Still recovering from March’s severe thunderstorms, Brentwood residents entreated city commissioners to change a current ordinance to allow decks to be built on riverfront and river-adjacent homes.
The Biden Administration declared the series of severe storms, flooding and tornadoes from March 25 to April 3 of this year a federal disaster, which FEMA announced on Saturday. The declaration authorizes federal assistance to the state to supplement but not wholly subsidize recovery efforts.
Williamson County is one of 23 applicable, administrative divisions of the state for federal assistance, including neighboring Davidson and Maury Counties, and affected homeowners in eligible counties can apply for assistance online. As of Tuesday, May 11, only three applications had been approved to assist individuals.
Many of the homes most affected by the 8.16 inches of rainfall — built on lots susceptible to flooding, especially due to Harpeth River overflow — have already seen expenses as high as $100,000 to raise houses to a certain height above base flood elevation, a hazard mitigation investment meant to offset future flood risks. After around 50 people were rescued by boat from inundated houses, some 15 households are reporting displacement. More than $1 million in damages has been recorded and no reliable predictions have been made as to when many of them can return to their homes.
Repairs have since stalled for some as they contend with the city for the right to build decks onto their elevated or soon-to-be-elevated homes, and this comes after even the right to elevation was earned via amendment to a preexisting flood prevention ordinance — the previous chapter in a years-long saga of flooding especially for residents of the Wildwood neighborhood whose Mary Hesselrode spearheaded successful, pro-elevation efforts in recent years.
“We want to put a deck on the back of our home so that we can exit our houses safely,” put simply by one resident, Leslie Carmichael, a neighbor of Hesselrode.
Hesselrode is one of many to embark on these home elevation projects in Wildwood and also one of many to encounter a recurring problem with a planned deck and the space beneath it. Upon passing a flood study that cost her about $750 out of the almost $10,000 she spent on related processes and engineering, she was granted a no-rise certificate yet still could not build the deck she wanted because of a city building code prohibiting it.
“As of right now, we had to redo our flood study, which was a cost of $750 after I’d already spent almost $10,000 total for an engineer, the flood studies, the survey, everything,” Hesselrode said.
Federal law requires floodway projects to undergo preliminary review to make sure the resultant construct does not raise the waterline of floods when they happen. Flood study engineers conduct analysis first, and for these kinds of home projects, structural engineers design foundation plans on this basis. However, Brentwood must have record of the analyses that were done, and the no-rise certification is what theoretically satisfies that municipal compliance with the federal requirement.
Unfortunately, “Brentwood has a stricter ordinance than FEMA does in regards to […] no-rise certificates,” according to Carmichael. “Brentwood says: You can only have a four-foot-by-four-foot fire escape right now. Why if FEMA says that, if we have a no-rise certificate, we should be able to?”
Hesselrode asked commissioners the same question, emphasizing what processes are inferred, “If we pass the no-rise certificate,” such as having “a structural engineer and a flood study engineer telling us that our home will be safe with a deck: what is the reason [a deck cannot be added]?”
At present, Hesselrode has only a fire escape of the same dimensions Carmichael enumerated, though FEMA does not require this of a residential, floodway property that is certifiably mitigating flood hazard, which hers is upon being lifted. She asked commissioners for a code revision, which would be the second such policy change to come at the insistence of herself and supportive neighbors in the long battle to make these floodway lots more safely livable.
“I’m just asking you to look at it,” Hesselrode told the Board of Commissioners. “Revisit the codes. Now that we’re having to talk about elevation — and it’s going to be more common because it is an option now — I’m just asking to maybe revisit other parts of that.”
City Manager Kirk Bednar said he would talk with other officials about whether to amend city code to allow for decks to be built.
Carmichael said Hesselrode’s efforts to establish the 2019 amendment to Chapter 56: Article 2 of Brentwood’s Code of Ordinances first started with Tennessee Hazard Mitigation Officer Doug Worden who determines how to allocate FEMA funds for a variety of needs. In 2019, when Hesselrode inquired about getting a FEMA grant to lift her home, Worden said he preferred buying out houses to authorizing grants to lift homes.
“That doesn’t make sense on a lot of levels for us,” Carmichael said. “It’s a heck of a lot more expensive when you can lift houses up and get them out of the floodway, and it saves FEMA a heck of a lot of money in losses per year.”
Carmichael’s household saw $150,000 in damages in 2010, for example, and another $100,000 this year. FEMA has not gotten anywhere close to those figures from the Carmichaels in flood premiums. This year’s en masse decision by residents to lift homes appealed to many due to Worden’s position more or less confounding them, so they banded together to draft a letter to him, which doubled as a petition with the support of 87 homes for the 14 affected homeowners.
The letter, dated April 18, 2021, formally requested that Worden begin the application process for their admittance to the Disaster Mitigation Grant Program. Hesselrode and Carmichael are two of seven who had open cases with FEMA at the time the letter was submitted. The letter was buttressed by a companion letter to City Planner Todd Petrowski, requesting that he also follow up with Worden, which Petrowski did, and Worden told residents to take it up with the city.
The lots in question were developed in the 1960s yet only saw one flood in the ’70s before the 2010 flood. Since then, many of those same lots suffered flooding again in 2017 before enduring a third one this year.
Christopher Rand, another resident who addressed the Board of Commissioners and who also had a pending FEMA case when the letters were sent, said of the accelerating flood trend, “We were told by Neil Schafer who did a study here that we have to think about these 100-year events as one percent chance of them happening per year. So, this happened in 2010; in 2017, we had about a 50-year event. […] And then another 100-year event. If you do that math, there’s a 0.0025 percent chance of those three things happening in 10 years.”