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Uprooted and uphill: How a small Missouri village moved off the flood plain

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Uprooted and uphill: How a small Missouri village moved off the flood plain

RHINELAND — The Rhinelanders knew how to handle floods. When the water rose, they just moved everything up.

“All our furniture would go up on the dining room table and upstairs,” Betty Gosen-Gerber, a former Rhineland resident, said. “And then we had cousins across the railroad track, and we went and stayed with them.”

If the water rose too high, they moved their families and livestock out of the Rhineland bottoms until the water went back down. Then they came back, pumped the water and mud out with a garden hose and moved back in again.

Tate Wehrle, 10, enjoys a ride in the back of a truck

Tate Wehrle, 10, enjoys a ride in the back of a truck on the way to the family farm Dec. 8 in Rhineland. Tate’s family owns 40 cows, and he helps take care of them almost every day.

“It’s the way it is. That’s the way we do it. We clean up, and we go on,” Steve Wehrle, chairman of the board in Rhineland, said.

But in 1993, that solution wasn’t quite enough.

The sun sets over the Missouri River

The sun sets over the Missouri River on Dec. 8, 2019, in Hermann. Hermann is about six miles west of Rhineland and is where many people work and grocery shop.

That year, the town of 150 situated just north of the Missouri River was hit by “the most costly and devastating flood to ravage the U.S. in modern history,” according to the National Weather Service. Across the countryside, over 10,000 homes were destroyed, 75 towns were entirely underwater and over 15 million acres of farmland were submerged, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Weather Service.

The Rhinelanders had experienced many floods, but the Great Flood of 1993 pushed them over the edge.

“It started raining, and we woke up that morning and looked outside. And we had cars sitting in the water,” Rhineland resident Larry Englert said.

The river was topping the levee in multiple spots, and residents had just over six hours to get everything moved out of their homes and up the hill onto dry land.

It was time to make a change. After the massive disaster that plagued the Midwest, Rhineland citizens became the first flood victims in Missouri and Illinois to move their entire town out of the flood plain onto higher ground, according to the Missouri State Emergency Management Agency.

But what did that really mean?

For some people, that meant abandoning their old homes, starting fresh and building new ones up the hill. For a few others who couldn’t make the move, that meant finding a new home in a new town. But for many — if not most — of the residents, that meant hiring professionals to pick up their old homes from the flood plain and transport them on large trailers to the new location.

In light of the massive floods this past spring that afflicted many similar towns, Rhineland serves as a good example of a town that faced significant disruption from flooding and overcame it. Despite the many challenges the Rhinelanders faced, they solved the problem through the community’s cooperation and unity.

How it worked

Residents decided to move the town to a 40-acre uphill site less than a quarter mile north.

Ervin Elsenraat, who was the town chairman of the board at the time, and the Rhineland City Council applied for a community block grant from Missouri’s Department of Economic Development with the help of the Boonslick Regional Planning Commission.

Houses owned by three generations of the Wehrle family sit in a row

Houses owned by three generations of the Wehrle family sit in a row Dec. 8, 2019, in Rhineland. The home on the left belongs to Steve and Janet Wehrle. The home in the middle belongs to Janet’s mother, Margaret Bahr. The home on the right belongs to Steve and Janet’s son, Scott Wehlre, his wife, Amanda Wehrle, and their two children, Machaela, 15, and Tate, 10. All three homes were relocated to these lots when the town moved uphill in 1993.

Rhineland received $999,500 to begin the relocation process, according to the Missouri State Emergency Management Agency. The town was given additional money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Missouri Housing Development Commission and Missouri’s Economic Development Administration for infrastructure, down payments on new homes and repairs to old homes.

With money from FEMA, the town was able to purchase the 40-acre site. Then, a lottery was held to decide which resident would move to which lot.

The lottery process was kind and respectful. Even after choosing, they were able to negotiate and swap lots.

Steve Wehrle poses for a portrait

Steve Wehrle poses for a portrait Nov. 11 in Rhineland. Wehrle moved to Rhineland in the 1970s and has worn many hats in town. He owned the town tavern for 20 years and is now a chairman of the board for the town.

“We all got along, you know,” Wehrle said. “We all discussed our problems. We all had the same problems.”

