In 1993, the Mississippi River destroyed the town of Valmeyer, Illinois. So residents moved it a mile uphill.
By Rachel Hellman
Kyle Duffy offers to drive me in his Toyota pickup to the empty place down the bluff where his home used to be. We pass the land where the school once sat, and the park that withstood the pooling of water that threatened to never cease. He has trouble explaining to me exactly what happened after the flood—he was only seven at the time—but his eyes scan the empty fields and marshy land with patient expectation. He knows the shape of the house that was once there. He stops the car and points to it, but all I see is grass on a plot that could hold a house. His finger lingers at the spot. He points to where his neighbors lived, and to where his grandparents nearly died. He sees a neighborhood I can’t.
We’re at the former location of Valmeyer, Illinois, thirty minutes outside of St. Louis, located within the immense floodplain of the Mississippi River known as the American Bottom. Twenty-eight years ago, in 1993, the river rose up and flooded the town. Water pulsed through the community for weeks, slowly drowning homes and destroying livelihoods. Duffy’s eyes seem to drift elsewhere as he describes the events that unfolded. His family, along with hundreds of others, lost nearly everything. Maybe it’s because he was so young at the time, but he smiles as he explains the excitement of moving to “FEMA-ville,” a collection of FEMA-sponsored emergency trailers about ten miles from his flooded home, where he and his family lived for more than a year after the flood.
Before the flood, Duffy’s Valmeyer was home to more than three hundred one- and two-story houses, twenty-five businesses, three churches, and a school. About ninety-five percent of the properties were substantially damaged due to the flood. The water wasn’t initially expected to reach Valmeyer, but on August 3, 1993, after continuous flooding for weeks on end, the Army Corps of Engineers decided to deliberately breach the levee along Harrisonville Stringtown-Fort Chartres in an attempt to save the historic town of Prairie du Rocher, as well as alleviate any chances of intense flooding in Columbus and downtown St. Louis.
“There were a lot of us that felt like Valmeyer was sacrificed for St. Louis,” Tammy Crossin, a long-time resident of Valmeyer, told me. “Nobody really could convince some of us that went through it that we weren’t.” She remembers watching her house drown from a viewpoint on the bluffs, “and all you did was sit there and cry. You would just see all this water flowing—you would have a real rough time because maybe just the tip of your house stood out and everything else was covered.” It took weeks before residents were able to visit the underwater village and check on their houses. Some of them had to use boats. Today, only about twenty-five homes remain standing and occupied in what was once considered Valmeyer.
But The Flood of ‘93 is only the beginning of Valmeyer’s story, and the genesis of its fame. Mention Valmeyer to St. Louisans and you’ll be met with a smile. “Oh yeah, I’ve heard of that place” they’ll say, “it was all over the news when I was a kid.” That’s how I ended up driving out with Kyle Duffy to this ghost of a place, trying to see what he sees in an empty field. Because the thing is, Valmeyer didn’t disappear after the flood. It just moved a mile up.
In an astonishing organizational and financial feat, residents of Valmeyer successfully transplanted the entire village a mile uphill, to sit atop a neighboring bluff, out of the range of future flooding. It started when a local farmer offered to sell his land to the town, and residents saw the potential for a new beginning. Scott Roever, a Valmeyer resident and owner of MAR Graphics, one of Valmeyer’s largest employers, told me not everyone was so excited about the idea to move. “They thought it was crazy, moving the town,” he said, “but then the other half of the people said, yeah, we’ve got to save Valmeyer, good old Valmeyer.”
Some people had moved permanently to other towns and cities, but many displaced residents—like Duffy’s family—had stayed in FEMA-sponsored trailers on nearby fairgrounds, hopeful that Valmeyer could be saved. After the land became available, “all of a sudden the tide and the momentum started to turn here,” said Joseph Schneider, whose family owned the famous Schneider’s Grocery in Old Valmeyer. “And the little town that couldn’t, did.”
The momentum gave way to quick planning. Village organizers stayed up late into the night, for months on end, drafting layouts and convincing residents to make down payments on “New Valmeyer.” Dennis Knobloch, who was mayor at the time, began circulating a newsletter called “The Original Voice,” meant to keep residents up to date on New Valmeyer’s development as excitement and expectation grew. As the village negotiated with FEMA and other government agencies for funding—a grueling task—residents made down payments on land plots for their new homes, generating about $500,000 as initial payment for the land. The village purchased a five hundred-acre farm tract on the bluffs for $3 million and was able to hold a groundbreaking for the new site only four short months after the flood.
