The Illinois town that got up and left
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The US town of Valmeyer relocated decades ago after devastating floods. It may have lessons for communities forced to consider a managed retreat from climate impacts today.

In the summer of 1993, the southwestern Illinois town of Valmeyer took the brunt of a massive flood when, not once but twice in a month, the swollen Mississippi River topped its levee system. The village was engulfed in up to 16ft (5m) of floodwater that lingered for months, damaging some 90% of buildings.

Faced with either rebuilding the town and risking yet another disaster, or simply scattering to other towns or states by themselves, the 900 residents of this tight-knit farming community made a bold choice: to pack up everything and start over on new ground.

In the years that followed, hundreds of people moved out of the floodplain as the entire town was rebuilt from scratch on a bluff a mile uphill. In doing so, the town has become an early example of one of the most radical ways a community can adapt to a warming world: moving people and assets out of harm's way.

They are really a textbook example of how a town can recover, start over and thrive after devastation – Nicholas Pinter

Known as managed retreat, or planned relocation, the approach is often framed as a last resort to be pursued only when no other alternatives exist. But as the effects of climate change intensify, exposing more and more people across the globe to the risk of catastrophic flooding, devastating fires and other calamitous natural hazards, the concept is increasingly making its way into the mainstream as a viable – and necessary – adaptation strategy.

"There are dozens of communities throughout the world currently in the process of relocating part or all of their infrastructure due to mounting climate impacts," says A.R. Siders, an assistant professor at University of Delaware's Disaster Research Center. Many more will need to consider the option in the decades to come, she says.

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It's against this backdrop that Valmeyer is getting new attention nearly 30 years after its rebirth. Officials say they are frequently approached by communities across the US who are considering a move away from their vulnerable homelands. Groups from as far away as Japan and Australia have also visited the town in recent years in a bid to understand how it pulled off one of the country's most successful relocations.

"Valmeyer and its relocation leadership got a lot right," says Nicholas Pinter, a geology professor and flood mitigation expert at the University of California, Davis. "They are really a textbook example of how a town can recover, start over and thrive after devastation."

Officials dig the first shovels of dirt of new Valmeyer in December 1993 (Credit: Dennis Knobloch/Ned Trovilion)

Uncharted territory

Sitting three miles (5km) from the Mississippi River's main channel, the original Valmeyer had endured flooding since its incorporation in 1909, but always cleaned up and survived. The Great Flood of 1993 – as it became known – was different. After first reaching the community in early August, the renegade waters spread relentlessly for days, washing out streets, submerging farm fields and swallowing homes and businesses.

Dennis Knobloch, the mayor of Valmeyer at the time, recalls being in shock when he first surveyed the area by helicopter. "It was like flying over the ocean," he says. "All you would see were just the tip of the houses standing out like small islands. Everything else was covered."

There was no blueprint or playbook whatsoever for us to look at. It was a completely uncharted territory – Dennis Knobloch

When the floodwaters began to recede two weeks later, some residents went back to their gutted homes to start cleaning up, intending a permanent return. But then a second surge came through in September, bringing water levels back up – and setting Valmeyerites on a different trajectory.

"That one-two punch was a major psychological blow," says Knobloch. "After that most people were like: 'This is enough. We don't want to ever go through something like this again.'"

Some 90% of buildings in Valmeyer were damaged during the floods of summer 1993 (Credit: Dennis Knobloch)

It was then that the idea of a wholesale relocation began taking shape. The concept was first brought to the table by representatives of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the US government's main body for disaster relief, as part of a recently established hazard mitigation programme that aimed to move buildings out of the path of recurring disasters. Essentially, the government offered to buy out damaged properties and let residents use the proceeds to rebuild the city on higher ground.

Knobloch recounts he and other town officials thought it was "a crazy idea" at first. Only a handful of towns had experienced any success with the concept – and none had ever tried on Valmeyer's scale. "There was no blueprint or playbook whatsoever for us to look at," says the former mayor. "It was a completely uncharted territory."

But as time passed and damage mounted, Knobloch says they came to realise that relocation was the only way to try keep together a community that would otherwise scatter to the winds. The town rallied around the notion at a series of meetings and, in September, put it to a vote. Nearly 70% welcomed the option. "Not everyone was excited about the idea of course," says Knobloch, "but most people said: 'Yes, we want to save our town, and we'll do whatever we can to help.'"

Nicholas Pinter and Dennis Knobloch review a map of Valmeyer in 2018 (Credit: Joe Proudman/UC Davis)

A new beginning

After the vote, the process began in haste. Officials set their sight on a 500-acre (202-hectare) parcel of cornfields and woods on neighbouring bluffs. Residents split into a bevy of committees that worked tirelessly with outside experts to draw up preliminary drafts for the new town. Within two months, Knobloch was knocking on doors around the country to garner views on whether the town's plans were feasible and to ask for financial support.

