When Heather and Matthew Roppel were told early last year that their Des Plaines home was eligible for a voluntary federal flood buyout program, they were among the first to sign up.
The notification from the city of Des Plaines and Federal Emergency Management Agency was the news they had been waiting to hear since September 2008, when heavy storms caused the nearby Des Plaines River to overflow its banks, engulfing the basement of the Roppels' ranch home and rising a foot high on their first floor.
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Buyout numbersIn the last five years, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has allocated millions of dollars in flood buyout funds in the Chicago area.
DuPage County: $7,431,239 for 31 residential structures and a commercial structure
Cook County: $5,898,195 for 21 residential structures
Lake County: $4,093,759 for 9 residential structures and a grade school
Will County: $2,307,074 for 19 residential structures
They spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on repairs, which included a complete gutting and rebuilding of the interior, replacing heating and electrical systems, and buying new appliances and furniture.
Then came the floods of April 18, 2013, when the homes of the Roppels and their Big Bend Drive neighbors -- whose quaint suburban block borders the Des Plaines River on three sides -- were again caught in the way of the river trying to "connect from one side to other," Heather Roppel said.
"Quite honestly I can't live through it anymore," she said. "We're living in a house where my younger daughter's worried, 'Are we going to flood?' every time it rains."
A year after that flood, the Roppels and 20 other homeowners in Des Plaines -- most of them in the Big Bend subdivision -- have learned there's now funding available from FEMA to buy out their homes, demolish them, and leave the properties as permanent open space. Des Plaines city officials, charged with coordinating the local buyout program, plan to make formal purchase offers later this summer to the homeowners, who can decide whether to sell or stay.
Hundreds of other homeowners across the suburbs have been faced with that decision since the federal government began buying out flood-prone structures in Illinois in the early 1990s.
FEMA officials call it their most successful program in reducing the risk of flooding at locations where water repeatedly gathers.
But it's never an easy choice for homeowners, many of whom have lived in their homes for decades and purchased them before flooding became a regular circumstance instead of an infrequent occurrence.
"It was a beautiful neighborhood and it's still a beautiful neighborhood," said Heather Roppel, who moved to the Big Bend subdivision in 1995. "It's a nice place to live, if it weren't for that dang river."
FEMA has provided more than $167 million to individuals and another $33 million to local municipalities to help pay for costs incurred from the April 2013 floods.
Because a presidential disaster declaration was made after those floods, the Illinois Emergency Management Agency is eligible to receive another 15 percent of that total, or about $30 million, for hazard mitigation programs.
Ron Davis, the agency's hazard mitigation officer, said additional property buyouts are at the top of the state's priority list, once the money is received later this summer or fall. He said that could mean more buyouts for those on a waiting list in Des Plaines, or the first round of buyouts for homes damaged last spring in Lisle.
FEMA has bought out 80 residential properties in the Chicago area in the last five years, including flood-prone homes in Carol Stream and Addison south and Round Lake Beach and Lindenhurst up north. Funding has also been allocated for the buyout of one commercial property in DuPage County and a former grade school in Gurnee.
In total, some 4,000 properties have been acquired and demolished statewide since the program started in 1993.
In many cases, officials say the acquisition and demolition of flood-prone structures is cheaper in the long run than FEMA paying out federal flood insurance claims time after time for properties that continually flood.
Even though many homeowners may apply for a buyout, only those properties that get the most damage and sustain those damages frequently will get funding. FEMA and IEMA officials determine that by conducting a cost-benefit analysis on each eligible home.
"It's a requirement of our program that you prove your project is cost-effective to the federal government," said Duane Castaldi, FEMA's hazard mitigation specialist for Illinois. "You have to prove to us the costs for us to do the project are going to be less than the future damages if we didn't do the project."
Roppel and her neighbors in Des Plaines found out in February 2013 that they were eligible for a buyout because they were deemed to be in a "repetitive loss area." City officials initially put in an application for buyout funds after the September 2008 floods along the Des Plaines River, but there wasn't money for the buyouts until a presidential disaster declaration was issued after flooding in the summer of 2010.
Last month, FEMA officials approved the allocation of $2,698,523 for the Des Plaines buyouts. Another $899,507 will be provided by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. With any buyout, FEMA pays 75 percent of costs, and local governmental agencies cover the remaining 25 percent.
Des Plaines officials plan to execute formal agreements with IEMA and the IDNR next month, after which formal offers can be made to homeowners. Those offers will be based on fair market value appraisals of the homes conducted in August 2010, said Jon Duddles, Des Plaines' assistant director of public works and engineering.
He said that after sales contracts are finalized, the city will hire a contractor to demolish the structures, leaving behind open land.
Properties acquired through the flood buyout program can't be built on again, though some municipalities have used the open spaces as public parks, baseball or soccer fields, or, in the case of one Naperville neighborhood, a memorial park for a veteran.
Homeowners make the final decision whether to accept or reject purchase offers. The Roppels, now renting an apartment in Des Plaines, say they almost certainly will take the money, which will allow them to be able to buy a new home. They hope to purchase again in Des Plaines -- albeit someplace "higher and drier" -- so their 12- and 14-year-old children can stay in the same schools close to their friends, Heather Roppel says.
But there's no returning to their old three-bedroom, three-bath ranch, which they've used as storage space since last April's flood. Several feet of wet drywall has been removed from the bottom of all rooms to prevent mold.
"I think we are in a position where we're just not going to move back there," Heather Roppel said. "We've made the decision we're not going to live like that."