If any single person embodies the success of Valmeyer’s extraordinary move, it’s Dennis Knobloch. Knobloch is something of a living legend in Valmeyer; he was mayor of the village before and during the Flood of ‘93 and spearheaded the rebuilding effort, quitting his full-time job to lobby state and national legislatures for the funding necessary to rebuild the entire village. Knobloch became the voice and face of Valmeyer’s efforts, and his success was celebrated at a national level. In 1994, he was even invited by President Bill Clinton to speak at an Earth Day celebration at The White House. Ed Van Zandt, a St. Louis native who moved his family to New Valmeyer more than ten years after the flood, told me matter-of-factly: “It’s very hokey, very corny, but I feel this way…you look at Washington and the founding fathers of this country and what they did to make this country what it is—Dennis Knobloch is that figure in Valmeyer.”
I meet with Knobloch in the village’s historical museum, which he has helped curate, along with the Valmeyer Community Heritage Society. The museum is a one-room schoolhouse that has survived generations of use, first in Old Valmeyer, and later in New Valmeyer after being moved by crane and truck following the relocation. Inside are relics from the rebuild—hats that read “Valmeyer: A New Beginning”; special edition stamps for the opening of the new town that say “Valmeyer: Rising to New Heights”; grainy polaroid pictures of the village after the flood. One image shows spray-painted signs on someone’s flooded front lawn that seemed to plead: “KEEP VALMEYER HELP REBUILD. YOUR HOME IS REBUILDABLE.”
Knobloch and others have painstakingly set up the displays, he explained, to remind generations of Valmeyerians what has happened, what efforts went into rebuilding their home from the ground up. (He has also authored and self published two hefty memoirs of the flood and its aftermath, one of which he sells to me on request after our interview.) On the day of our meeting, he wore Levi’s and a plaid button-up shirt, understated midwestern staples, and spoke with a somewhat rehearsed directness about the rebuilding effort. “I was out and about eighteen hours a day during that time period, and probably for the first year, while we were doing the planning and making all the arrangements for the relocation,” he explained. It was a difficult period of transition. As setbacks mounted in the building process, he said, some families wo had initially stuck around “would decide they were tired of waiting for the cornfield to become Valmeyer, and they would move to another community.”
But the cornfield did eventually become Valmeyer, and what was once Valmeyer is now cornfield, vast and empty, again part of the landscape. As part of the buyout and restoration program the village upheld, all of the old homes and structures had to be completely destroyed. The remnants of each flooded home and building were cleared completely. In the old village, not even a hint of the old structures remains.
Residents of Valmeyer seemed to appreciate that they could live atop the bluffs, safe from future flooding, while still watching over the old town. Yet, beneath stories of successful relocation was often a yearning for what once was. One resident, Penny Heusohn, who grew up in Valmeyer and survived the flood of ‘93 with her house still intact, told me that at one point after the flood she considered the possibility of literally picking up her house with a crane and moving it to New Valmeyer so that she could be with the rest of the community. She sheepishly chuckled recounting the idea, “I guess in a way, for a little, we almost felt deserted. Everybody left—almost everybody.”
Kyle Duffy certainly remembers his old home. Tammy Crossin slows down every time she drives through the old town, placing memories. Penny Heusohn told me Halloween isn’t the same anymore, that she dates everything before and after the flood. Scott Roever agreed that life is different now: “I think the thing that I miss most about not being down there is the vista, the views that you have,” he said. “When you’re living out in the middle of the floodplain, it’s just flat all around. You can see storms coming.”
Knobloch insisted there was no outright motivation to “recreate” Valmeyer in the new location, but he did mention that, during the initial planning process for New Valmeyer, residents asked if there was any way to “put a set of artificial railroad lines in town,” like the old village, which was split in half by train tracks. They wanted the “tracks in so that they could drive across them just like they did before.”
Now, Valmeyer looks down upon its old bones, the ghost of a place that once was in Old Valmeyer, as it is colloquially called. Residents seem to like that they can still visit the empty spaces and reminisce. The town’s acclaimed Fourth of July parade still takes place on the old grounds, and everyone stands in the place that their old home used to be, just like they used to on that day.
What explains Valmeyer’s success with rebuilding? Knobloch believes the media played a weighty role. At first, he felt the media were just “hungry” for “disaster.” Knobloch recounts a specific news anchor running to him only hours after the levee was breached, asking, “where’s the devastation?” He felt that Valmeyer was sometimes betrayed by the media, their experiences exploited and suffering taken advantage of. But eventually, he said, he “could see how much the media exposure was helping us because with all of the other communities that were struggling to get assistance—not just financially, but even getting the support of the agencies and the politicians. (t helped to get exposure.”
Valmeyer’s fight to remain intact struck a chord with the press. What is left unsaid is that Valmeyer was an ideal candidate for such media attention, as its flooding represented the defeat of a quintessential (white) Americana. Valmeyer is wealthier than many of the other agriculture-oriented towns in the American Bottoms. The village is a self-proclaimed “bedroom community,” with a population mostly made up of St. Louis commuters and a median income well above the national average. Valmeyer is also overwhelmingly homogenous, with nearly ninety-eight percent of its population identifying as white. Ed Van Zandt, A St. Louis native who moved to Valmeyer after the move to higher ground, put it like this: “Valmeyer is like…Norman Rockwell would have a field day in that town.”