Nobody expected to see the pieces starting to come together so early. It gave us hope that we could go back to being a community soon – Anna Glaenzer

As he scrambled to secure the $22m (£16.7m)needed to transplant Valmeyer and the $23m (£17.5m) to buy out residents' houses (eventually, state and federal governments pledged 90% of the funding), citizens used personal savings to make down payments on land plots for their new homes, enabling the village to purchase the land on the bluffs. In mid-December, just three months after the vote, construction on the new Valmeyer began.

"Nobody expected to see the pieces starting to come together so early," recalls Anna Glaenzer, who like many residents had moved into a temporary accommodation provided by FEMA. "It gave us hope that we could go back to being a community soon."

A river view from Old Valmeyer in November 2018. Valmeyer's current mayor says relocating has led to new opportunities (Credit: Joe Proudman/UC Davis)

The initial momentum, however, quickly gave way to a number of setbacks. Archeological sites were found during excavation and had to undergo remediation. Development plans had to be tweaked because of a cluster of sinkholes present in the relocation site. At one point, construction was halted for four months when officials discovered that some trees in the area were a breeding ground for an endangered bat species.

"It was gruesome," says Knobloch, who had meanwhile quit his job as an insurance broker to work full-time through all the permits, planning and obstacles of creating a town from scratch. With the community scattered around, Knobloch says the biggest challenge was to keep the social networks alive. Key to that were the community's institutions such as the school, churches and civic groups, which kept operating despite not having permanent structures.

As holdups mounted, however, some families dropped out of the effort and moved to other towns. "They just got tired of living in trailers or relatives' basements while waiting for a cornfield to become their new town," says Knobloch.

But the cornfield did eventually become Valmeyer. In the end, roughly 700 of the 900 people who had lived in the old town relocated to the new one. The process took about four years to complete, less than half of what federal officials had forecast.

Structures on the floodplain in Old Valmeyer prior to the flood (left image, 1992) and structures now built on the bluff in New Valmeyer (right image, 2018) (Credit: Russell Thebaud/UC Davis. Originally published using Flourish)

Loss and rebirth

These days, it's hard to tell a teeming town once existed in Valmeyer's former floodplain location. Roads have faded to gravel strips. A handful of houses accommodate the dozen families who chose to remain and still live there today. For the rest, rows of corn and soy now stand tall where buildings once were.

A mile uphill, the new Valmeyer is a quiet and orderly residential community, with tidy homes and senior apartments sitting neatly along gently curling concrete streets. The village has its own post office, a school, a gas station, two banks, three churches and a restaurant.

"It's peaceful and the view is striking up here. It's a nice place to live," says Tammy Crossin, a bookkeeper who grew up in Valmeyer and now lives in the new town. The trade-off for newfound safety is that many residents, especially old-timers, miss the feel and the character of the original town. "It's more like a suburb now," says Laurie Brown, a city clerk.

Howard Heavner, a life-long resident and the city's current mayor, acknowledges Valmeyer isn't what it used to be. But he says that relocating has given the community opportunities it wouldn't have had otherwise. Because of floodplain regulations, he explains, no new homes were allowed to be built in the old location. With development no longer constrained, Valmeyer's population has climbed to about 1,300.

Valmeyer residents return to the old town location for 4th of July celebrations in 2019 (Credit: Joe Proudman/UC Davis)

But while the new part of town seems to be thriving, not everything worked out as planned. "The commercial part never developed the way they hoped," Heavner says. "Most businesses moved to neighbouring communities after the flood because they couldn't afford to stay closed for as long as the rebuilding and, unfortunately, never came back."

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Pinter, the UC Davis researcher, says it's a long-standing issue. "The US government has traditionally refused to cover the cost of moving businesses," he says. "This is something that needs to change if this kind of approach is going to be successful in the future."

Having studied and documented over three dozen cases of town relocations in US history, Pinter credits Valmeyer's successful outcome to its ability to act quickly in the aftermath of the flood as well as a strong and persuasive leadership. "Officials gave people looking for a way to get into a permanent home a viable option as quickly as possible and managed to not have them run away," he says. "They also built broad public support for the effort and ensured that the community had a voice in decisions all throughout the process."

Siders says that while managed retreat is gaining growing currency, it remains a grueling practice fraught with strikingly complex challenges on practically every level. It is also not a solution for every town or city. But when considering it, she says, community leaders are wise to look to the lessons of those who've gone past.


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