Washed away: Relocated Valmeyer residents miss their old town

News-DemocratApril 24, 2013 

Dealing with the will of the Mississippi River will always be a fact of life for people who choose to live or work near it.

But the record-setting flood of 1993 changed things along the river's banks. Some believe the massive destruction that happened 20 years ago isn't possible today. But experts warn against complacency.

Chris Keidel, owner of the Big Muddy Pub in Alton, said he's been in his spot on State Street for a decade. Only once since then has he seen serious flooding, and that was five years ago in 2008.

Keidel doesn't think metro-east flood damage will ever reach the scope of what happened in 1993.

Indeed, Mike Petersen of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said additional floodwater capacity was added on the Missouri side of the Mississippi River after the big flood. But even with the extra water holding capability in rural areas, he said that doesn't mean Illinois is immune to high water.

"No two floods are the same," Petersen said. "The river is going to go where it wants, one way or another."

Petersen said that levees on the Illinois side of the river aren't invulnerable even with the extra capacity in Missouri.

"There is no such thing as a flood proof levee," Petersen said. "River water could fill up a couple of levee districts and we could still have major flooding."

Petersen said, as bad as the flood of 1993 was, that wasn't the top of the scale as far as what is possible from Mother Nature.

During that flood the Mississippi River crested at 49.6 feet at St. Louis. A 500-year flood would reach 54 feet.

"That's quite a bit more water," Petersen said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency spent about $2 billion buying out flood plain properties since the 1993 flood. Land that used to be home to houses, shops and warehouses is now mostly empty.

The village of Valmeyer in Monroe County was bought out lock, stock and barrel and moved up a hill to safer ground. It was rebuilt on 500 acres that used to be part of a dairy farm, according to Mayor Howard Heavner. Only a few residents chose to stay behind.

"It's not nearly the anxiety level it was before," Heavner said.

Laurie Brown, the Village Clerk, said her house was damaged by the flood in 1993 and her family was bought out.

"It's nice not having to worry about your house being flooded," Brown said. "But there are still things I miss about the old town."

She said Valmeyer had a lot of character that was washed away by the flood waters.

"When you drive around in the other communities have the older part of town and have a lot of neat older homes," Brown said. "The new town is sort of like a big, new subdivision where the houses all look pretty much the same. I miss all the old homes."

Another casualty of the buyout was the village grocery store. It wasn't rebuilt when the town moved and Brown said it's not likely a new store will come in the future when Walmart is just eight miles away in Waterloo.

In Grafton only a small handful of businesses and residences were threatened Tuesday and Wednesday by flood waters.

Recreational boating ban

Due to extremely hazardous conditions on the Illinois River and the Mississippi River between the Melvin Price Lock and Dam in Alton and the Port of St. Louis, the U.S. Coast Guard has suspended recreational boating in these locations.

The Coast Guard and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said Wednesday that recreational boaters should stay off the region's major rivers.

"Rivers are unpredictable and dangerous in a flood. Even if someone has lived along a river his whole life, he shouldn't assume it will behave the same way during a flood," said Col. Chris Hall, commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' St. Louis District. "It's not a good time to be on or near the rivers."

Road closings

Several highways along the Mississippi River have been cut off by water.

The Illinois Department of Transportation announced the following closings:

* Illinois 3 is closed south of Mary's River in Randolph County.

* The Brussels Ferry, Illinois 100 through Grafton between Illinois 16 and Illinois 3.

* Kaskaskia Street in Chester.

* The Illinois 3 Bypass in Randolph County and Illinois 3 at Rockwood in Randolph County,

According to IDOT, additional closures may be required within the next 24 hours.

The roadways likely to be impacted within this period include:

*Illinois 100 northwest of U.S. 67 in Alton.

* The Illinois 100 closure in Jersey County may be extended toward Alton due to the rising water.

The Mississippi was expected to crest at 35.2 feet Wednesday and quickly recede by the weekend. By Monday, it is expected to fall to 28 feet, which is flood level.

Contact reporter Scott Wuerz at swuerz@bnd.com or call 618-239-2626.

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