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Midwestern flood residents have to decide whether to go back

Sunday, June 29, 2008 | 5:43 p.m. CDT; updated 12:37 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

FOLEY — Once the Mississippi River starts to recede this week from another great flood, the tiny river towns that dot its banks in Missouri and Illinois will once again face the question: return and rebuild, or relocate?

It’s a tough choice in places such as Foley, a town of fewer than 300 people an hour’s drive northwest of St. Louis. Normally, the Big Muddy swims by at a comfortable distance. But for the second time in 15 years, a wet winter bleeding into a wet spring pushed the river well past its banks, causing a summer flood that swamped dozens of low-lying houses and forced residents to flee.

Barring any major storms, the river was expected to crest in St. Louis on Monday and Cape Girardeau in southeastern Missouri on Wednesday.

Cape Girardeau is expected to see a crest of 42.5 feet, well above the flood stage of 32 feet. At that level, some residents will have to leave, and thousands of acres of farmland will be flooded, the National Weather Service said.

With the river still running high, the shock and pain of the flood make it hard to think about whether to leave, Foley Mayor Bill Thornhill said. But in a town where no one is rich or a stranger, economics and a strong sense of belonging are prompting most to say they’ll stay.

“Why live here? Maybe people shouldn’t live in Kansas because of the tornadoes,” said Gary Madaus, 44, who moved to Foley from California after living much of his life in the Mojave Desert. “Some people don’t have choices. You have to go where you can make the mortgage payments.”

Lifelong resident Ronald Davis, 40, who owns a brick business, said only the latest arrivals to town might be scared off by the flood. Abandon Foley? “That’s never going to happen,” he said.

But 180 miles upriver, the mayor of Keithsburg, Ill., is already talking about moving most of the 700 residents to higher ground after a third of the community, including downtown, was swamped.

They’ve done it before. During the Great Flood of ’93, record floodwaters broke through the sandbag barrier atop Keithsburg’s levee before breaching the earthen berm itself, sending water rampaging into homes and businesses. The federal government later snapped up roughly 100 homes and moved many residents into new houses on a hill.

That wasn’t enough to save Keithsburg during this summer’s flood. The town cleared out the night before three levees broke, sending floodwaters cascading in again as the Mississippi crested a few feet above the height of the flood barriers. The town’s Tastee-Freez, a coin laundry, bait shop, restaurant, post office and a couple of taverns were soon under as much as 8 feet of water.

“A lot of people (in 1993) said, ‘Aw, it’s not going to happen here’ and left their things in their homes,” said Chuck Reynolds, pastor of the town’s First Christian Church. “This year, people were saying, ‘Yeah, it might happen,’ and rolled up their carpet and furniture. They moved out.”

Reynolds said there are already rumblings among some in Keithsburg that they might not move back. But even after people lost their homes twice in 15 years, he said, Reynolds is preaching patience: Wait and see what unfolds once the waters fall back.

Jim Stewart, the town’s mayor, said he’s not worried there’ll be a mass exodus from Keithsburg, figuring many have roots too deep. He’s again looking for help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to relocate the parts of town that didn’t move after the 1993 flood.

“A lot of these are lifelong residents,” Stewart said. “They’d like to stay in the community, but they’d like to stay in a safe environment.”

Thornhill, Foley’s mayor, isn’t interested in talking about a buyout or townwide relocations. He points to the Pink House grocer and the only bar in town, Vonna’s Party Cove. Both are on the dry side of town, and both are still open for business.

“When you find it, you don’t want to leave it,” Chris Thornhill, the mayor’s wife, said of Foley’s sense of community. “You just happen to have a neighbor that’s the Mississippi River.”


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