Relocated after massive flooding, Missouri town may offer post-flood blueprint for Iowa towns' survival

Published: Jan. 31, 2020 at 3:45 PM CST
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Nearly a year after historic floodwaters devastated towns across Iowa and Nebraska, many of them are still trying to figure out a way to survive.

Iowa towns like Bartlett and McPaul were abandoned after the Heartland Flood in 2019; former residents scattering throughout the county, state, country — or just to the nearest higher ground.

But take a trip about 140 miles southeast, to Pattonsburg, Mo., and there rests a potential blueprint to the way forward.

"It sat right here — well, since 1876. That's when it was first built,” said Gene Walker, as he points to where his house once stood.

The once-bustling farm town was abandoned after floodwaters wiped it out in July 1993.

“My job, my home, my church, my wife's business were all under water,” said Walker, who served on the town council at the time. “The problem is we're surrounded by waterways."

The major waterway, the Grand River, feeds into the Missouri River.

“To some degree, it flooded every five years, a little," Walker said."But over its history, pretty much about every 10 years, it had a big enough flood."

But nothing like what unfolded in 1993.

Unusually heavy snowfall followed by seemingly nonstop rain thrust the Missouri River and its tributaries into overdrive. Floodwaters hit nine Midwestern states, killing more than 40 people.

“We were standing on the dike when it crested, and the fear of not knowing what's going to happen next,” Edmon Howard said. “The anxiety, trying to get your property — or what you could save — and your family out of the flood area."

Howard is now the mayor of the new Pattonsburg.

“There was a lot of heartache," he said. "There was a lot of disappointment, but those who hung it out, they moved up here."

The town picked up and moved a few miles drive north to higher ground — but not overnight.

“We, by and large, involved the whole community in the process,” Walker said. “We had town meetings with this is a possibility, with 'This is where we can go,' and 'Do think we ought to do this?’ ”

And those efforts paid off; the majority of the town's 350 residents got behind the move.

“I think we had seven or eight different meetings with folks about planning, about what they want to see in the new town, what they don't want to see — a yes and no list," Walker said.

The idea of FEMA buying out flooded homes has become somewhat familiar, but this was different; this was relocating an entire town, with a price tag upwards of $11 million.

Meetings with state and federal officials were followed by more meetings with engineers about the logistics of the move.

“All of that took quite a bit of a process," Walker said. "We actually didn't know we were approved until July of '94 — the next year."

The approval paved the way for a new Pattonsburg, leaving behind a ghost town seemingly made for Hollywood. In 1997, it served as a backdrop for Ang Lee's "Ride With the Devil."

In 2009, the filmmakers looked back at the experience.

"They moved whatever houses they could up the hill and said they were going to tear the town down; and we said, 'Well we'll tear it down for you,' " recalled James Schamus, producer and screenwriter.

But neither Hollywood nor floodwaters could move Lyle Waford; he's among the few who stayed.

“There's no place I'd rather be,” Warford said. The 85-year-old farmer recalls 1993 as if it were yesterday."

“It was just night after night of 4, 5, 6, 8, 9 inches (of rain from) different towns upstream, continually,” Warford said.

During last year's historic flooding, he once again found himself amidst rising waters.

“You just put up with it and go on,” Warford said.

And go on, they do.

The population of the new Pattonsburg is about the same as the old, with some fresh businesses arriving and families growing.

“It may take another five or 10 years, I don't know," Walker said. "But hopefully, we can keep it growing for our children, and they can take over from us."

It’s a hope one flood-hit village in Nebraska also has. The people of Winslow are looking to follow in the footsteps of Pattonsburg.

They’ve been meeting with state and federal emergency management officials to try and figure out the possible relocation of their village.

At this point, there are no concrete plans; but they expect to meet with officials again in February.