Midwest floods may leave small towns smaller
Tiny Oakville, Iowa, is among those likely to lose residents, see tax base erode further.
Wayne Gerst's farm has been in his family for 62 years; now it's under eight feet of water.Skip to next paragraph
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"The water's going down slowly," says Mr. Gerst's wife, Joleen, after doing a flyover of the region Tuesday. She shows photos taken last week by boat: Water is up to the garage roof, and roses – "my best year ever for flowers" – peek out of the very top of the otherwise submerged arbor.
The Gersts plan to return when the water recedes. Many of their neighbors don't. What the future holds for the town of about 400 on the edge of the Iowa River is anyone's guess.
As swollen rivers burst over levees in the upper Midwest this month, many of the areas hardest hit are farm towns like Oakville. These hamlets now face particular challenges: the likelihood that some residents won't move back to already-dwindling towns, farm-dependent economies that may be hurt by crop loss, and a lack of resources or experienced town officials to navigate the red tape of state and federal assistance programs.
Some towns, flooded for the fourth or fifth time, may weigh whether to rebuild at all.
"Whatever magnet these communities had for retaining population gets weakened every time you have something like this," says David Swenson, an economist at Iowa State University, noting that many people in small towns no longer work there but stay because of family ties or history or cost of living. "Bring in a catastrophe like this, and that severs those ties and those rationales."
That's the case for many Oakville residents, who discuss future plans as they gather at Solid Rock Baptist Church in nearby Wapello for meals, showers, camaraderie, and information. Only a handful of them had flood insurance: Because their town avoided the big floods of 1993, and they were protected by a so-called 100-year levee, they felt safe.
"I was in floods when I was young. This was the fourth time and it's the last time," says Nancy Wehage, over lunch with her former neighbors at the church. She doubts she'll move back. "We're getting too old to do this stuff."
Oakville Mayor Benita Grooms, who also served as mayor back in '93, says it's too soon to know what the future holds for the town. Disaster teams are just now gaining access to the still-flooded town, so she doesn't yet know the full extent of the damage or what the plans are for rebuilding the town's levee.