Sunday, March 9, 1997
A slow climb to new town;
some gave up

The Cincinnati Enquirer

From limestone bluffs towering above the tiny Mississippi River town of Valmeyer, Ill., Laurie Brown and 900 other residents watched the Flood of 1993 swallow their homes.

Four years and $65 million later, the entire village has moved up to join those who decided to stay.

''When you hear about other places flooding, you think at least we won't have to go through that again,'' Ms. Brown, the Valmeyer village clerk, said Thursday. ''But for people who lost everything like us, it will never be the same.''

Valmeyer, 35 miles south of St. Louis, is the largest community in U.S. history completely relocated out of a flood plain by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Plagued by problems that delayed creation of the new town for three years, the ambitious effort provides a cautionary tale for towns swamped by the Flood of 1997.

''It was the will of people who didn't want to go their separate ways that saved the town,'' said George Andres, who grew up in Valmeyer and helped plot its rebirth as economic development director for the Southwestern Illinois Metropolitan and Regional Planning Commission.

''With the waters rising again this year, it's good to know the town is 400 feet vertically out of the flood plain.''

It is too early to determine whether similar assistance will be granted to flood-ravaged communities in Ohio and Kentucky, said Linda Sacia, a FEMA spokeswoman.

FEMA typically buys land in flood plains following similar disasters to prevent new development and curb future relief costs. Under federal rules, any structure in a flood plain damaged beyond 50 percent of its value cannot be rebuilt.

Residents are paying about 60 percent of the costs to relocate Valmeyer, while the federal and state governments cover the rest.

Two years after the floodwaters receded, only five families had moved into the relocated town, Ms. Brown said. The rest either went to live with relatives or stayed in a group of trailers brought in by the federal government, derisively dubbed ''FEMA-ville.''

Some people had to stay longer in the trailer park because village officials opted to allow home construction to begin before building roads, sewers and other infrastructure improvements. The officials tried to appease residents weary of living in the FEMA trailers, but ended up with houses that couldn't be reached without a four-wheel-drive vehicle.

Federal funding was further delayed when it was discovered that a limestone quarry owned the mineral rights for land beneath the new town site. The village had to cobble together a buyout package to comply with a federal requirement that towns own their mineral rights.

''They were moving pretty slow, but not anymore,'' said Bernice Meadors, whose relocated Corner Pub tavern was one of the first structures built in the new town. ''The problem is, all the delays drove some people away.''

A mile and a half east and up the bluffs from the old Valmeyer, homes ranging in value from $50,000 to more than $500,000 dot 500 acres that used to be a dairy silage field. Roads are in and sidewalks are being built.

Drawn perhaps by the novelty of a brand-new town in a rural, picturesque setting, people are moving to Valmeyer from St. Louis and suburbs across the river in Illinois, Ms. Meadors said.

While residents long for the grocery store that moved to a nearby community, there are three churches and a new post office. The Corner Pub has regained its place as a popular watering hole and hub of local gossip.

''All the money the feds poured into this is worth it,'' said Mr. Andres, who has bought a lot in the new Valmeyer. ''If there is another flood down below, they'll be saving money that would have been paid out in damage claims.''

Ignoring the possibility of future flooding, 15 residents rejected FEMA's offer to buy their land, cleaned up the mess and returned to what's left of the once-drowned town.

''The choice was either fix up the place or move somewhere else,'' said Yvonne Early, 56, whose 92-year-old home on the old town's main street is surrounded by weed-strewn lots where neighbors once lived.

''Some people think we're crazy,'' she said. ''But we would be crazy to move up to that new town because it isn't the Valmeyer I know.''