Town under siege by river seeks buyout
ST. LOUIS (AP) — For 40 years, Shirley Moss has lived in the same home in a tiny southeast Missouri town, but as the sandbags piled up yet again, she didn’t hesitate when asked if she would take a government buyout.
“In a New York minute,” Moss said from her double-wide mobile home in Dutchtown, which sits in a Mississippi River bottom. “I’m 75 years old — I can’t fight this.”
Flooding has become a fact of life for many quiet towns like Dutchtown, where 100 or so residents live unprotected against the worst the water has to offer. Fed by days of drenching downpours, the Mississippi is again chugging at high levels, raising new fears that days of sandbagging won’t suffice against the rush.
Residents of Missouri, Indiana and Michigan are trying to stem the tide of murky river water, and towns along the Illinois River — Peoria, Beardstown and LaGrange — are setting new high-water records. By Wednesday, problems remained plentiful if not catastrophic.
Floodwaters had begun an inch-by-inch retreat in inundated Peoria, Ill., after the Illinois River crested Tuesday at 29.35 feet, eclipsing a 70-year record. In central Indiana, more heavy rain through Wednesday morning prompted a request for voluntary evacuation along the Tippecanoe River near Lafayette. The Grand River at Grand Rapids, Mich., which reached record levels, was expected to fall below flood stage Thursday and some of the hundreds of people evacuated were starting to return home.
Along the Mississippi, the biggest concern was that the flood is expected to linger into May, potentially straining longstanding earthen levees and hastily-built sandbag walls. No towns were in imminent danger.
Dutchtown was dry, but thousands of sandbags were at the ready in anticipation of a crest Thursday 10 feet above flood stage.
Doyle Parmer, who doubles as town clerk and emergency management chief and called “Dutchtown Doyle” in these parts, figured that if the predicted crest holds, the town about 120 miles southeast of St. Louis will be spared.
As far as he’s concerned, the town shouldn’t even exist.
Parmer said Dutchtown has been “jumping through hoops” for three years seeking a buyout from the Federal Emergency Management Agency — property owners sell to the local city or county, which uses money from FEMA for most of the purchase; grants often fund the rest. Bought-out land cannot be developed — in most cases it is set aside for green space or a park.
He’s hopeful the latest round of flooding will speed the process.
But in order for that money to arrive, towns must prove that flooding is frequent and devastating enough for a buyout to be cost-effective, and Dutchtown hasn’t filed a suitable one yet, said Melissa Janssen, mitigation branch chief for the FEMA region that includes Missouri.
Parmer said they’ll try again. Though he, like Moss, is ready to get out.
“Sell the house, cut the grass and get the hell out of Dodge,” he said.
It isn’t yet clear how many places will seek buyouts from the 2013 floods, but FEMA said the program has been a huge success. More than $2 billion has been spent to buy out nearly 40,000 properties since the devastating Mississippi River floods of 1993, but FEMA said money is saved in the long run: When the next flood comes, taxpayers aren’t on the hook for sandbagging, emergency operations and cleanup.
According to a 2005 study conducted for Congress, every dollar spent on disaster mitigation saves $4 in future costs.
A Dutchtown buyout would dissolve the town. Farther down river in southeast Missouri, the village of Pinhook wants to relocate as a community, just to higher ground.
Pinhook has a rich history, founded by black farmers nearly 100 years ago. It was essentially wiped away when the Army Corps of Engineers intentionally exploded the Birds Point levee near New Madrid in 2011, flooding 130,000 acres to relieve what was then record flooding on the Mississippi.
Today, only the shells of a few homes remain. Vandals have stolen metal for scrap and even set fire to the Union Baptist Church, where most of the community met every Sunday.
Village chairwoman Debra Tarver said Pinhook residents have dispersed, waiting to see if FEMA will approve the buyout of 17 residential properties and two public buildings.
“They (corps officials) have control to blow us out any time they want,” said Tarver, a lifelong resident. “We just can’t keep doing that.”
Another southeast Missouri town, Morehouse, also considered a buyout after the 2011 flood but opted against it, even though 75 homes were so badly damaged they had to be demolished.
Mayor Pete Leija said city officials were put off by FEMA’s prohibition of rebuilding on bought-out land.
“We don’t need property all over town just sitting idle,” Leija said.
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