Post-Disaster Rebuilding, Away from Danger Zones

The Mississippi River overflowed its banks in 1993, devastating the Illinois town of Valmeyer. After the disaster, the town decided to rebuild off of the floodplain, rather than face skyrocketing insurance premiums. Matt Sepic of member station KWMU reports that about 250 communities considered similar moves, but only about a dozen followed through.

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And among the difficult decisions that Gulf Coast residents and politicians are facing is whether to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina or just move elsewhere. Well, people in smaller towns may want to look to Valmeyer, Illinois, for guidance. Twelve years ago, the swollen Mississippi River dumped more than 10 feet of water on Valmeyer, but today the town is stronger than ever; it's just not in the same location. Matt Sepic of member station KWMU reports.

MATT SEPIC reporting:

Valmeyer, Illinois, sits about three miles from the Mississippi River, about 35 minutes south of St. Louis. It looks nothing like other rural Midwestern communities here. For one thing, it's all really new. Vinyl-sided houses sit side by side on winding concrete streets. There aren't many big trees, either. As he drives through the town, former Mayor Dennis Knobloch admits that it represents a suburban subdivision.

Former Mayor DENNIS KNOBLOCH (Valmeyer, Illinois): That's one of the bigger losses that we do have from the original town is you don't have some of the mix of older homes and newer homes and things like that.

SEPIC: A dozen years ago, Valmeyer sat a mile and a half west of here, square in the Mississippi River floodplain just below a tree-lined bluff. The government built levees in the '40s to protect the town, but in 1993, the Mississippi spilled over those levees and the flood destroyed 90 percent of Valmeyer's homes. Federal insurance regulations prohibited rebuilding the old Valmeyer unless the new buildings were elevated on 10-foot stilts. So residents had to either disband the community, rebuild on the stilts or move the entire town up on the bluff. And Knobloch says two-thirds of Valmeyer residents supported the idea of moving altogether.

Mr. KNOBLOCH: We found this 500-acre farm site which would become the new town area. It carried with it a $3 million price tag, which had we no clue at that time where we were going to come up with $3 million.

SEPIC: The farm was a mile and a half from the town. More importantly, it was 400 feet higher. A family owned printing business was the first to move up to the bluff, but federal and state buyout money for residents was slow in coming. So the people here scrapped together enough of their own cash to make a down payment while they waited for their checks to arrive. But that wait was difficult and emotions were raw. Residents were tired of leaving in FEMA trailers and imposing on their relatives. Pastor Dave Riebeling with St. John's United Church of Christ in Valmeyer says he fell into the role of cheerleader at Sunday services.

Pastor DAVE RIEBELING (St. John's United Church of Christ): It was a weekly reminder, you know, that this wasn't God causing bad things to happen. It was a weekly session of dispelling rumors, to keep people's spirits up, to keep their hopes up, to keep them together.

SEPIC: It was tough to keep residents from scattering, but that's often the case after a disaster of this magnitude. University of North Carolina regional planning Professor Raymond Burby says there are very few examples of entire towns just picking up and moving. Geography was on Valmeyer's side with high ground close by, but Burby says strong, persuasive leadership was also key.

Professor RAYMOND BURBY (University of North Carolina): You have to have, for it to be successful, a local entrepreneur that can navigate the bureaucracy and pull things together.

SEPIC: Burby says New Orleans faces additional obstacles in making relocation decisions, the sheer size of the area affected chief among them. But if lifelong Valmeyer resident Carol Sondag's experience is repeated on the Gulf Coast, moving away from the levees may be the best thing to do.

Ms. CAROL SONDAG (Valmeyer, Illinois, Resident): I don't think any of us ever thought that the town would be as it is today. You hear good things. People are happy with the town. And I think the ones who came up here are happy that that was the decision we made.

SEPIC: Today, Valmeyer has about 200 more residents than it did during the flood and more houses will soon be built. It's a fact not lost on anyone here that this community's bright future was largely made possible because of its darkest hour. For NPR News, I'm Matt Sepic in St. Louis.

BRAND: And stay with us on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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