And the problems for the Rhinelanders during the move were many.

Steve & Janet Wehrle

Most had to repair their moved homes themselves. But because they needed to continue their regular jobs, the work on the houses often came late in the evenings after a long work day. Repairing their home in the new location required Steve Wehrle to work relentlessly.

After it filled with about three feet of water during the ’93 flood, Wehrle moved his family’s old house up the hill and spent about four years fixing it. While he was working on the house, his family temporarily lived with his mother- and father-in-law.

A photo of Steve and Janet Wehrle in their flooded home

A photo of Steve and Janet Wehrle in their flooded home during the 1993 flood is in an album Dec. 8 in Rhineland. The caption was written by Janet and reads “Going inside our house, water already has started to fall — about 6 inches.”

In addition to his home, the beloved Rhineland tavern he had owned for approximately 15 years, The Corner, had also flooded. He left the old building behind in the flood plain but moved into a new one, which he continued to run while also repairing his own home.

Janet Wehrle picks up a tray of drinks

Janet Wehrle picks up a tray of drinks Dec. 6, 2019, at The Corner in Rhineland. Wehrle also works at the bank in town. She picks up shifts at the tavern when it's short-staffed or knows it's going to be busy. 

During those years, it would be after 6 p.m. — sometimes even as late as midnight — before Wehrle was able to get away from the restaurant on a typical day, he said. Only after that, or during some random gap in the day, was he able to work on the house.

“There were periods of time where, you know, you just get tired of doing that stuff,” Wehrle said. “You just leave it alone until you do have time or get interest back in doing it.”

Larry & Sherry Englert

While fixing up their homes, the Rhinelanders endured chaotic and difficult living situations.

The Englert family’s home was filled with between four and five feet of water during the ’93 flood, and moving the house cost them $12,000. While restoring the home in their new lot, Larry, Sherry and their four children stayed with a friend in a little house.

Steve Wehrle peruses a book

Steve Wehrle peruses a book Nov. 11 in Rhineland. When the town moved uphill in 1993, Steve would work day and night throughout the moving process. He’d spend all day in the tavern he owned at the time and then would head home at night to make improvements on his relocated home.

“Her house wasn’t big enough,” Larry Englert said. “She said, ‘Come on over. You’re staying here.’ That’s just the way people are around here.”

After living with the friend for almost a year, FEMA gave them a trailer. They called it “a Cracker Jack box.”

“One of the first weeks after we moved in, we went to pull out a drawer to get a fork ... and the whole front came off,” Englert said.

Englert said FEMA would come and check on the family to make sure they weren’t tearing up the trailer; it would want the family to pay for such things as the broken drawer. Although FEMA offered the trailer for about one year, the family lived there for nearly two.

“We were going nuts all crammed in that FEMA trailer, and we had to get out of there,” Englert said.

Ronnie & Kim Stiers

The Stiers family faced many obstacles, both in the process of fixing their home and with their jobs.

Their home was transported to the new location in three pieces. While it was being put back together, they lived many places: in a trailer with Ronnie’s cousin, then later, with Kim’s uncle.

From left, Kim and Ronnie Stiers pose for a portrait on the plot of land

From left, Kim and Ronnie Stiers pose for a portrait Dec. 6, 2019, on the plot of land where their home used to be located before the town relocated uphill in Rhineland. The Stiers moved their home in three stages.

Ronnie said he worked on the house at night and had to power his lights and tools with a generator. He worked on the house until a couple rooms were finished enough for the family to live in.

But there was still a lot of work to do. The family didn’t have running water for a while, just a 1,000-gallon water tank not hooked up to the house.

“I had a big, long pipe along the side of the house with a 5-gallon bucket under it,” Ronnie said. “With a hose and a 5-gallon bucket, I would go out there late in the evening and take a shower.”

The ’93 flood also made the Stiers’ work life difficult. Ronnie worked in construction, but because the water had isolated Rhineland from Hermann, a neighboring town, he wasn’t able to get his construction supplies from his regular source.

Meanwhile, Kim continued working at a toy factory in Hermann. But because it wasn’t easy to get there by car, she had to take a boat to and from work every day. Community members would volunteer to drive such boats, and passengers like Kim would give them a little money for gas.

