Coping When a River Comes to Town

IN the aftermath of the Great Flood of 1993, federal disaster officials visited the soggiest river towns and made an offer: Leave the floodplain, and we'll foot the bill.

Of the 30 or so towns that took the deal, few embraced it as wholeheartedly as Valmeyer, Ill. Its 900 residents opted to move the entire community to a high bluff three miles further east of the Mississippi River.

But over in Commerce, Mo., the federal relocation offer met resistance. Village leaders there, intent on preserving their 200-year-old ancestral home, voted to stay put.

Today, as the river floods again, the results are predictable: Valmeyer is dry and Commerce is soaked.

But this is not a parable of the wise town and the foolish town. For all their foresight, most people in ''new'' Valmeyer are still living in trailer homes, waiting for the federal government to pave their roads. Morale is low all over.

Two towns endure

Instead, these two villages illustrate a different point: Even in the wake of the century's worst flood, residents have made great sacrifices to stick together.

As more Americans move into freshly minted suburbs, and as technology continues to lessen the significance of geography, visits to Commerce and Valmeyer show the enduring and endearing traits of small town culture.

''People ask me why I want to stay in a place where everybody knows each other's underwear size,'' says Rick Murtz, sitting on a stool at the Corner Tap in new Valmeyer. ''They don't seem to understand that this is my home. I'm a river rat just like everybody else here, and I'm proud of that. Some of my best memories are of being out on that river.''

Sitting in a loose circle of plastic chairs outside the Commerce Baptist Church, 15 weary residents and three dogs -- rendered homeless again by the flood of '95 -- chase their sorrows with laughter and cold pop. ''We're all in this mess together,'' says David Thompson, the church's pastor. ''None of us has any walls left to divide us.''

Here in Commerce, about 60 families (fully half the town) lost everything this year: some of whom were still recovering from the flood of 1993 that soaked 67 houses, destroyed three, and drove property values down to the point that few could afford to move if they wanted to.

David Mayberry, whose house survived only because it is perched on a 10-foot stack of cement blocks, putt-putted around the water-sodden streets last week in his flatboat. In some areas, only the tips of stop-sign poles were visible and the eerie hulks of rooftops poked out of the water like strange tar-paper atolls.

According to the Reverend Thompson, Commerce, founded in 1792 by French trappers, is one of the oldest towns west of the Mississippi. It was long home to river pilots and shippers, and once boomed with river trade. Now, he says, most people make their living on construction crews or factories outside Commerce.

Even as the water reached impossible levels, the people here filled more than 90,000 sandbags. ''You can be sure,'' says Julie Upchurch, ''that we did our best.''

But just beneath the surface here lies a tinge of bitterness. According to Mr. Mayberry, when the federal government made a relocation offer, 67 families signed a petition supporting it. But the five-member village board voted 3 to 2 to reject it, in hopes of saving the town.

''That council,'' Mayberry says, ''has been replaced.'' The new chairman of the board, Roy Jones, supports the move.

But with more rain forecast for this week, it is likely to be months before the town can begin the slow process of pulling up stakes.

After the flood in Valmeyer, the seven-member village board surveyed the townspeople and found that two-thirds supported the $19 million relocation offer. ''There was no large opposition,'' says Dennis Knobloch, the city's administrator.

Mr. Knobloch notes that ever since the flood in 1976, there had been a moratorium on new construction in the city. ''This town has flooding in its history. We didn't want our children or even our grandchildren to have to go through this.''

When asked how the decision to move has changed the town, Knobloch says it is ''hard to fathom'' what the changes will be until ''we get to a point where we can call this a town again.''

As he explains it, 70 lots have been sold in the ''new'' Valmeyer, and a handful of houses have been completed. But without navigable roads, only four families have been able to move in. The balance, he says, are living with relatives or in a nearby trailer park set up after the flood of 1993 that residents have dubbed ''Femaville'' after its owner: the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Today, new Valmeyer is barely recognizable save for its new road sign, a blue trailer with a flagpole that serves as city hall, and a row of billboards showing the layout of the yet-to-be-built school, senior housing complex, parks, and central business district.

According to Knobloch, there have been numerous holdups. At one point, construction was halted when state officials discovered that the site included part of the habitat of the endangered Indiana Cave Bat.

Most recently, he says, the Economic Development Authority refused to release funds to pave the roads until the city buys the mineral rights to the site from a local quarry.

Valmeyer's experience does not flatter the federal disaster system. A 1993 study by FEMA found that 27 separate federal agencies play some role in flood-relief efforts, and that there are rarely any links between federal and local efforts.

''The rule book is not set up to work well with a project like this,'' Knobloch says. ''If this kind of relocation is going to be successful, there will have to be reforms.''

Knobloch, who resigned as mayor last month to take the salaried position of administrator, says the decision to move was the right one -- even though, ironically, old Valmeyer is as dry as a box of crackers this year.

Down at the former town, stringy weeds tickle flood-wracked houses as they await the bulldozer. Local children rollerblade in the streets while adults play ball on fields the city keeps mowed for that purpose.

Until the new town is completed, Valmeyerites have been holding graduation ceremonies and parades on old Main Street.

The right choice

Although she rarely ventures down to her old house, Josephine Riechmann says she sometimes longs for it. ''When they said we would build a new town, I thought it would happen next week,'' she says.

But Mrs. Riechmann, like most people here, agrees that they did the right thing. ''The town will never be quite the same, but this has brought us closer,'' she says. ''Come back in a year when we have roads and check on us.''

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