No More Rowboats on Main Street

Washed out by last year's Mississippi River flooding, the citizens of Valmeyer, Ill., plan to move their entire town to higher ground

RESIGNED to the fact that there is no way to beat the mighty Mississippi, the entire town of Valmeyer, Ill., is picking up stakes and moving to higher ground.

Before last summer's flood, Valmeyer had a population of 900 people, mostly farmers and commuters who worked in St. Louis, 35 miles away. But almost no one has returned to live here since last August's flood. Instead, Valmeyer is relocating to 500 acres of farmland on a bluff about a mile east of the existing town.

``Valmeyer II - A New Beginning'' reads a sign at the site of the new town. Inside a temporary building, Mayor Dennis Knobloch sits at a large table looking over blueprints with several officials from the state planning commission. They are working out plans to transform these fields of swaying green grass into a second chance for Valmeyer.

Smaller-scale relocations have occurred before, but this is the largest migration out of the flood plain on record, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

``We're writing the textbook as we go along,'' says Mayor Knobloch, who has taken a leave from his insurance job to coordinate the project.

After nearly a decade of fighting flood-plain legislation that restricted new building in Valmeyer, Knobloch's views on living in flood-prone areas have come full circle in the past year. ``There's no way that you're going to contain the river,'' he says. ``After seeing what happened last summer, I have to say that at some point in time, it's going to happen again.''

When Knobloch ordered an evacuation of the town on July 31, he certainly did not intend to walk away for good. But in the darkness of morning on Aug. 2, the river overwhelmed two levees and shot right through the middle of Valmeyer. Up to 16 feet of water filled some buildings and homes.

``We basically became a new river channel for about two months,'' Knobloch says. ``That's the reason that we wound up with so much more damage than other communities.'' More than 300 homes and businesses were destroyed.

Today, Valmeyer is little more than a ghost town. The Farmers State Bank on Main Street, which dates back to 1909, is boarded up and has a ``No Trespassing'' sign posted on the door. Deep tire tracks still show in the dried mud of what used to be carefully cared-for lawns, marking the final retreat of families who loaded up their belongings and fled 10 months ago. In front of one dilapidated home, a battered American flag sags in a stiffly dried heap.

Ghost town

Outside an abandoned building that still displays his name across the front, Henry Niebruegge shovels debris into a pile. Mr. Niebruegge owned this car dealership for nearly 50 years. ``I started selling Chryslers and Plymouths here in 1935,'' he says. Niebruegge points to a few boards in the corner of an office. ``Here's all that's left of my old rolltop desk,'' he says. ``The rest of it washed away.'' The waterline shows above the doorway.

Niebruegge's home, just around the corner, was also destroyed. ``I spent 56 years in the same home with the same wife,'' he says. ``We loved it here.''

Throughout town, orange X's mark houses that have been declared ``substantially damaged.'' FEMA regulations prohibit rebuilding these homes. Without such restrictions, Valmeyer probably would not be relocating. ``We realized it would probably mean the end of the town,'' Knobloch says. ``At that point, it was a choice to either allow people to go off on their own and scatter to the winds, or we could put together some sort of organized relocation effort.''

In September, the mayor held a community meeting and 65 percent of those attending voted in favor of relocation. Knobloch immediately appointed seven committees made up of 80 residents who began meeting several times a week. By November, they had a preliminary plan for the move.

The Southwestern Illinois Planning Commission helped draw up plans for the new town. ``We've taken the ideas of our local residents and then the planning commission has helped us put that into something concrete,'' Knobloch says. ``Once we got the plans put together, we started with the tangled maze of trying to deal with all the state and federal agencies and put together the financing.''

The city paid $3 million for the new site. ``We're selling lots back to the residents so they're paying for the land acquisition themselves,'' Knobloch says. More than half of the 350 residential lots have been sold.

MAR Printing Forms, the town's largest employer, has already relocated its 100 employees to a new facility at the site. Grading and road construction began last week, and the mayor expects to break ground on the first new homes soon after the flood's anniversary in August.

The cost of providing the new town's infrastructure of utilities and roads is estimated at $12 million, with FEMA and other federal or state agencies providing 95 percent of that funding. Individuals will bear the cost of building new homes and businesses.

Some Valmeyer families have already relocated to other areas. Niebruegge and his wife, for example, will not be moving to the new Valmeyer; they've already built a house in a neighboring town. ``We thought we better get a home while we were able,'' he says. ``It won't be the same Valmeyer anyhow.''

Hope for displaced families

But some people are still living in temporary housing, waiting to start over with Valmeyer II. ``We're anticipating that by the time we get things up and running here, we'll have about two-thirds of the population left,'' Knobloch says.

FEMA has provided about 250 mobile homes for displaced families to live in rent-free for 18 months. Groups of the white trailers sit in stark contrast to the green farmland all around.

At one mobile-home location, Dennis Brandt is fertilizing the few sprouts of grass in the dirt outside the trailer where he, his wife, and three children have lived since October. The three-bedroom trailer is cramped, he says, ``but we're making the best of it.'' This spring they planted flowers and spread grass seed. ``I just don't want to look at dirt all summer long,'' Mr. Brandt says.

The Brandts have bought Lot no. 15 at the new Valmeyer site. They are looking forward to breaking ground on their new home in August and moving in before Christmas. ``Everything will be brand new,'' Mr. Brandt says.

But Sandy Thompson, who is living in a neighboring trailer with her two children, is moving to Dallas rather than to the new Valmeyer. ``Taxes are going to be outrageous,'' she says. ``They're going to have to pay for all those new streets and everything somehow.''

While a number of former Valmeyer residents have moved on, others are determined to stay and rebuild their community. The local school has set up temporary quarters at the county fairgrounds, about five miles from the old town.

``We're running buses a lot more than we normally would,'' says principal Jim Pflasterer, adding that spending a year in temporary classroom quarters has put a strain on the school's budget.

But many of the 500 students were determined to keep attending their school no matter what. Several parents who temporarily moved to St. Louis continued transporting their children back here for school. ``People felt very strongly about keeping the community and kids together,'' Mr. Pflasterer says.

By the fall of 1995, school officials expect to move students into a new school building in the middle of the relocated town. The old school, along with all the houses included in the government's buyout program, will be demolished this summer. ``It will all be turned into a park and open green space,'' Knobloch says. Next time the Mississippi comes calling, Valmeyer's residents intend to be safely settled on the bluff.

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