years she and Harry had lived on his family’s property. It went from a few inches to knee-deep in less than five minutes, she said.
During past floods, they had waited in their home, which was already several feet above ground level.
For almost eight months, the family lived in hotels and with friends.
While the family was away during the day, they had a washer and dryer and clothing left out to be cleaned stolen from the property.
“It’s sad, all the stuff you lost, but it could’ve been worse,” Eck said.
“We were lucky. I think of the people that had to move away, that couldn’t stay, or couldn’t bear to come back, for the fear of flooding again.”
The Ecks looked at other houses in the area after the flood but couldn’t find anything in their price range, she said. They did not bother inquiring into how much the Federal Emergency Management Agency would give them for their property in the voluntary buyout that followed.
There were personal reasons to stay, too. Harry’s father had lived and died on the property.
Eck said she doesn’t worry more about flooding than she did in the years before the flood — though she knocked on wood as she said so.
Closer to State Road 45, on the creek side of the road, Michelle Walker said she never felt she had much choice about leaving, either. She lives in one of only three permanent households left on the road.
“My father died next door, and my mom was very ill, and she wasn’t going anywhere,” Walker said. “Dad died there. She was going to die there. So, I stayed.”
Even if they had wanted to leave, there was no place they could afford to go. “And I love it down here,” Walker said. “We still use the creek and stuff — we fish, we kayak.”
Most of the property on the road was bought by FEMA and then deeded to the Brown County Commissioners. Those lots sit empty now.
The remaining residents and some of the weekenders mow the grass on the other lots as they can, Walker said.
“I’m trying to take care of the property next door that’s not even mine, because the weeds, that’s gonna draw the mosquitoes, and the snakes, and my grandbabies play out here,” she said.
“It’s strange every day, to look out, and just nothing, no houses. And the older people, I always liked to chat with them, keep up with them, you know?”
On the other side of State Road 45, what barely looks like a gravel driveway leads to what was once known as Bayou Drive.In satellite pictures taken before the flood, a variety of trailers and small houses can be seen spread over about two dozen lots.
Now, all but a handful of parcels along the railroad tracks belong to the Brown County Commissioners, and the land is vacant of any permanent residents.
At the end of Aqua Isle Road, all the lots past Barbara Mowery’s home are vacant. Two small parcels and one large parcel at the very end belong to the county.
Mowery and her husband, Carl, bought their property in 1971. In 1981, they took their six boys to live there.
Carl died last January. If he had made it to August, they would have been married 50 years.
Leaving was never an option for the family, Mowery said.
Their house, like most on the road, sits in an area FEMA has designated as floodway — the area most likely to be consumed by a flood. Building in floodways requires special permitting by the DNR.
Staying meant they had to install a $35,000 mound septic system. There was much debate with the county about whether they should have been allowed to stay at all.
A little further up the road, Eddie Edds “still gets a little itchy” during downpours. He had 15 inches of water in his home during the flood.
Edds said he would not have received enough in the FEMA buyout to pay off the property. He had his own fight with the county over raising his home, which is brick and sits on a concrete slab.
But with some aid from the Red Cross, FEMA and others, Edds got the work done to allow him to stay. Though he could not elevate the house, appliances, wiring and outlets are now at least 2 feet off the floor.
There’s no guarantee of safety from natural disasters anywhere, he said, and he wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.
Future of the land
After the FEMA buyout, the county was left with more than 70 parcels. About 60 are in the Aqua Isle area, some in clumps and others completely surrounded by privately owned property.County commissioner Diana Biddle would rather not have those pieces of land on the county’s books.
She has asked County Attorney Jake German to find out what the options are.
According to the Code of Federal Regulations that sets restrictions on land purchased during a FEMA buyout, those options are few.
The primary concern is that nothing is done that would affect the flow of water during a flood. While the land can be used for a nature preserve or wetlands management, it also can be used for parks, camping, farming, or even as an unpaved parking lot.
“It’s really taken on a case-by-case basis on what can be done and what can’t be done,” said John Erickson, director of public information for the Indiana Department of Homeland Security.
If the commissioners have an idea for how the land could be used, they would have to start by approaching IDHS mitigation staff, who would then seek final approval from FEMA, he said.
That could include deeding the land over to an organization such as the Sycamore Land Trust, which already owns land next to some of the buyout properties.
Neither Eck nor Walker said they would be opposed to seeing the vacant land put to use, such as a campground or a nature preserve.
Walker would particularly like if the land were kept up in some manner that made it less inviting to mosquitoes and snakes.
“I just don’t want a highway going through or anything like that,” she said. “It’s beautiful down here. And it’s really quiet.”