That Valmeyer was successful in its rebuilding efforts is no coincidence. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is the main artery of the U.S. government for providing assistance in the face of climate crises, particularly by funding voluntary buyouts like the one Valmeyer participated in. A recent nationwide analysis of FEMA’s buyout program reveals that it disproportionately targets whiter counties and neighborhoods (though it is often neighborhoods of color that benefit most from buyout programs). And a 2019 study published in Science Advances revealed that of the more than forty-three thousand properties FEMA has paid to demolish and return to nature, most of them are in already wealthy counties.
A 2017 article published in Science —one of most detailed economic assessments of climate change to date—finds devastating disparities in how natural disaster and warming temperatures will affect American communities. Of particular concern is projections that show that wealth will be transferred from poor counties in the Southeast and the Midwest to well-off communities in the Northeast and on the coasts. Exacerbating these already stark inequalities are the depleting funds allocated to FEMA and other federal-level relief organizations. (Last summer, the Department of Homeland Security, under the Trump administration, announced that it was “reprogramming” $155 million in FEMA funds to use for migrant detention centers.)
It’s clear that the timeline for completing FEMA buyouts is critical for the success of projects in retaining community members. But a 2019 Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC) study reviewing nearly thirty years of FEMA data found that it takes a median of more than five years between a flood and the completion of a FEMA-funded buyout project. The study concludes that these “long wait times make buyouts less accessible, less equitable, and less effective for disaster mitigation and climate adaptation.”
There are plenty of high-profile examples to choose from over the past few decades. Much research in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, for example, revealed that it was the shortcomings of governmental and structural bodies, rather than the hurricane itself, that led to such a monumental loss of life and level of destruction—particularly, though not exclusively, in the majority-Black areas of New Orleans. Valmeyer’s achievement is certainly one of few, a showpiece of bureaucratic success among an ever-growing collection of displaced communities.
Surely Valmeyer has benefitted from its image as the “little town that could.” In fact, another town in the American Bottom affected by flooding recognized the level of power these narratives surrounding disaster had in prompting much needed funding. Knobloch told me that Grafton, a town up the river that had flooded just months before Valmeyer, hired a PR firm to make videos that they could then take to politicians and agencies to try to get financial aid. “They had to pay for that exposure, where in our case it just naturally fell on us,” Knoblech explains. Prior to the Great Flood of 1993, Grafton had a stable population of nearly a thousand residents, but as of the 2010 U.S. census, the city’s total population had dropped to 674.
When I ask Knobloch about Valmeyer’s success, he agreed that the commuting population played a big role. “There were some people who worked at the businesses in town that definitely did affect those people, but the people that commuted to St. Louis to work, it was easier for them to sit back and wait. Yeah, they could work on their house, but it wasn’t a big push like it would have been if we’d have had a factory in town that employed four hundred people and those people were all displaced from their job[s].” Hidden behind the much-lauded success of Valmeyer’s move are the less wealthy former residents and the small business owners who couldn’t ride out the transition.
My interview with Kyle Duffy was supposed to take place in Valmeyer’s town hall, which is now in the shell of a building that was meant to house a bank but never did. As I walked into the building, Duffy joked that residents had asked if they could pick up forms from the drive-through window meant for tellers. The bank is in the center part of New Valmeyer that was intended for a business district, complete with restaurants and pubs and maybe even a beauty salon or barber. But the businesses never seemed to move in as planned. Instead, the charming mom-and-pop restaurants and shops that used to line the downtown of Valmeyer moved to neighboring towns or closed up entirely after the flood.
There is no grocery store in Valmeyer, or barber shop. The whole town feels like a blueprint that was never quite fulfilled, with boxy houses and huge, empty streets. The pub in Old Valmeyer that used to be the hotbed for conversation and gossip was replaced by a gas station outlet, the only place in the village that allowed for meandering conversations over food. I was told that if I wanted to feel what the old Valmeyer community was like, I should head to the gas station, one of the few businesses in town where old folks still chat in the corner, but now with nowhere to sit.
Residents repeatedly mentioned the loss of Schneider’s, the family-owned specialty grocery store with an exceptional meats section that people would travel from St. Louis to visit. After the flood, the grocery store was forced to move to nearby Waterloo; the owners couldn’t afford to stay closed for as long as the rebuild. J.R. Schneider, the nephew of owner Joseph Schneider, said “people were upset because he didn’t open a store there. But I think once they sat back and they realized, you know what, they had to get moving because this is going to take as long as it does, I think they understood that.”
