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Cities are buying people's flood-prone homes, altering neighborhoods in the process

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In recent decades, the government has paid tens of thousands of people to leave their flood-prone homes. The homes are torn down, and what remains is empty land open to flood waters. This is something more and more cities may need to do as a warming climate fuels rising seas and intense rain. But as Sam Turken of member station WHRO in Norfolk reports, fixing one problem can create another for those left behind.

SAM TURKEN, BYLINE: Walter Murray is proud to live in the Salters Creek area of Newport News, Va. He's been here for over five decades.

WALTER MURRAY: It's a real, wholesome, friendly neighborhood. Everybody - hello. They always have a good word to say or something like that.

TURKEN: This is a predominantly Black area with some rental homes, others passed down through family. Murray takes walks through the neighborhood, keeps in touch with families around him. But his attitude sours when he talks about the creek that runs through part of the area. Surrounding it is a swampy thicket with lots of tall wild grasses, overgrown shrubs.

MURRAY: See how it smells, and then all of those mosquitoes and stuff come from there. It's stagnant water, man.

TURKEN: What do you think it smells like? It's like a fishy smell, right?

MURRAY: Yeah, but there ain't no fish in here.

TURKEN: From where we're standing, the marsh stretches on as far as you can see. It's peaceful. But for Murray, it's weighing down the neighborhood's value.

MURRAY: A person come to buy in this neighborhood and then drive around and see this. They're not buying into that neighborhood with that cesspool down there.

TURKEN: It wasn't always like this. You see, a lot of what's now marshland used to be backyards and homes along Salters Creek. But this area is just a few feet above sea level and has a history of flooding. So about two decades ago, Newport News started offering to buy out dozens of flood-prone properties along the creek. If folks agreed, the city would demolish their homes, convert the lots to wild marshland to soak up floodwater. Rodney Jackson witnessed this right next to his house. He still lives along the creek.

RODNEY JACKSON: Before they knocked everything down, there was a field back there. Kids could play football. It just looks awful back there now.

TURKEN: Jackson's home has never flooded. But every month, he has to put on a double set of gloves and spray his yard with mosquito repellent and weedkiller to keep neck-high grasses from invading his property, like this day.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPRAYING)

TURKEN: Jackson knows the marsh helps absorb floodwater.

JACKSON: But at least maintain it because they just let it grow wild, and the homeowners got to deal with it.

TURKEN: The marshland along Salters Creek isn't the only byproduct of home buyouts in this neighborhood. The city is also turning other flood-prone properties into vacant lots.

DERRICK DICKENS: But you're making this place a ghost town.

VERALENE DICKENS: It's sad. It's not a happy neighborhood like it was when the houses and everything was over there.

TURKEN: Veralene Dickens and her son Derrick have been here for almost five decades. They agree this area has a flooding problem, but they wonder - would these lots be vacant if the community was mostly white?

KATHIE ANGLE: I understand that they're upset.

TURKEN: Kathie Angle oversees the buyouts for Newport News. She says race has nothing to do with it and stresses the city will never rebuild on those properties. Angle says most of the nearly 80 buyouts citywide are in the Salters Creek community because flooding is worse there and a lot of homeowners want them.

ANGLE: So we're trying to help people. Is it changing the neighborhood? Yes.

TURKEN: That change is part of what makes buyouts of flood-prone homes so tricky because even though they move some families out of harm's way, climate adaptation experts warn buyouts can erode the social fabric of neighborhoods.

KATHARINE MACH: Whether that's culture, heritage, health, jobs, livelihoods.

TURKEN: Katharine Mach at the University of Miami says people staying behind can resent buyouts as unfair, mistrust the process, and they can lose access to things like a carpool and child care from neighbors. Studies show this has happened in other places with lots of buyouts, including in New York, Texas, North Carolina. Mach says one way to avoid all this - make the process transparent. Consider everyone's ideas, like what to do with that new vacant land.

MACH: As climate hazards intensify, it becomes even more important to have a community-driven vision of how they would like to manage that change.

TURKEN: Kathie Angle with Newport News acknowledges the city hasn't done a good enough job communicating with the Salters Creek community. She says they're planning an outreach campaign to explain the program and ask more people if they want a buyout.

For NPR News, I'm Sam Turken in Newport News, Va. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.