Metro-East News

Flooding makes it tough to live in Grafton. Here’s how the city plans to survive.

Cory Weimelt throws a ball for his dog Abby outside his barbecue eatery, The Hawg Pitt, on the Grafton riverfront. The Mississippi River is only about 30-feet from the back of the restaurant.

Heavy rain up north has caused the Missouri River to swell, impacting the Mississippi.

As the black lab runs along the creeping waterfront, Weimelt recalls the spring floods that severely damaged and closed his newly purchased business for months.

“I keep an eye on it every day,” he says. “The waters getting close again, but hopefully we get a dry spell up north to help out.”

Wiemelt’s restaurant is a popular spot in Grafton. He says most evenings and especially on the weekends, it fills up with customers looking for beer, barbecue and a close look at the Mississippi.

The river is not as high as it was when it crested in June, but it’s high enough that Wiemelt is losing some parking and outdoor seating. At the river’s peak, water was only 6 feet from the restaurant’s vaulted ceiling, ruining the wiring of the building, making his upstairs living area unlivable and delaying the opening of his newly purchased business.

That was the case for many of Grafton’s businesses and residents. Most of the town’s businesses that are just off the river and rely heavily on tourism were closed for weeks and months and sustained heavy damage this spring.

The historic flooding of the Mississippi ended nearly five months ago, but people all around Grafton and Illinois are still recovering.

Grafton Mayor Rick Eberlin predicted in June the 127-day flood could be the last stand for some residents. On Wednesday he said for some families that proved true. Several have already moved away.

“It broke them,” he said. “They got tired of the fight and they just said, ‘Why continue to do this? Let’s go somewhere else where we don’t have to worry about it.”

In June, The Mississippi crested at 35.17 feet in Grafton, just a few feet shy of breaking the record set during the Great Flood of 1993.

To date, 14 residents have moved away from the city or still aren’t able to live in their homes, the mayor said. More than 50 buildings were damaged by the flooding, mostly on the town’s west end.

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The Hawg Pit BBQ in Grafton, at the river’s peak, water was at the roof line, where the red mark is on the flag pole., making his upstairs living area unlivable. Derik Holtmann dholtmann@bnd.com

Eberlin said while many things in Grafton are back to normal, some families and businesses are still struggling. He said the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s recent decision to deny individual assistance to flood victims has made matters worse.

“I can’t imagine the hardships of some of the businesses that were closed and damaged,” he said. “It’s tough. So we’re hoping this weather we’re having will extend well into the fall and our tourism season will go well into November and maybe even December.”

Eberlin said it’s easy to look at the town and think that everything has been repaired, but in reality, memories of the flooding are still fresh and many repairs still need to be made.

“People tend to forget about it,” he said. “Businesses open, main streets cleared, sidewalks cleared and the parks look good but they don’t think about these people.”

Federal assistance denied

FEMA recently announced it would deny the state’s request due to a lack of severity in the damage caused by flooding. However, the government did approve public assistance to cities and public agencies, meaning cities hard hit by flooding like Grafton or Alton will be reimbursed for a portion of the money they spent fighting flooding or repairing flood damage.

U.S. Rep. Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro, who was a co-sponsor of a bill that pushed for legislation to lower public assistance thresholds, said similar legislation is possible for individual assistance from FEMA.

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Different tourist attractions like the Skytour, a “one-of-a-kind” chair lift in the center of the town that leads up to the bluffs above the city, are hoped to attract year-round tourists to Grafton. Derik Holtmann dholtmann@bnd.com

However, he said, if that legislation were passed it wouldn’t work retroactively. Meaning those affected by the flooding of 2019 would still be out of luck.

“That’s not going to stop us, we’re still going to look at that, but remember we dropped that threshold from $24 million to $17 million and that was a big drop,” Bost said. “That doesn’t change the situation we’re seeing right now, and we’re still going to fight to try to change the situation that exists right now.”

The Illinois Emergency Management Agency is appealing FEMA’s decision to deny assistance to individual home and business owners — a move Eberlin said could make a big difference for Grafton and other cities in similar situations. Some Grafton business owners and residents have lost thousands from the flooding and the city lost millions, he said.

As for the city, the flood has put Grafton in the red, a situation Eberlin hopes will be reversed with federal aid.

Flooding impacts tourism

Then there is the tourism revenue that businesses lost. Many businesses reported an 80 percent drop in revenue this spring. Eberlin noted the months the town was flooded are its busiest.

Business owners like Pete Allen of The Loading Dock, a popular eatery and banquet center, are powering through, however.

Allen said his business had an 80 percent drop in revenue from last year’s sales. Since the restaurant is “flood-proof,” Allen said, there was little long-term damage to the building.

The real damage came from the length of the flood, which closed The Loading Dock for more than 70 days. He said every time the river started to go down, the move-in process would start, only to be halted by the river rising again.

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The Illinois River as it crested in the flooded town of Grafton, just north of the confluence of the Illinois and Mississippi rivers. Derik Holtmann dholtmann@bnd.com

However, he said, a surge in patrons in the months following the flooding has helped significantly.

“We’ve cut that in half because the business has been so big,” he said. “We couldn’t be more pleased with how our guests have returned; we’re cutting into that deficit.”

Creating winter tourism

Eberlin said the focus for the city and businesses now is to be resilient and to come up with new revenue streams. He said focusing on bringing tourism to the town during the off-peak times, such as during the winter months, is key to avoiding years where revenue is severely impacted.

“Right now we’re an eight-month town,” Eberlin said. “You get to the middle of November and the streets kind of roll up and it gets really quiet. We’d like to see some additional business.”

Different tourist attractions like the Skytour, a “one-of-a-kind” chair lift in the center of the town that leads up to the bluffs above the city, are hoped to attract year-round tourists. Grafton also recently became home to the largest American flag along the Mississippi, thanks to a private donation.

There also are a number of wineries, a zip line, the Loading Dock’s ice rink it installs every winter, a new turtle statue being built near the riverfront eagle-watching in January and The Hawg Pitt’s helicopter tours. Allen said the ice rink was opened roughly five years ago in an effort to keep the bar open year-round.

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The real damage came from the length of the flood, which closed The Loading Dock, at left in photo, for more than 70 days. Every time the river started to go down, the move-in process would start, only to be halted by the river rising again.

“Every year it gets bigger,” he said, noting that the bar now is open through the winter months, instead of closing from November to March every year.

Eberlin said barring any more catastrophic floods this year, he sees Grafton getting out of the red with tourism ramping back up and, hopefully, private government assistance.

“We never ask for a handout, but we are asking for a helping hand,” he said.

That along with possible new business and residents coming to Grafton will lead the town back to where it was before this year’s devastating flood. The mayor noted that just recently four properties were purchased near the riverfront.

“This word probably gets overused, but Grafton is resilient,” he said. “Some left, others came in and they’ll see the potential that Grafton has to offer.”

As for the height of the Mississippi, Eberlin said like most people in town, its a constant concern. For now, he said, the forecast looks good for Grafton.

The river is expected to crest at 22.8 feet Tuesday, according to the National Weather Service.

“You have to keep an eye on it — every day,” he said.

BEHIND OUR REPORTING

Why we did this story

The Belleville News-Democrat reported on 2019’s springtime flooding from beginning to end and is committed to continuing that reporting by covering the lasting effects left by 127 days of flooding in the metro-east. This story chronicles the road to recovery for communities and agencies affected.

Belleville News-Democrat Reporter Joseph Bustos contributed to this article.

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