Posts Tagged ‘move the town’

Photo: Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
According to the Christian Science Monitor, Valmeyer, Illinois, “was overwhelmed by a 100 year flood event in 1993. Townspeople wanted to stay together and decided to move their town 2 miles away and about 400 feet up.”

Floods are creating havoc in Europe right now, and even where I live, there are daily warnings about rising rivers. These and other dramatic weather events are being blamed on climate change. The problems will only increase, so what to do? For one thing, stop putting everything back the way it was before a flood.

I really admire the pragmatism of oft-flooded Vameyer, Illinois, which bit the bullet and moved the whole town.

Doug Struck has the story at the Christian Science Monitor. “It was 1:30 a.m. Dennis Knobloch stood at the top of a hillside cemetery – ‘that cemetery right there,’ he says, pointing over his shoulder. The water was coming. He and others from the town had worked for weeks, sandbagging levees, bulldozing rock and rubble, to try to hold the swelling river. They had failed. His radio crackled: The last levee was gone.

“ ‘It’s your call, mayor,’ the utility chief said. 

“Mr. Knobloch gave the order: Cut the power. He watched as the town below him – his town – flickered to dark, street by street, engulfed by the night and the Mississippi River.

“ ‘It was the hardest thing I did in my life,’ the former mayor says now. 

“Hundreds of small Midwest towns like Valmeyer were caught in the Great Flood of 1993. Unlike most of the others, the survival of Valmeyer – born anew, 2 miles away in a cornfield about 400 feet higher – is getting renewed interest 28 years later. …

“The planners look at the trends and say a pullback from vulnerable areas is inevitable. Call it ‘managed retreat.’ Last year in the United States, 1.7 million people had to flee natural disasters, and many found they could not return to their homes. The trends are expected to accelerate.

“ ‘Valmeyer remains the poster child of managed retreat in the U.S. up to the present,’ says Nicholas Pinter, a professor and associate director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at University of California, Davis.

“There have been dozens of complete or partial relocations of towns in American history, Dr. Pinter writes in the journal Issues in Science and Technology. Many were of Native American or Alaskan Inuit communities that were in vulnerable locations to start.

Other towns have repeatedly fled rivers – Niobrara, Nebraska, hauled its houses by horse and wagon away from flooding in the Missouri River in 1881 and moved again in 1971.

“But many proposed relocations did not succeed. Valmeyer did, with a few asterisks. 

“ ‘They made it happen. It wasn’t a bunch of ivory tower or Washington, D.C., experts,’ says Dr. Pinter.

“When the floods overtopped the levees in August 1993, half of Valmeyer, 30 miles south of St. Louis, was plunged under 14 feet of water. The other half on the sloped terrain left houses holding a foot to 8 feet of water. 

“The town had flooded three times before in the 1940s, cleaned up, and survived. This was different. The floodwaters stayed long enough to become fetid, the houses full of rotting debris and mold. A second crest hit a month later.

“ ‘The smell. I can’t describe the smell. I’ll never forget it,’ says Susie Dillenberger, who lived by one of the levees. She recalls barges bringing rock and rubble up the river to try to reinforce the barrier as the water rose. She worked with other volunteers to fill sandbags. She slept with her family in one room in case they had to flee suddenly. … They labored until a mandatory evacuation was declared and the river rose in their vacated houses.

“As the townsfolk waited they stayed with friends or relatives – and eventually in trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, quickly nicknamed “FEMAville.” And they met in the school gyms of nearby towns to begin to think of what to do. As the receding river revealed its damage, the concept of moving the whole town took shape.

” ‘We took the idea to the residents,’ recalls Mr. Knobloch, an investment and insurance broker who four months earlier had been reelected mayor. ‘We said we have no idea how to do this, and no idea if it’s going to work. We’re not even sure yet what’s involved. But if we try it, will you be willing to be a part of it?’ 

“Nearly 70% of the people said yes. Many had grown up in Valmeyer, and had families there for two or three generations. ‘They didn’t want to see the town go away,’ he says.

“Soon they focused on a 500-acre cornfield on a bluff 2 miles away. Residents split into a bevy of committees to work with planners, engineers, and architects. Within two months, Mr. Knobloch went to Washington with printed plans drawn up by the townsfolk, and asked for money. The politicians were impressed.

“Eventually, state and federal governments pledged about 80% of the $33 million cost. The town bought the land on the bluff, pulled numbers from a hat to lottery off lots, and began construction. Mr. Knobloch quit his job – his wife, a microbiologist, supported the family – and worked full time through all the permits, planning, and problems of creating a town from nothing.

“They dealt with 22 agencies, unexpected limestone sinkholes, protected bat species, and a hurried archaeological excavation when Native American artifacts were found. …

“Looking back on it now, with what we were able to achieve, to keep the community together and keep the people together – definitely, it was well worth the time and effort.’ “

Read about both upsides and downsides — and about the people who chose to stay put — at the Monitor, here.

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