By Brent Bader
The Times Ottawa, Illinois
March 15, 2019
Strategic buyout plan saved city $9.5M in damage avoidance
There are few people in Ottawa who know more about flooding than Mike Sutfin and now he’s joined the ranks of some of the most well-respected in the nation.
A decade’s worth of work paid off on Thursday as the city of Ottawa was announced as one of the top in the nation when it comes to flood prevention at the Illinois Association for flood plain and Stormwater Management conference in Peoria.
The city walked away with the rare Class Two recognition in the Community Rating System, which is a part of the National Flood Insurance Program, meaning residents also will be receiving a 40 percent reduction on flood insurance premiums when living in the flood plain and see taxpayer costs savings from damages avoided due to proactive flood planning. Sutfin was honored with 2019’s outstanding service award.
FEMA Region 5 Director James Joseph presented the award to Mayor Bob Eschbach and Sutfin, Ottawa’s flood plain manager and zoning official. Joseph said no community in his five-state region has achieved the distinction.
Sutfin said the distinction places Ottawa among around six other communities across the nation with the honor, only one community in the nation ranking higher.
The city joined CRS in 2009, two years after Sutfin was appointed the flood plain manager.
“Ten years ago,” Sutfin said with a smile. “That was the goal, a Class Two. And here it is 10 years later. We got it.”
Eschbach said the achievement has meant not having to send out rescue boats following a flood and is due in large part to the city staff, which includes the city’s additional flood plain managers Dave Noble and Mathew Stafford.
“There’s a great community development team and it’s been easier for me as I’ve let them do what has to be done,” Eschbach said. “They call me the leader but sometimes I just follow my team.”
Sutfin said he came into the job with little experience with regards to flood plains but was quickly caught up to speed by Illinois National Flood Insurance Program Coordinator of Flood Disaster Planning Paul Osman.
It became Sutfin’s job to record depth of water during floods and damage estimates as well as update homeowners on their options after a property is damaged more than 50 percent of its pre-flood market value.
A homeowner can relocate the home, elevate it two feet above base flood elevation or flood proof it.
“It’s horrible to tell people,” Osman said. “They’ve lost everything in the flood and Mike had to do a lot of those in The Flats especially.”
The Flats, now known as Fox River Park, was a residential location of repetitive flooding. The city was able to speed up a buyout program sponsored by the federal government wherein a hazard mitigation grant funding would pay a homeowner 75 percent of the market value while the city kicked in the additional 25 percent.
Buyouts began in 1998 and included the former Central School site after it flooded 10 years later.
“That was a terrible meeting when I had to sit the school board down and say we can’t move back into that school,” Sutfin said.
FEMA originally turned down requests for hazard mitigation grant funding but eventually, after discussions with the city, millions were given toward the relocation as well as additional state funds that saved local tax coffers from covering the cost.
The buyout plan as a whole was shown to save the city $9.5 million on a $4.8 million investment in a loss avoidance study.
When the city first joined into CRS in 2009, they were a Class 5.
From there, the city began developing a number of plans including a flood threat recognition and response plan. This plan indicated every flood hazard in the community as well as what certain responsibilities were of those in the community when water levels hit a certain point.
“Putting this together made our community what we call flood proof,” Sutfin said. “This becomes a drill where everyone in the city basically has this plan and when we get a flood you can see what happens and how to start communication.”
The plan came in particularly handy during a record flood in 2013 where cities were devastated by rising flood levels.
State Sen. Sue Rezin, R-Morris, recently recalled in a press release her surprise to see Ottawa relatively untouched.
“There was a total of $150 million in damage that stretched from one end of my district to the other,” Rezin said in a statement. “Every single community had damage except for Ottawa, who sits at the confluence of two rivers. They had zero dollars of damage. That just goes to show how impactful their efforts truly are.”
Rezin later formed the Illinois Valley Flood Resiliency Alliance that brought the community together and used Ottawa’s model for flood management and applied it to other communities.
“What’s even more impressive is the fact that Ottawa’s model is recognized by FEMA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as what other communities should be doing,” Rezin said. “This is a one-of-a-kind model for the rest of the country and it all started right here in Ottawa.”
It’s not been easy work and Sutfin said it all hinges on educating those involved as well as enforcing high regulatory standards that don’t always go over well with others but is done for the safety and security of the city’s resources.
Osman said it’s a standard that should be studied by many communities as flooding issues continue to worsen in Illinois.
“They’re ahead of the game planning for that and thinking toward the future,” Osman said.
“I work with every community in Illinois, all 900, and it’s very rare to find a community that has the staff Ottawa does and the political support Ottawa does,” he added.