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Focusing on future, working together may resolve housing challenge

Phillip Box can remember the uneasy combination of emotions that he felt when he woke up early on Christmas morning of 2015 in Elba.

"We knew that there was a high chance of a flood risk," Box recalled. "Right after we began to unwrap presents, I got a call that the water was rising, and we needed to prepare."

Box played a significant role in the disaster relief efforts, using his diverse background as a church leader, a county official and, most of all, a concerned citizen to jump in and help.

In 2019, as we drive through Elba, he points out areas that received severe damage in the 2015 flood, notably in the regions that sit at the intersection of Whitewater Creek and the Pea River. 

The areas, now more than three and half years removed from the flooding, are still in need of help. Some of the homes have been left behind, overgrown with plant life and abandoned.  Other homes in this neighborhood have been repaired, with the damaged portions repaired.

However, there are still water lines on some homes, showing how fresh the scars of the flood are. The mix of homes left behind and homes that are hanging on reflect one common trait: trying to move on from 2015.

The Christmas Flood was notable for being the third-highest river crest in Elba's recorded history, although it did not breach the levee and left the downtown area dry.

It should have been a day of positivity, one where Elba could celebrate finally feeling safe from floodwaters due to the levee improvements. However, the flood highlighted a new problem that has a less obvious solution, overdue changes needed in certain locations.

William Worthington, the code enforcement officer for Elba, provided more information about the areas most affected by the flood. 

"The issue we ran into in 2015, and afterward, is that the old solution was to put a fresh coat of paint on it and just move along," Worthington said. "In reality, they need substantial structural change to protect them from a repeat of 2015."

One possible solution I asked Worthington about was a proposal I had heard about during my summer in the community:  a total buyback of the houses in the affected areas, once FEMA funding is fulfilled.

"I think, for a lot of these houses, that's probably the easiest solution," Worthington said.  "It's tough because people love their homes and want to make it work, but they're all in risky flood zones. Plus, the cost to bring them up to code, in some cases, is more than the value of the house."

It's a tough subject, and sadly, one that is still hypothetical. FEMA funding is often used as a bargaining chip when drafting the appropriations budget. The funding can take years to finally get approved.  Then political factors can delay its implementation. So, more than three and half years after the flood, Elba is still waiting for FEMA to provide the relief they need.

Local citizens say it’s a helpless feeling to be at the mercy of a government entity that often seems to have little urgency or concern for a small town like Elba. The issues are crucial for Elba, but in the grand scope of all that FEMA oversees, it's easy to see how help can be delayed.  After seeing how long it takes for necessary relief to come in, it's easy to understand how residents prefer simply to just move on rather than invest the time or money needed to fix issues for the long term.

Dwelling on present issues is natural, especially when FEMA has yet to deliver, and the result of a buyout program is an unknown. However, one of the most challenging aspects of rebuilding in a city like Elba is the need to focus on the future.

Buyout offers will come, hopefully, sooner rather than later, and no matter how many home owners take the offers, there could be a significant loss in population. There is a lack of affordable homes for these individuals to relocate within Elba.  Some of them may move away to somewhere with more housing options.

One prime example of how to address the issue may be seen in the school system.  In the flood of 1990, Elba's schools were decimated by the waters. The city responded by moving the school uphill to Tiger Drive, where it sits today, with beautiful school buildings at minimal flood risk. 

The school system relocation was a significant catalyst as the city government stepped in to ensure that a necessary part of the community was no longer at flood risk. However, with the issue of affordable housing, that catalyst is missing.

The homes and land included in the potential buyout are owned by developers, some of whom have no serious financial incentive to reinvest or develop affordable replacements. Now, Elba must appeal to investors or developers to more housing options.  This is another challenge to the town's efforts to grow and move away from their legacy of floods.

The move of the school buildings also provided a prime location for future development, near the current school grounds. The area is still relatively undeveloped, free of any flood-related fears, and is an excellent location for families due to the proximity of Elba's rising school system. The area is one of many possible sites for housing.

Fixing this problem is not an issue of ideas, but one of funding.

Elba, like many small towns across Alabama, has been struck by natural disasters, economic challenges, and the long wait for assistance from entities outside their control.

Positive movement can be seen in the accomplishments of Restoration 154, who just received a grant for $25,000 to go toward the refurbishment of the Elba Theatre, the Chamber of Commerce, who hosted an incredible spectacle of small-town patriotism on the Fourth of July, and in the city government officials who helped navigate Elba out of financial hardships while creating fantastic public projects such as the Splash Pad. 

Elba's affordable housing issue can be resolved with a focus on finding solutions. The groups mentioned above, along with others throughout the town, need to come together to create a plan to bring affordable housing to Elba and keep the city not only at its current population but continuing to grow.

Local citizens need to view affordable housing as it viewed the relocation of the school in the 1990s and invest in this necessary project to keep the city thriving. The approaches to finding a solution are unlimited, as long as the focus remains on finding a sustainable solution to affordable housing.

If any town can address and solve this problem, it is Elba.

The pride that the community has in their town, the passion they have for ensuring it thrives, and the overall ability they have to come together as citizens is unrivaled. I can’t wait to see what Elba does in the coming years to meet this challenge.