One time, while Kim was on the way to work, her boat’s motor quit, and she decided to try another option. She began staying with her mother — who lived in nearby Hermann — during the week and came back home only on weekends.

Other challenges

The lack of consistent transportation caused even more problems for Rhineland. It was difficult for the town to acquire necessary supplies and food.

Occasionally, residents would take a trip north to Montgomery City — about 24 miles away — to buy groceries and hand them out to people across the town.

The Red Cross was one of many organizations and groups that donated supplies, food and assistance to Rhineland after the flood. Ronnie Stiers said he remembers receiving a donation of 80 to 90 turkeys and distributing them across the town.

Photos of town during the 1993 flood decorate the walls of The Corner

Photos of town during the 1993 flood decorate the walls of The Corner on Nov. 15, 2019, in Rhineland. The building in the middle photo is where The Corner used to be located.

“Red Cross pretty well fed you. When we moved down here, we did some cooking, but we did everything out of a crockpot, or we did everything on a barbecue pit outside for a couple of years,” Stiers said. “We didn’t have no stove for nothing. And you just made do; you just do what you had to do, you know.”

Church and youth groups — some from different states — came and helped the Rhinelanders repair their homes. For Englert, some groups helped put in drywall, electricity and plumbing. Stiers remembers some groups even coming from Texas.

“I had a bunch of kids help me at my house, and they would write me letters after it was all over,” Stiers said. “And I’d send them pictures of the house after fixing it up, and we stayed in touch for I don’t know how many years.”

The importance of community

Along with this outside aid, the Rhinelanders helped each other. Cleaning, moving and rebuilding after the ’93 flood was an entire community effort.

“Just everybody helped everybody,” Ronnie Stiers said. “I mean, where they could. Everybody had their own things to worry about.”

From left, Donny Hagedorn, Leon Englert and Steve Wehrle sit and catch up on a Friday night

On Dec. 6, from left, Donny Hagedorn, Leon Englert and Steve Wehrle sit and catch up on a Friday night at The Corner in Rhineland. Before everyone had cellphones, The Corner was Rhineland’s main information hub. “If you wanted to know something, you’d come there and somebody knew what was going on,” Wehrle said of those days.

Stiers not only had to worry about the repairs on his own home, but he also spent a lot of time and energy — if not more time and energy — helping his mother and father repair their home.

When the Stiers family needed to move its furniture out of its water- and mud-soaked home, another nearby family helped.

“They got their farm trucks, and put my stuff on their farm trucks and all my furniture,” Ronnie Stiers said. “They took it out in their shed and parked it in their shed for us till we needed it again.”

Was it worth it?

Looking back on the struggles they faced together, the Rhinelanders are exceptionally grateful with only a few regrets.

Some residents wish they’d built new homes rather than paying lots of money to reclaim old ones for sentimental reasons.

“I probably spent close to $100,000 moving,” Ronnie Stiers said. “And really, you didn’t get no help from the government, and you had to take a small business loan out or get a real cheap loan from somebody.”

Stiers said building new would’ve likely reduced his aggravation during the move.

Many also miss the flat, fertile land of the Rhineland bottoms.

“I miss my big garden and everything,” Larry Englert said. “With black dirt down there, it grew the best potatoes.”

“Everything was nice and flat,” Stiers said. “Now, everything is on a hill. Nobody’s really got a nice, big, flat yard like they used to have.”

But when the waters rise, as they did in 2019, the Rhinelanders are happy and comfortable with their homes on the hill.

“If you asked me, we made the right choice. Every time the river comes up and gets close, you know,” Wehrle said, “everybody says, ‘We’re just glad we made that move.’”

Soybean dust fills the air as the sun sets

Soybean dust fills the air as the sun sets Nov. 15, 2019, in Rhineland. Though the houses moved up hill, town businesses like The Corner, the granary, the bank and a bed and breakfast remain in the river bottom.

Supervising editor is Tynan Stewart.

  • I am a fall 2019 state government reporter. I am studying data journalism. Reach me at lilliehegeman@gmail.com or at 816-244-7488 with story tips and ideas.

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