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How a flood-prone village in the U.S. moved to higher, drier ground

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Mon, 14 Jul 2014 07:00 GMT
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A 1993 map of plans for a new Valmeyer, Illinois, located on a bluff above the old flood-hit town. Photo courtesy of Dennis Knobloch.
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VALMEYER, Illinois (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Hidden among tracts of farmland here in the fertile Mississippi River floodplain are asphalt chunks of what was once a road. In the shadow of a steep hill lies the floor of an old school gymnasium.

There was once a village here, home to 900 people. But shortly after midnight on August 2, 1993, the swollen Mississippi River – normally a few miles to the west - burst through the levee protecting the community.

Residents had evacuated the village two days earlier, so no one was hurt. But within hours of the breach, parts of Valmeyer were under 6 feet (2 metres) of water. The flood level in the lowest-lying parts of the village peaked at 16 feet (nearly 5 metres), displacing 2,500 people from Valmeyer and nearby farms.

Valmeyer had for centuries suffered from floods, but the Great Flood of 1993 – as it came to be known – was one of the worst in recent history, inundating 20 million acres (80,000 square kilometres) along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. The flooding caused $15 billion in damage across nine U.S. Midwestern states, including Illinois, and destroyed 10,000 homes.

“Most people didn’t want to ever have to go through an event like this again, and they didn’t want their kids and grandkids and future generations to have to go through an event like this again,” said Dennis Knobloch, a county official who was the village mayor in 1993 and saw his community through the flood and its aftermath.

So Valmeyer did what many vulnerable, disaster-prone communities around the world have considered: It moved to safer ground.

Climate change, coupled with deforestation to make way for cities and farms and population growth that results in people living in increasingly vulnerable places, is leading to more severe and frequent natural disasters, scientists say. Those disasters are forcing millions to relocate temporarily or even permanently to safer areas. An estimated 31.7 million people were displaced by weather-related disasters in 2012 alone, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre.

These migrants are on the move in some cases because of government mandates, and in other cases because their homes and property have vanished completely.

In Valmeyer, nine out of ten homes were irreparable following the 1993 floods. Under federal guidelines, a home built after a flood on the same plot of land must be a foot (30 cm) above the base flood elevation – which would have meant building on 12- to 15-foot-high (3.5- to 4.5m-high) stilts.

“The only way we’ll be able to keep the town intact is if we move it because if we don’t, a lot of the people are probably going to scatter to the winds, and Valmeyer would cease to exist,” Knobloch recalled telling residents.

Sixty percent voted to move to a new Valmeyer.

LOGISTICS OF MOVING A VILLAGE

Valmeyer lay at the foot of a steep 400-foot-high bluff, atop which lay vast swathes of farmland, so a move up to higher and drier land did not necessarily mean a move far away.

Village administrators set their sights on a 500-acre (200-hectare) piece of land, and the family that had been farming it for 150 years agreed to sell it for $6,000 per acre ($14,800 per hectare).

“Thing is, we didn’t have a dime at that point,” Knobloch said during an interview in his office in the neighbouring town of Waterloo. Most people had been staying with friends and family, renting homes or living in trailer homes provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Yet by Nov. 1, 1993, determined citizen committees had mapped out preliminary plans for everything from sewers to streetlights, including residential areas, the new school and Valmeyer’s Catholic, Protestant and Baptist churches.

Armed with the drafts, Knobloch met with government agencies in the state capital Springfield and with Congress in Washington, to see if their plans were feasible and to ask for support and advice.

In the second week of December, villagers held a groundbreaking ceremony on the new land, and hopped aboard a tractor to tour the grounds and pick their new plots, which were priced at half the market rate – 50 cents a square foot ($5 per square meter).

Over the next few months – to the relief of residents who had lost their homes and already paid for land in a village that did not yet exist – a government buyout program paid residents the pre-flood market value for their flooded homes, a total of $11.7 million for 334 plots of land.

BUILDING BACK BETTER

Word spread that Valmeyer was planning a move and even before floodwaters had receded experts were calling Knobloch with advice about how to build back the village in a sustainable way.

“I was on a cell phone, and I was up in my knees in water, standing out in town doing something... and I said, ‘What the hell is sustainable and who cares?’”

But after meeting with “a bunch of crazy-minded liberals” convened by President Bill Clinton’s Council on Sustainable Development, as well as Clinton himself and his cabinet, Valmeyer residents tweaked their plans.

They re-angled the homes on their blueprints to capture the maximum amount of sunlight; added superinsulated windows to capture light yet keep out the cold. Some homes added water-filled pipes buried deep underground to save energy and money on heating and cooling.

While the old Valmeyer sprawled across 600 acres (240 hectares), the post-flood village was tightly planned on 280 acres (110 hectares), with tidy homes walking distance from the town center.

A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT

The first people moved into the new Valmeyer in April 1995. The following year, the new school opened, bringing the village to life.

Nearly two decades later, Valmeyer is a case study for a community’s response to repeated natural disasters.

Its story has been told in a musical performed in New York City in 2001. The tale also is now on display in Washington, DC, at the National Building Museum’s Designing for Disaster exhibit, continuing through August 2015.

“Valmeyer’s story is a simple yet powerful one: If you’re frequently at risk for flooding, move out of harm’s way,” Christine Canabou, the associate curator for the exhibit, told Thomson Reuters Foundation by email.

“Rather than rebuild the same old way — dams and levees have been the historical given — the community, with support from local, state, and federal agencies, fundamentally questioned how and where to build. Rather than control nature, they decided to adapt to and accommodate the inevitability of more floods,” Canabou said, noting that Valmeyer was the first and largest of four communities to move after the 1993 flood.

Included in the exhibit are pieces of a 54-foot-long (16-meter-long) mural from Valmeyer’s public library.

Painted on a layer of plaster by students and residents with the assistance of visiting artist Olivia Gude, the mural shows Valmeyer’s history. A river was painted across its entire length, with the central theme being “a river runs through it”. It was dedicated in May 1993.

“Sixty-eight days later, the river ran through it. The mural was completely under water during the flood,” Knobloch said.

The plaster mural fell off the wall and shattered into pieces, which Knobloch collected into boxes and saved – just in case they, like the town, could one day be pieced together again.

See our slideshow on Valmeyer's move uphill, including images of the original flood, here.

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