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Flood Plan Leaves Clarksville, Mo., Residents On Their Own


Heavy rains have led to flooding all across the Midwest in recent days in Iowa, in Illinois and in the small town of Clarksville, Missouri, which sits on the Mississippi River. The river is expected to crest there today, and residents hope the walls they've built will hold. Here's Amanda Vinicky of member station WUIS.

AMANDA VINICKY, BYLINE: Ask a Clarksville resident how long they've lived there, and the answer is usually given in the context of a flood. Margie Greenwell owns a custom woodworking shop with her husband, Mike, in downtown Clarksville.

MARGIE GREENWELL: Well, 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. This is our seventh flood that we've been through here. And...Hey, guys. Don't be touching out there, OK? I mean, you're fine.

VINICKY: Greenwell stops to issue a warning to kids taking pictures of the flood from the sidewalk that abuts the small string of downtown shops and 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.

GREENWELL: They're just braces. You know, we were going to put in dead mean, which is another brace that runs down. And then you...

VINICKY: For good reason. Greenwell and other volunteers designed and built these floodwalls 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 Anne Smiley says cost the city $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

MAYOR JO ANNE SMILEY: And July 1, the next day, we're facing another flood. And communities, especially small communities, can't weather that kind of impact.

VINICKY: 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 floodplain, 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 homemade floodwall is holding up. Eventually, Clarksville wants to buy a sort of high-tech version of Legos that can be assembled any time there's 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...

JOHN HARMON: Since 1971 - just in time for the '73 flood.

VINICKY: When waters rose to then-record levels, until the great flood of 1993.

HARMON: In '73, they told us it was a 500-year flood. (Laughing) Like hell, it's more like a five-year flood. Now the folks here in town, they've got very good at fighting floodwaters. But they're only winning tactical victories - not strategic. They're losing the strategic war.

VINICKY: 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 silts in it and other factors, it's too late to protect Clarksville from the Mississippi. Harmon says it's just not worth it. But try telling that to Margie Greenwell.

GREENWELL: We understand that the people on the Hill think that we spend too much money down here fighting water. And there are some people that do. But I'm not one of them.

VINICKY: For NPR News, I'm Amanda Vinicky in Clarksville, Missouri. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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