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A flood forced this town to move. It could be a model for others impacted by climate change

CNN logo CNN 7/17/2019 By Stephanie Elam, CNN
a small house surrounded by water © Courtesy of Dennis Knobloch

The floodwaters dismantled homes, businesses, the school and churches.

As the swollen Mississippi River spilled over the levee, the town of Valmeyer, Illinois, was buried beneath 16 feet of water that stuck around for months.

That was 25 years ago, during the Great Flood of 1993.

Vowing to never let that happen again, Valmeyer made a difficult decision: to move most of the town off the floodplain to higher ground.

Now, as other communities face increased flooding due to the impact of the climate crisis, some are coming to Valmeyer for guidance.

Rebuilding after the Great Flood

Some 30 miles south of St. Louis, Valmeyer -- which was founded in 1909 -- is nestled between the Mississippi River to the west and the bluffs to the east.

Before the flood, people here weren't worried about the Mississippi, the river so integral to their livelihood. But after the '93 flood, the river became a source of anxiety.

"I didn't think that we would ever flood," said Dennis Knobloch, who was mayor of Valmeyer in 1993. "I was knee-deep in water standing on that levee and I was still confident that something was going to happen, and we were not going to flood."

But the town did flood. And afterward, the people of Valmeyer decided to establish a new part of town 400 feet up on the bluff behind it.

"The part where most of the town is located right now was a cornfield at the time," Knobloch explained.

Today, the new part of town is quintessential small-town USA. American flags fly from light posts in front of homes with large garages and manicured yards.

"Everything is relatively new. The roads are all new. The buildings are all new. So in a lot of ways, it opened us up to a lot of new opportunities that we would not have otherwise had," said Howard Heavner, the city's current mayor.

In fact, Valmeyer might have vanished if it hadn't been for the move, since everything in the town was located on the floodplain in an area residents now call "the bottoms."

Main Street used to run through the center of Valmeyer, with homes and businesses lining both sides of the road. Now, Main Street looks more like a throughway in an expansive park.

Almost all the buildings are gone, replaced by open land. But signs of the old town remain -- a bit of gymnasium floor from what was the school; the lip of a paved driveway that peeks out from under the grass.

"Standing here on the driveway, I can remember teaching the kids to ride their bikes," Knobloch said, looking toward a sapling growing where his home on Main Street used to be. "Lots of good family memories."

To move the entire town to higher ground, Valmeyer used funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the state of Illinois to buy up about 300 homes and 25 businesses that were on the floodplain.

Many of those home and business owners used that money to move up the bluff, although it took a year and a half after the flood before the first residents could move into their new homes. That time in limbo was too long for some, who moved on to nearby communities.

Before the flood, there were more than 900 people living in Valmeyer. After the move, the population dipped to between 500 and 600, Heavner said.

Today, the population has rebounded and now stands at around 1,200 residents.

While the new part of town is thriving, there is still something missing. Open lots surround what was designed to be Valmeyer's business district.

"The business community was the hardest hit," Knobloch acknowledged. "We've lost a lot of our businesses and haven't been able to get them built back up again."

Yet Valmeyer has gotten creative. Instead of paying to have the grass mowed around the remains of the old school, the town rents the land to farmers. Rows of corn now stand tall on the land and earn the town about $25,000 a year.

To move up on the bluff, the federal government also forced Valmeyer to buy the limestone quarry underneath it. The town found a developer who turned the 120 underground acres into a warehouse used by the National Archives and Blue Line Foodservice, a company that distributes to Little Caesar's and Subway stores.

"We're earning a couple hundred thousand dollars each year off of that property that we had to purchase," Heavner said.

A model for a climate-altered future?

More than 25 years after the flood that devastated Valmeyer, there's now renewed interest in the town's relocation from other flood-prone cities.

This spring and summer, cities from Minneapolis to New Orleans and across the Midwest have seen devastating flooding that has destroyed homes and spoiled crops.

And floods could become more common as the climate crisis worsens. According to last year's National Climate Assessment, extreme precipitation events in the Midwest are expected to increase through this century.

"At St. Louis, we've had something like four of the 10 largest floods occur in the last seven years," said Nicholas Pinter, the associate director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California-Davis.

Pinter says that flooding is getting worse along rivers throughout the Midwest, as well as along US coastlines as sea levels continue to rise.

"It's estimated that something like a third of US communities will face increased risk of flooding by the middle of the century," Pinter explained.

And as threats increase, Valmeyer officials say they are continually approached by other municipalities considering what scientists call managed retreat -- basically, a preemptive move to higher ground.

Both mayors believe the move was the right decision for Valmeyer. But they acknowledge that relocation isn't the right choice for every community.

"It's like growing up in a house and moving to a different one," Heavner said. "You just like the old house -- even though it may not have been as nice."

The rebuilt levee hasn't failed the town since the devastating flood.

But after a particularly wet and rainy spring that lingered into the summer, the Mississippi River remains swollen over its banks. The flood threat was enough to force the handful of people who continue to live in the bottoms out of their homes in July.

For Knobloch, staying on the floodplain wasn't worth the risk.

"I saw how the people suffered in '93," he said, noting that on some level, he would still prefer to be in his old home in the bottoms if he could be. "I didn't want to see future generations have to go through that."

a man standing next to a road: Dennis Knobloch, the mayor of Valmeyer during the 1993 flood, stands in front of the grassy lot where his house once stood on Main Street. Both sides of the road were lined with homes and businesses before the flood.

Dennis Knobloch, the mayor of Valmeyer during the 1993 flood, stands in front of the grassy lot where his house once stood on Main Street. Both sides of the road were lined with homes and businesses before the flood.
© Stephanie Elam
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