Jennifer McCulloch, a farmland preservation specialist with Morris County, New Jersey, was tasked with developing a flood acquisition program after Tropical Storm Irene caused record flooding. When she began reaching out to municipal officials to participate in the program, she learned that towns were reluctant to acknowledge their flood risks. By using good risk communication techniques, including sharing stories and tailoring the conversation to meet her audience’s needs, McCulloch helped local officials see the importance of flood acquisition, and the majority ultimately chose to participate in the program.
- Community officials may be resistant to talking about buyouts because they are worried about lowering property values. One helpful way to start the conversation is to remind them that the goal is to move residents and first responders out of harm’s way.
- Know your audiences and adapt efforts to match their goals. Certain officials will be motivated by reducing costs, while others will be more motivated by public safety improvements or quicker recovery times from flood events.
- Pay attention to how the audience is reacting to the presentation. If you see eyes glazing over, try another approach. Use facts and figures to drive the point home, not as the majority of your presentation. Avoid overly technical terms or acronyms.
- Take the heavy lifting off the applicants’ shoulders. When developing a flood acquisition program, streamline the process, shepherd them through, and check that paperwork is done correctly the first time.
- Offer a buyout while the mud is still wet in the basement. People who live near water often have short memories of the effects of flooding. Move quickly to acquire properties before owners start rebuilding or their homes are foreclosed on, or it’s highly unlikely that the acquisition will occur.
- Make sure a subject matter expert is included on the team when developing a buyout program. This helps to ensure that the process is designed correctly and opportunities are not missed.
- Navigating a buyout process is complicated and emotional, especially for people who have just been through a disaster. It’s important to let people express their emotions and not take criticisms personally.
- Acknowledge homeowners’ experiences and concerns. Homeowners may want to place blame for flooding on others. In Jennifer’s case, more than one homeowner blamed the county for allowing residences to be built in the floodplains decades ago. She found that acknowledging the past and then moving on to the future was helpful. One sample response: “You’re right. We didn’t know 50 years ago what we know now about building in the floodplains. That’s why we have this program to help you get a fresh start.”
- Provide a comprehensive program for those most in need. In many of the most flood-prone communities, homeowners may not be financially savvy or might lack the income to hire experts. Morris County developed its program to ensure that those with the least resources would be given soup-to-nuts attention throughout the process.
- Foreclosure doesn’t have to mean “no deal.” Foreclosure is a real threat, especially given the length of the buyout process. Once a home is foreclosed on, the acquisition process typically stops. However, Morris County continues to work with towns and banks, encouraging them to give homeowners extensions for the buyout to occur, or making a post-foreclosure buyout offer to the bank.