Matt Sepic for NPR
A tractor performs maintenance on a levee in southwestern Illinois, across the Mississippi River from St. Louis. FEMA's nationwide overhaul of flood-risk maps may put parts of this area in a flood hazard zone, despite the levees. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says those levees need major repairs, but home and business owners are more worried about the economic impact of a hazard designation.
Across the country, millions of people are suddenly finding themselves in federal hazard zones — not because of any natural or man-made disaster, but because the Federal Emergency Management Agency is updating its old flood risk maps. Even if they’ve never been under water, home and business owners in places deemed hazardous are now forced to buy flood insurance.
For one Midwestern industrial area, the stakes are higher. In southwestern Illinois, there are serious fears federal bureaucrats could snuff out flickers of economic recovery.
Like other steel towns, Granite City, Ill., has seen boom times, but they're long past. Take a closer look, though, and things don’t look so bad in this old industrial community, across the Mississippi River from St. Louis. The main mill has rehired laid-off workers. And a nearby oil refinery is expanding.
Floods were common here until the federal government built 64 miles of levees in the mid-20th century. For decades these serpentine, grassy mounds of compacted soil reliably held back the Mississippi. But Troy Cosgrove with the Army Corps of Engineers says that after repeated soakings, the levees have weakened and the river is seeping underneath.
"[In] '93 we had a significant flood, and then in '95 we had a lower-level flood. And we're actually seeing seepage as bad as we were in '93 and '95," Cosgrove says.
Now, as part of a nationwide review of its flood-risk maps, FEMA says this part of southwestern Illinois should be designated a hazard area. That triggers mandatory flood insurance for many businesses and homeowners here.
Granite City Mayor Ed Hagnauer says a federal hazard designation goes too far and will upset a delicate economic balance.
"All of a sudden they’re treating us as if we don’t even have levees out here. They’re saying that these levees don’t even exist," Hagnauer says.
Hagnauer and others say FEMA is being overly cautious because of the fallout from Hurricane Katrina. But the agency’s Pat Glithero says flood maps are only about public safety.
"FEMA wants people to understand the risk. Long before Katrina, FEMA was mandated and made a commitment to update those maps, so that people knew more precisely where the floodplains were and what risk they face," Glithero says.
One thing you don’t hear in this area is that everything’s fine. Even with a recession looming, voters passed a sales tax to fix the levees. And to ease financial concerns, FEMA is now offering discounted insurance to home and small-business owners.
A few hundred yards from a levee, workers at Heidtman Steel clean and slice 30-ton rolls of metal for everything from truck fenders to lawnmower blades. Manager Gene Cope says that to compete globally he needs to expand this plant. But he says bank loans are tough to get in hazard zones, and he fears the worst.
"It would be a catastrophe," Cope says. "Everybody would have to, you know, file bankruptcy, the businesses would go away, housing would be decimated — the whole valley would turn into a ghost town."
While that's a common concern here, Andrew Theising of Southern Illinois University Edwardsville says the most dire predictions probably will not come to pass.
"I don’t think it’s going to have a drastic effect. But there are some businesses out there, they're hurting. The recovery is slow. And this could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back," Theising says.
Aside from the tension over flood maps and hazard zones, local officials say the biggest challenge facing lowlanders here is fixing the levees. Cost estimates for the project are in the hundreds of millions of dollars, and it might not begin for years.
But unless the area’s politicians succeed in delaying FEMA’s flood-mapping plan, the agency will implement the new hazard zone — and the costs that go with it — in time for next year’s flood season.