CARYVILLE, Fla. (WMBB) — The old Petro station is one of the few remaining buildings left in Caryville. On any given morning, a small, close-knit group of its residents can be found hanging around it, shooting the breeze over coffee and cigarettes.
Across the street is the city council building, which governs its approximately 200 remaining residents since the Federal Emergency Management Agency bought out the town after the 1994 flood that submerged it.
A bit down the road is the Dollar General, which Becky Pate, Caryville town councilwoman, local business owner and lifelong resident, said is helping reinvigorate her hometown that, to her devastation, died after the FEMA buyout.
“We were just a little, loving community where everybody knew everybody,” Pate, 70, said. “And then the floods went to coming.”
Caryville used to be home to one of the largest sawmills in the south, according to old news reports, producing up to 100,000 feet of lumber per day. Sitting on the Choctawhatchee River, it’s growth rate rivaled its neighbors like Bonifay.
Then 26 years ago, FEMA offered to buy out the residents due to the frequent and severe flood damage. According to FEMA’s website, the program was designed to lift the financial burden that flooding can cause for property owners whose homes have been damaged or destroyed.
“They more or less told the people that they would never help them again if they didn’t sell out,” Pate said.
Jeff Goldberg, Walton County Emergency Management director, said there are multiple ways that the FEMA Flood Mitigation Assistance Program can address flood-prone property.
“One is an elevation, where they’ll go in and elevate the homes in that area that have been affected to above the base flood elevation,” he said. “The other way is where they’ll do a buyout.”
Goldberg said buyouts are used when elevation on a house is not feasible.
“If you don’t do any of those two options, the house is going to continue to flood and the owners are going to continue to claim on their insurance and their premiums are going to go up,” Goldberg said. “It’s like a cycle.”
He added that buyouts are used mainly on a large scale, like with Caryville.
With its program, FEMA offers voluntary buyouts to properties affected by flooding. Depending on the gravity of damage to the area, FEMA will either pay for 100% of the costs, or 75% of the costs while the states or local governments that opt into the program cover the remaining 25%, Goldberg said. Once purchased, the property is demolished and turned into open space.
“Generally, if they’re going to be doing full buyouts and lots of elevations, that’s generally done under the severe repetitive loss program,” Goldberg said, which is 100% financed.
In Caryville’s case, much of the town was designated as federally-protected wetlands, said Caryville resident Steve Driver.
“I think they just offered them more money than they had ever seen before,” Pate said about the former Caryville residents. “And they took it and they left. And as they were leaving, the town began to die.”
The wetlands designation prevents residents from building anything permanent on FEMA land, ultimately preventing the residents from rebuilding their community.
Driver, 69, also said they still have to pay taxes on the land while having no rights to change anything.
“We would love for FEMA to lift some of these restrictions so we can kindly rebuild and come back,” Pate said.
Pate said the county has made updates to the waterways to address flooding in the area.
“We haven’t flooded since ,” she said.
Goldberg said that Walton County works with the National Weather Service to reevaluate the flood stages and is updating protocol for areas including the Shoal River.
But although local government is actively addressing flood zones, the Federal government continues to fund the relocation program.
In August, FEMA announced an additional $500 million for Flood Mitigation Assistance grants, designed to do what they did to Caryville. The Department of Housing and Urban Development also started a similar $16 billion program, according to The New York Times.
In March, The New York Times reported a decision from the Army Corps of Engineers to require local officials to either force people out of their homes or forfeit federal money for flood protection and relief.
Goldberg said that the Emergency Management department is looking to address several homes in Walton County for flood mitigation including one in Freeport—which he said they are elevating—and one in Ponce de Leon, which he said, after trying to go the elevation route, they are looking to buy out.
“To me, it was very negative,” Pate said about the buyout. She said towards the end, most people were not getting paid what their houses were worth but had to evacuate anyway because of the dying town.
She said she is hopeful that Caryville will rebuild.
“If they would lift some of these restrictions,” Pate said. “Even let the people come back and build on stilts.”