SCOTT SIMON, host:
Valmeyer, Illinois, just South of St. Louis was completely under water 15 years ago. After that disaster, town leaders decided to move the entire community high atop a nearby bluff. NPR's Kathy Lohr, who visited the town in 1993, went back to see how the new location is working out.
KATHY LOHR: It's not hard for people here in Valmeyer to recall the summer of 1993. The worry, the fear, the moment when they knew the Mississippi had ripped through a levee and gushed inside their town. Some 18 feet of water stood in the business district and in many homes. Residents had been fighting hard, and were discouraged they couldn't keep the water out. Former Mayor Dennis Knobloch took me on a tour of the town 15 years ago just after the water had receded.
Mr. DENNIS KNOBLOCH (Former Mayor of Valmeyer, Illinois): You can see all the clocks are stopped at the bewitching time of 1:20. That's when I gave the signal to the power company to go ahead and shut the power off in town when we knew that there definitely was a levee break and the water was going to be coming. So, that's when the town went black.
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Mr. KNOBLOCH: Well, still probably the most eerie thing that was part of what I had to do.
LOHR: Standing in the same spot, Knobloch, who's now county clerk, still gets nostalgic when he thinks about it.
Mr. KNOBLOCH: You know it's one of those little things that probably doesn't mean a whole lot to a lot of other people, but you know that's when it all stopped here.
LOHR: While that was the end of the old Valmeyer, it was the beginning of years of work to move the town 400 feet to the top of a bluff, to an area that was once farmland. When I last saw the new Valmeyer back in 1994, it was a mass of red dirt roads and construction trailers.
Mr. HOWARD HEAVNER (Mayor of Valmeyer): We joke about it, it seemed like we went from 1993 to 1995, and we don't even remember what happened in 1994.
LOHR: Howard Heavner is Valmeyer's current mayor. He also teaches agriculture at the local school. It was a challenge keeping the town together. School was held in trailers on the county fair grounds. The post office was 10 miles away, and construction was moving very slowly.
Mr. HEAVNER: We wanted things to happen now, and all those things just seem like they took forever.
LOHR: Mayor Heavner went to the school that was flooded when he was a kid, but you can tell he is proud of the new brick building where about 500 students attend kindergarten through the 12th grade. As we head into the office, long-time school secretary Mary Murtins(ph) acknowledges how important it was to rebuild the school.
Ms. MARY MURTINS (School secretary, Valmeyer): The school is just part of the main focus, I guess, in a lot of small towns.
Mr. HEAVNER: If it hadn't had a school, who knows?
LOHR: About half of Valmeyer's residents did not move back, including Mary Murtins. It wasn't that she didn't like the new location, but rebuilding took too long.
Ms. MURTINS: So we chose to move to Waterloo, and at the time we were able to move or buy some ground out in the country, and we built a house there.
LOHR: The constant delays and government red tape were among the toughest challenges to putting this community back together. The total cost: about 45 million dollars, with the local community paying about 10 million of that. Valmeyer adopted the slogan, rising to new heights, and 15 years later, it has three churches, two banks, a gas station, daycare center, and tavern. The town also has attracted 300 new residents.
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Ms. AMY ABLEN(ph) (Valmeyer resident): Okay girls, look both ways. Go ahead.
LOHR: Twenty-eight-year-old Amy Ablen takes a walk with her two young children. One rides a bicycle with her friend. The other is in a baby stroller. Ablen moved here two years ago from a small town across the river.
Ms. ABLEN(ph): This is really nice. Everything is new and clean, and the people here are great. Everybody is nice to everyone. It's a great place to live.
LOHR: This is exactly what former mayor Knobloch hoped for when all that planning took place back in 1993.
Mr. KNOBLOCH: There are a lot of times when we were going through the process of the relocation that you would stop and scratch your head and say, is this really worth all of the aggravation and problems we're going through? And you know, now when we see as much completed as done, people back in their homes, the churches and the school functioning off this new facility, and when you look at what is happening to all the other communities along the river right now, yeah, it's great. I think we made the right decision.
LOHR: There are still a few residents who fixed up their properties in the flood plain and did not want to relocate up the hill. They say the new Valmeyer doesn't have the character as the old town. But those who did move here say they're relieved this time around, there's no sandbagging, no moving out and no constant worrying about what's happening on the Mississippi. Kathy Lohr, NPR News.
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