I first interviewed Tammy Gunnels and her husband Ronnie almost three years ago. They had flooded ten times at that point even though they weren’t in a flood zone. The Gunnels are devout people and prayed for a buyout. Friday, their prayers were answered. Here is the story of how their faith and persistence paid off in the long run. This interview also included Morgan Lumbley, the Disaster Recovery Manager for Montgomery County who guided the Gunnels through the application process. Ironically, the skies unleashed torrential rains just before the closing. But this time, everyone was smiling instead of worrying.
Bob: You flooded 13 times in 11 years. Tell me how you finally got the buyout offer.
Tammy: After Harvey, one of my cleaning clients who’s an attorney vowed to find a way to get us a buyout. She put me in touch with the Office of Emergency Management for Montgomery County. Initially, they told me there were no open programs available.
Tammy: That was in 2017. Then in May of 2019, we flooded twice – on May 3rd and again on May 7th. Once more, I contacted their office and went to commissioners meetings, begging for a buyout. But nothing happened. After we flooded a third time that year during Imelda, I called their office just to scream and holler and cry into the phone. But this time, Morgan answered. I told her our story and by the end of the conversation, she was crying and promising that she was going to do everything she could.
Patience Finally Pays Off
Bob: And she wrote a beautiful note.
Tammy: She put it on her computer where it stayed until today. It says, “No one before Miss Tammy. Number one priority.” Later, she called back and said, “Look, I’ve found a couple programs. Which do you want to go with?” I said, “I don’t care. The quickest. Just get us out of this house.”
Initially, we thought the buyout was going to be done in early 2020. But it kept dragging out. Red tape. Then COVID hit. That changed everything. I would email Morgan nights, weekends, whenever it rained, asking “When?” But never once did she get irritated or say, “I’m doing the best I can.”
All throughout biblical scripture, it says we do not understand His ways or His timing or His plans. If we had been bought out before now, no way would we have gotten the offer we got.
We got full current market value. We hoped the county would pay off the mortgage, which was about $60,000 but FEMA covered full market value…$250,000.
Bob: How did you find these programs, Morgan?
FEMA’s Flood Mitigation Assistance Program
Morgan: There are a couple funding programs for buyouts. The one we got the Gunnels in is FEMA’s Flood Mitigation Assistance Program. It is a “cycle funding” opportunity – available every year. But it’s a competitive grant. So, we have to fill out an application that names the homes you want to buy out – and their values – on the front end. The county collected data for “severe repetitive loss” homes. And when we won the grant, those were the people who got offers.
But buyouts are probably the slowest of all the mitigation processes. So, sometimes people drop out before deals close. And when they do, that opens up room for others.
Bob: Is that how Tammy and Ronnie got in?
Morgan: Yes. Tammy and Ronnie could also have qualified through a HUD program, but we focused on FEMA’s, because they had a current National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) policy. It was also based on their flood losses. They were considered a “severe repetitive loss.”
Active Flood Insurance Key to Buyout
Not counting our own personal funds, NFIP spent three quarters of a million on that property. They could have bought us out five times.Tammy Gunnels
Tammy: People said we should just walk away. But we literally had no place to go. When you flood, yeah, you get insurance. But the lien holder on your home gets the money. The lien holder releases it in increments so that you make the repairs. And they inspect the repairs before releasing the next payment. There IS no walking away. Most people don’t understand that. You don’t have money to go anywhere.
We had already drained Ronnie’s 401K and every bit of savings we had. We’re at the age that we’re supposed to be looking forward to retirement. But we don’t. I have nothing left from my kids from when they were growing up. The childhood memories – all those silly little pictures they make for you in birthday cards – I have none of that left. The floods took everything. This has aged us physically and mentally by years.
Ronnie: When we first got insurance, it was fairly cheap and then once we flooded, it skyrocketed. We were just going to handle the losses ourselves. But our neighbor said, “If you’re not insured, you can’t be on any buyout list. That woke us up. We said, “We’ve got to get back on insurance.”
The 13th Time is the Charm
Bob: So Morgan, put this in perspective for me. Flooding 13 times. Where does that rank?
Morgan: 13 is a lot.
Bob: Is it a record?
Morgan: Of those that have come across my desk, it definitely is! Five or six is pretty common, maybe even seven. But 13 is a lot. I think that’s what got me the most. To hear that someone has flooded that many times!
Tammy: Morgan says she’s the low person on the totem pole, but she’s on a throne in my heart forever.
Home Will Be Demolished and Lot Turned to Green Space
Bob: What will Montgomery County do with the home you just bought?
Morgan: Demolish it. The land will be regraded and then it becomes green space to restore the natural flood function. Nothing else. Another residential structure cannot be built on that land.
“I just want to be a normal person again!”
Bob: Tammy, where do you go with your life from here?
Tammy: I don’t think we’ve even thought about it. For the last 13 years, we haven’t been able to plan anything.
Ronnie: We’re just hoping we don’t freak out every time it rains.
Tammy: I just want to go to sleep at night without pacing the floor, wondering when the next flood will hit, and whether the water will come in through the front door, the back door or the patio. I just want to be a normal person again.
Advice for Home Buyers: Research, Ask Right Questions
Bob: What advice would you give people looking for a home to buy?
Morgan: Research! Research is the biggest thing. Diligent research. Too many people take information at face value. They look at the seller’s disclosure. And it asks, “Has the home flooded?” But it doesn’t say when. And it doesn’t say how many times. And no one has to tell you that. Also, the damage amount is not indicated anywhere. And no one has to disclose that either.
If you’re looking at a house, go over to the neighbors. Knock on doors and ask, “Did you flood? Do you know if that house flooded? How high did the water get in your yard? Those are questions that you want to ask.
Ronnie: I’m guilty. I didn’t ask the right questions.
Morgan: A lot of people, when they go looking for their forever home, they’re looking at granite countertops. Is the backyard big enough for the kids? But the questions they really need to ask are, “Am I near a flood plain? Has this house been flooded? How many times? How high? Those kinds of things.”
Tammy: She is exactly right. EXACTLY.
Posted by Bob Rehak on October 1, 2021, based on an interview with Tammy and Ronnie Gunnels, and Morgan Lumbley
1494 Days since Hurricane Harvey