To stay or to go: Increased flooding forces towns to make hard choices
Repeated flooding in some communities pushed residents to move to higher ground. But getting the resources and buy-in isn't easy, even in towns where residents have been flooded again and again.
The Pecatonica River runs two blocks from Laurie Thomas' mother's stoop in Freeport, Illinois. After a recent two-day deluge, floodwaters reached the basement's ceiling.
But the family's seen worse.
It was Freeport’s fifth major flood in just the past four years. Thomas and her mother have experienced flooding at least 15 times in the past 20 years.
As increased rainfall and repetitive flooding strain aging infrastructure in many towns, residents along the Mississippi River ask the same question: Do we pack up and move out? For Thomas and her mother, Freeport, a historical Black community on the east side of town, has always been home – moving is not an option.
“People have always lived over here and there's always been the Pecatonica, but lately the floods, they’ve been worse,” Thomas said. “But they’ve been worse everywhere else too. That's not a reason to kick people out of their homes.”
Staying put in the face of flooding can be dangerous and is growing increasingly costly. Property taxes are the largest source of tax revenue for local governments in most states, but property value declines as flood risk increases. Local governments have doubled their infrastructure spending while federal funding remains relatively flat. The federal government covers about 40% of water and transportation construction, but states are left to maintain it.
This story is part of When It Rains, a special series from the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk.
Billion-dollar weather events are happening more often. Even after adjusting for inflation, there were twice the number of billion-dollar events during the 2010s compared to the decade prior.
Without the tax base to maintain infrastructure, sometimes leaving is the only feasible option. But moving away can come with its own pain.
Relocating a town is “always expensive, complex and contentious,” writes Nicholas Pinter, a professor at the University of California-Davis, in a 2021 paper.
Voluntary buyouts, meanwhile, have cost FEMA billions of dollars that still fall short of the need that will continue to grow as the climate gets wetter. Analyses show the money doesn’t flow out equitably and the buyout process often takes too long. What’s left is not always attractive to the remaining residents.
“It looks like missing teeth in a poorly maintained mouth,” Pinter described in an interview. “It is not your vision of a thriving town.”
Choosing to stay or go is difficult – and that’s if communities even get a fair shot at pulling it off. Meanwhile, the flooding doesn’t stop, taking a toll on economies and quality of life.
It takes a village to save a village
Charley Preusser, editor of the Crawford County Independent newspaper in Gays Mills, Wisconsin, remembers the sound the water made as it rushed over the ridge one night more than a decade ago.
It was the first of back-to-back floods of the Kickapoo River that hit the small, southwestern Wisconsin town in 2007 and 2008. Both were considered to be worse than a 500-year flood, which has a one-in-500 chance of occurring in a single year.
The next day, he made his way carefully from his home in the hills to the newspaper office downtown. He used a canoe to get down Main Street. The first thing he saw when he opened the door was their mini fridge, floating in nearly 3 feet of water like a fishing bobber.
It took weeks for them to get back into the office, where the water and mud destroyed everything but their paper archives and a clock on the wall.
After a second flood 10 months later, the village got help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other grants to move some businesses, village services and homes to higher ground.
Driving into town today, you’ll come upon a general store attached to a gas station, elevated and protected from the river’s backwaters below. Inside, the items for sale include fresh produce, dairy, and meat. It’s unusual to have a grocery in a village of this size — population 523.
“If we hadn’t (relocated), there would not be a store in Gays Mills,” said Larry McCarn, who was village president during the floods. “There would be absolutely nothing.”
Relocating communities away from flood hazards on rivers and coastlines has been happening in the U.S. for more than 100 years. For communities that can achieve it, it’s often bittersweet. But it works to reduce flood damages down the line and help drive economic growth.
Gays Mills, as is common for relocated communities, has remained connected to its history. The village hosts its annual Apple Festival every fall in the old downtown. In the grocery store, a sign advertises square dancing in the old community center once a month.
Communities were built along the Kickapoo — the longest tributary of the Wisconsin River — for access to water and convenient travel for trading. Thus, they’re no strangers to coping with floods.
Soldiers Grove, a small village about 10 minutes from Gays Mills, moved to higher ground in the 1970s. Today, nearby Ontario and Viola are both pursuing new construction in parts of town outside the floodplain. Even before the historic floods that led to relocation in Gays Mills, the village had flooded 20 times since 1900.
Pinter said communities typically come to a crossroads about relocating after a particularly catastrophic flood, needing to decide whether to rebuild in place yet again or “solve the problem once and for all.”
Gays Mills’ 2007 and 2008 floods met that definition.
Moving away and staying put both costly endeavors
The future for flood-prone Freeport looks much different.
Two years after a historic flood in 2019 in which the Pecatonica River rose over 17 feet, FEMA granted the city nearly $3.4 million so it could buy out over 120 properties in the river floodplain. City officials authorized another $1.1 million in matching funds.
Thomas said she’s known her neighbors, some of whom are family, her whole life. The amount the city is offering for them to leave isn’t enough, she said, plus many are too old to start over someplace else.
“The lady over there is in a wheelchair. She’s been there all her life. These are older people,” Thomas said, pointing up and down the street. “Where the hell are they going?”
Buy-in won’t make a difference if there’s no money involved. Pinter pointed to the case of Pinhook, Missouri, a majority-Black community that wanted to relocate wholesale to preserve their social bond after massive flooding in 2011. But they weren’t able to find the support to foot the bill. Residents scattered.
Communities that relocate successfully typically take advantage of a disaster and keep the pressure on to obtain resources, Pinter said.
Gays Mills secured more than $10 million in federal, state and local grant funding, as well as private money, to move. A few years after the floods, it had a new village hall, library and community center, a mercantile building for businesses, and several houses and apartments situated along Highway 131 overlooking the river’s backwaters, safe on higher ground.
Not everyone agreed with it, and not everyone moved. The village still has empty lots for sale in the newer residential development area.
When the community got walloped with another record flood in 2018, it was helpful to have fewer businesses and residents in the floodplain, McCarn said, and thus less damage. It also helped to be able to work from the village hall, which was left untouched.
Back in Freeport, the city buys its first home
In August, nearly a year after Freeport launched its home buyout program, Patricia Norman was the first east-side resident to accept an offer on her home. She remembers a flood a few years back so bad that the fire department had to come evacuate their home.
“My mom was, at the time, 92,” Norman said. ”We just knew that this was not a good situation for her.”
Norman has fond memories of growing up on the east side, going to Taylor Park School and watching the fireworks from Taylor Park.
“All the activities that used to take place on the east side, well, none of those take place now,” she said.
Due to severe repetitive flooding, the Freeport School Board voted unanimously to close Taylor Park School – the only elementary school on the town’s east side – in 2020.
Norman didn’t disclose the purchasing offer the city made for her home but said she was satisfied with the final number. Many on the east side, Norman said, are conflicted about whether to leave. Either choice has an uncertain outcome, and she’s sympathetic to families like Laurie Thomas’ who don’t want to sell.
For her part, Norman plans to move to higher ground in Freeport. She adds that the east side will always be part of her and Freeport, after all, is home.
This story is part of When it Rains, a special series from the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk, an editorially independent reporting network based at the University of Missouri School of Journalism in partnership with Report For America and the Society of Environmental Journalists, funded by the Walton Family Foundation.
The series is being distributed in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest, which reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues. Follow Harvest on Twitter: @HarvestPM