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$5.3M grant set to ease Watseka flood woes

May 19, 2019

WATSEKA — Because the Iroquois River cannot be controlled, the city of Watseka will do the next best thing — remove houses routinely in the path of floodwaters.

The city has learned the Illinois Department of Natural Resources has awarded a $5.3-million flood mitigation grant which will clear the way for the city to purchase 65 homes routinely endangered by floodwaters.

Watseka Mayor John Allhands said the city has been working for nearly 18 months to secure the grant. Owner-occupied homes will be the first properties targeted and the second phase will be rental properties.

If all goes as hoped, the mayor said the process could take up to four years. He said he hopes to remove homes in groups of five to 10 so demolition costs could be reduced.

The grant will be used to buy homes flooded out in the past at pre-flooding market value. The program is voluntary, meaning owners will not be forced to sell.

Property owners who do not want to sell, must elevate their properties at their own cost. An official with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources noted 54 dwellings have been elevated within the past 10 years.

Houses purchased through the grant would then be demolished and the location would not be used for permanent structures ever again.

The city will hire an appraisal company. Once the funds are in place and the appraisers are on board, the process will begin. The grant program will be overseen by former Watseka Mayor Bob Harwood.

The mayor said Harwood is expected to work 5-7 hours a week at the rate of $20 an hour.

When the appraisal process is completed, the city will complete the purchase process with the owner.

Watseka has been hit with four so-called 100-year floods since 2008: 2008, 2014, 2015 and 2018, the mayor said.

“People rebuild their homes, buy new things and they are destroyed again,” Allhands said. The cycle, he said, had to be broken.

“Some people’s homes have been in limbo over a year as to what will happen. It’s time to get this resolved,” he said. “This is a way to give folks some money and get a fresh start.”

Ron Davis, DNR’s flood plain program administrator, said in communities where this program has been completed, flooding issues have been largely eliminated.

“This is about removing people from harm’s way and suffering. Watseka floods pretty quickly,” Davis said. He noted Ottawa went through a similar program and has had great success.

Allhands said properties could start being purchased and demolished as early as this summer. He said there are between 60-65 owner-occupied properties in the targeted area on the north and west side of Watseka. He noted that are another 50 or so rental properties there as well.

“We basically have to move this town east. That’s the high part of our town,” he said.

According to 2017 figures, Watseka has a population of 4,919.

Allhands said he does have concerns of the city losing a significant portion of its population if people sell and leave. He said the city is looking for areas to build new subdivisions.

“This could definitely have an impact on our populations. We do not want to lose that population, but we are trying to make the best of a bad situation,” he said.

Eric Morales, a certified appraiser from Kankakee and Iroquois counties, will assess the value of the house. A state appraiser will then examine the appraisal.

Based on the appraisal, the city will make an offer. If the property owner does not agree, they can get a second appraisal at their own cost. After a review, one of the appraisals will be selected.

Once the value has been agreed upon and the sale is completed, the property will be turned over to the state.

Once the project is completed — the mayor believes it could take three to four years — the property will be turned back over to the ownership of Watseka. The mayor said plans have not yet been formed as to how the property will be used.

He did note the property can never be sold or built on.

“I can’t begin to put myself in the places these people are in,” he said. “My heart really goes out to them,” he said.

Whatever the cause — global warming, lost wetlands, river silt, more commercial and residential development — flooding has certainly become a common problem and is happening in areas where it had rarely happened before.

“There’s a good possibility other communities along these rivers will be facing the same situation in coming years,” the mayor said.{div id=”article-section-header”}{div id=”article-header”}{div class=”article-header-title”}{h1 class=”article-headline”} {/h1}

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