Questions Linger After the Floods

Residents of poorer Midwest areas ask if they were sacrificed to save others

AS a sense that the worst of the great flood is over begins to spread, an undercurrent of anger that has slowly developed in the groups and small towns hit hardest has risen to the surface.

A vague perception that urban and high-income areas were more actively protected before and during the flood than rural and low-income areas has crept into conversations here.

"You know there's no better way to take pressure off the flood wall protecting St. Louis than to release the floodwaters here," a Prairie du Rocher, Ill., resident, who chose not to give his name, said last week.

While the remark was not accurate, it reflected the deep suspicion some small-town residents have that their towns would be quickly sacrificed to the flood waters. Residents also expressed frustration with the meager resources they usually have available to them to prepare for floods.

"We do the best we can with the funds we have," Lane Curten, who performs maintenance on one of the main levees in Prairie du Rocher, said. The levee has not been significantly improved since it was constructed in 1952.

"We were told we needed local matching funds [to build a levee], which for us meant raising $10 million. We have petitioned the governor over and over to have that lowered, but each time we were told we didn't qualify," Rick Williams, editor of the Ste. Genevieve Herald, said.

No levee was ever built in Ste. Genevieve, a historic Missouri town of 4,400. The result has been a frantic but successful month-long struggle by residents, volunteers and National Guardsmen to construct and maintain a sandbag levee protecting the town's historic downtown area.

Ste. Genevieve became part of United States House majority leader Richard Gephardt's (D) district in 1990. Representative Gephardt has had the town's matching requirement for a new levee lowered to $5 million. Other small Midwestern communities may not be so advantaged.

Many rural communities have seen their tax bases shrink with the collapse of family farming in the 1980s.

Small towns are also worried that the federal budget deficit will mean fewer federal dollars for the construction of new and better levee systems after the initial clean up this year.

"You could easily spend $500,000 repairing the levee damage we've got near my farm. I doubt there will be enough (federal disaster aid) money in this area. Most of it will go to the Mississippi," Ron Wood, a farmer in Solomon, Kan., said.

Solomon, a central Kansas town of 1,350 people, and the farms around it were severely flooded in mid-July by three tributaries of the Kansas river. "The country and state don't have that kind of money. It just won't get done," Mr. Wood predicted.

Questions are also beginning to be asked in Manhattan, Kan., a town of 33,200, where according to the Red Cross, the number of volunteers has dropped sharply three weeks after the Kansas River flooded over 800 houses.

"Over 1.3 million sandbags were used in Manhattan, but not one came to Fairmont (Trailer Park). The sandbags went to middle- and upper-income neighborhoods," Mike Starr, a disabled veteran who lived in the trailer park before it was flooded, said.

The trailer park, which was located in a flood plain, is also an example of the kind of possibly unsafe flood plain development that some here are questioning in the wake of the flood.

"The county commissioners should stop landlords from building trailer parks there," a local resident who chose not to give her name, said. "The owner of that trailer park was probably happy to let it go so he could collect the disaster money," she said.

Local residents said that land in the Kansas River flood plain is generally cheaper than land on higher ground. According to Manhattan's Emergency Preparedness Office, of the 887 homes that were flooded, 539 of them were mobile homes or trailers.

"When we walk in and out of here people look at us like we are bums. It's not like we caused this," Mr. Starr said, standing outside a Red Cross shelter.

"I don't know where I'm going to go or what I'm going to do," he said. "I just feel like we were ignored."

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