Jake Koahnz, a lifetime resident of Valmeyer and owner of Jake’s Barber Shop, which opened in 1962, moved his shop to nearby Waterloo but kept his home in Valmeyer after the flood. He’s been around for a long time. He laments to me about when The Beatles nearly took him out of business. When I clarify that he is talking about the band, he replies: “yeah, that hurt the haircut business. Everyone wanted long hair.” He tells me that he thought those who survived the flood were “resilient.” When I asked further about what resilient meant in relation to the relocation of the village, Koahnz explained: “that means that they like the area, they like the community, they like the people, and they enjoy living there.”
As I spoke with Valmeyer residents, I sensed the emergence of a sort of internalized narrative, invoked in interview after interview—a careful cluster of buzzwords (community, resilience, together, home) and a particular “story” of the flood that, by the fifth interview, began to border on myth. There is an unsound lack of depth to anyone’s initial recounting of the flood; they all read like the local newspaper articles I gathered in preparation for my visits, rather than the detailed and nuanced reflections I heard later in our conversations.
In Knobloch’s memoir I read about a (reportedly small) amount of residents opposed to the move uphill. In direct response to Knobloch’s “The Original Voice,” a “rogue-newsletter” began circling called “The River Rat Rumormill Gazette,” which aimed to dissuade residents from moving uphill. An excerpt from the December 23, 1993 copy of the “rogue” newsletter reads: “If any story is written about the town and its citizens, it should be a story about the ones that are staying, the ones that are fighting the ‘SYSTEM’, saving their homes, their lives, and their lifestyle, and not giving in to the easy way out.” When I mentioned the “rogue newsletter” to residents, they lowered their voices and leaned in. They said it wasn’t the main discourse, and that most residents were happy about the move.
Scott Roever said that in Old Valmeyer the small businesses became community centers where people hung out and chatted. “Now they hang out at the gas station. All these old guys hanging out at the gas station at 4:30 in the morning.” He paused. “I think that meant a lot having had all those little businesses that people go to.” Roever, who took over his family’s commercial printing business, says leaving Valmeyer was never an option for him. He shows me pictures of employees sand-bagging around the old facility before the flood, trying desperately to save expensive equipment. Roever admits that when MAR Graphics decided to stay in Valmeyer after the flood, the company took a major financial hit, but it was a conscious choice to stay in the community.
I was intrigued by the association of resiliency and belonging that kept cropping up in our conversations. To be attached to a place, to know its land and its people and have a stake in its future seemed to me a fleeting fact of a different time. The contemporary realities we now know—of a changing climate and exacerbated wealth inequalities that will be only heightened by our warming world—mean that community is now a privilege. Who gets to rebuild their homes after a flood? Who can stand on higher ground while others hold back broken levees?
When I drove up to Valmeyer to speak to residents who lived through the flood, I couldn’t help but think about the (albeit overused) line from Christian scriptures: “as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.” The sentiment is eerily fitting. Not only is New Valmeyer physically higher, perched atop bluffs looking down upon the ghost of its former homes, it is also looked upon, by academics, journalists, disaster management planners, and others across the country, as a success worth replicating. In fact, when I first approached residents about interviews, I was warned that most were tired of talking to journalists. There’s even been a musical written about the town, titled, unsurprisingly, The Flood.
Rebuilding Valmeyer was a notable feat, but it doesn’t necessarily represent a roadmap for the future. Today, amid growing climate pressure, it’s virtually impossible to carry out such an operation. With unprecedented rates of climate-induced disaster and dwindling governmental funds, most professionals no longer consider rebuilding communities a viable form of disaster recovery. Nicholas Pinter, a geology professor at the University of California Davis, noted: “They’re the textbook case of this phenomenon. This is a sweeping nationwide problem with just a handful of these success stories. It takes a lot of will and expertise and, in the current climate, political creativity to make this happen.”
We are in a time of ever-increasing disaster. Lately, for example, the Mississippi Delta has seen heightened and unprecedented rates of flooding. In June of 2019, flooding of the Mississippi River again overwhelmed those living in the American Bottom, with more than four months of overflow destroying homes and businesses. Grafton Mayer Rick Eberline reported to the Belleville News-Democrat that many families simply decided to move out of the city for good. “It broke them,” he said. “They got tired of the fight and they just said, ‘Why continue to do this? Let’s go somewhere else where we don’t have to worry about it.”
Toward the end of our interview, Dennis Knobloch reported somberly that “the river levels right now are higher than they should be at this time.” Knobloch seems suddenly small in the old schoolhouse as he pauses for a moment. “It’s warmer in the northern part of the Mississippi system right now than it normally is. They’re expecting that this could be another year of flooding.” ■
Rachel Hellman is a recent graduate of Washington University in St. Louis, and has been published in The Boston Globe and Whetstone for articles covering environmental issues.
Cover image of old Valmeyer, Illinois by Paul Sableman (creative commons).
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