Baton Rouge, Louisiana
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Floodway property owners could be bought out soon

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BATON ROUGE - A woman who's lived on the same property all her life is now being told she might not be able to rebuild after the 2016 flood.

Alicia Donnell tells 2 On Your Side she feels cheated.

"Never did anybody come out and say, 'Miss Donnell you've made a mistake,'" she said.

Palmer Lane is tucked off South Harrells Ferry Road in Baton Rouge. It's a stone's throw from the Amite River. The property has been part of Donnell's family since before she was born. Before the flood, she was living there with her husband and her mother. It's where her mother wants to live out the rest of her days.

"And every day she asks me, 'do we get to go home today?'" said Donnell.

Every day, she has to tell her mother they can't go home. The house took in about three feet of water in August 2016. The home is gutted, but Donnell didn't rip out the outside walls or the tile on the floor. She wears a mask when she walks inside to show WBRZ around the house she built in 2008. Donnell says the mold count is dangerous to her health.

The house was built with her mother in mind, who uses a wheelchair to get around.

Recently, her dreams of rebuilding have come to a screeching halt. Donnell says she received some assistance from FEMA. Long ago, she paid off the house and no longer has flood insurance. She was also denied an SBA loan. She's also learned her entire property is in a floodway.

A floodway is a designated channel of a river or stream that must remain free from obstruction in the event of flooding. It's an area where water is expected to flow.

Donnell says it's the first she's heard since she was permitted to build the house by the City-Parish.

She's not alone. Restore Louisiana says Donnell is one of about 400 homeowners who applied for the program and also lives on a floodway property. Those homeowners are in a holding pattern until funding becomes available, if that happens.

Director of the Office of Community Development Pat Forbes, says Restore Louisiana financial assistance can't be used for repairs, reimbursement of repairs, rehabilitation, or reconstruction. However, the program may offer a buyout in the future for homeowners with damaged properties inside floodways, if funding permits.

"We can run a buyout program, to get people up to a safer place and get started somewhere new," said Forbes.

Right now, Restore Louisiana is waiting on some language traveling through Congress. If it passes, it could reverse the way SBA loans are currently viewed and wipe them out as a duplication of benefits. That would significantly change the budget, as Restore Louisiana has never budgeted for something that wasn't allowed, which is replacing those SBA loans.

Forbes says Restore Louisiana would have to take a look at what that would cost the program and determine how much is left over to help people living in a floodway. The buyouts are expected to cost anywhere from $80 million to $100 million.

"It still looks very promising that we're going to be able to provide something for folks in the floodway," said Forbes.

Donnell says she doesn't know how she got here. She says she can't bear to leave the place she's always called home and wants to rebuild. She says if she had known she was in a floodway years ago, she would have built differently.

The City-Parish is researching Donnell's case specifically but says FEMA publishes the rules for building in a floodway, and that’s what East Baton Rouge follows. It also says the homeowner must obtain a no-rise certification for floodways, which would determine if the structure will increase flood heights. Whether or not Donnell was approved for a no-rise certification was undetermined at the time the story aired.

"I've never known any other property than this," she said.

Forbes says Restore Louisiana is on target to determine each award calculation by this fall.


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