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Tensions Rise With Waters Over Flood Expense

Amanda Vinicky
NPR Illinois

Heavy rains have led to flooding all across the Midwest in recent days: in Iowa, Illinois, and in the small town of Clarksville, Missouri, which sits on the Mississippi River. That river is expected to reach its crest there Wednesday, and residents hope the walls they’ve built to keep out the water will hold. Especially because this time, they had to build those walls themselves.

Ask a Clarksville resident how long they’ve lived there, and the answer is usually given in the context of a flood.

“Let’s see, the first flood we were here was ’93. We came here in '89, and we’ve not let it in the building since, so we’ve done really well," says Margie Greenwell owns a custom woodworking shop with her husband, Mike, in downtown Clarksville, which is about 75 miles north of St. Louis.

Credit Amanda Vinicky
Margie Greenwell, who owns a custom woodworking shop with her husband, Mike Greenwell, has become an expert at flood defense.

"This is the seventh flood that we've been through here ... hey guys, don’t be touching out there, okay?”

Greenwell stops to issue a warning to kids who are taking pictures of the flood from the sidewalk that abuts the small string of downtown shops, and who are coming too close to the concrete wall protecting Greenwell’s store from the Mighty Mississippi.

These barricades are topped with wood boards, all covered by huge plastic tarps. Greenwell sounds like a professional engineer describing it: “They’re just braces, we were gonna put in deadman, which is another brace that runs down …”

For good reason; Greenwell and other volunteers designed, and built, these flood walls, after the city council voted not to help.

Not this time.

Not after having just gone through the same flooding just last summer.

In 2013, Clarksville experienced a record-setting flood that Mayor Jo Ann Smiley says cost the city

Credit Amanda Vinicky
Clarksville Mayor Jo Anne Smiley says cities like hers can't continue spending public money to protect private property without a second glance. "I've been here ten years and six floods. When you see the town endure - and I use the word advisedly, because it's an endurance test. It doesn't just affect the pocketbook - 'cause it does, t e economic impact is tremendous - but it affects the spirit too," she says.

$400,000 -- the equivalent of its entire, annual budget. She says Clarksville used all of its reserves, to finally pay off the last flood bill just two weeks ago.

“And July 1, the next day, we're facing another flood. And communities, especially small communities, can't weather that kind of impact,” Smiley says.

Paying for another flood, Smiley says, would bankrupt the town. And so the city council decided not to. It’s a decision that put the historic downtown in jeopardy.

Not all of Clarksville is in the flood plain though; just the downtown shops, the post office, and a few homes. Most of Clarksville’s residents live uphill. Safe and dry.

After the city council vote, volunteers solicited donations over Facebook, recruited Americorps to come to town, and brought in prisoners to help with the sandbags. So far their home-made floodwall is holding up.

Credit Amanda Vinicky
Clarksville wants to buy the EKO system for flood protection; the silver blocks snap together easily, are lightweight, don't take up a lot of storage space, and - best of all for residents who like their riverfront view - only go up when there's danger of a flood, so the Mississippi wouldn't be blocked.

Eventually, Clarksville wants to buy a sort of high-tech version of Legos that can be assembled anytime there’s danger of a flood. But that costs more than $3 million -- money Clarksville clearly doesn’t have.

John Harmon, is a retired electrical engineer, who has lived in Clarksville "since 1971, just in time for the '73 flood."

When waters rose to then record-levels, until the Great Flood of 1993.

"In '73 they told us it was a 500 year flood. Like hell. It's more like a five year flood. The folks here in town have gotten good at fighting flood waters, but they're only winning tactical victories. Not strategic. They're losing the strategic war.”

Harmon says it’s a war that isn’t winnable anymore. With a huge levee system that protects farmland on the Illinois side of the river, dredging that leaves additional silt in the river and other factors, it’s too late to protect Clarksville from the Mississippi.

Harmon says it’s just not worth it.

Credit Amanda Vinicky
The city of Clarksville - population 420 - just finished paying off its bills from a flood last summer. The next day, it had to decide if it was going to pay for defense against this one.

But try telling that to Margie Greenwell.

“We understand that people on the hill think that we spend too much money down here, fighting water. There are some people that do, but I’m not one of them," she says.

Amanda Vinicky moved to Chicago Tonight on WTTW-TV PBS in 2017.
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