Living by the river's whim

Monday, June 2, 2003

COMMERCE, Mo. -- Buddy Vetter and the Mississippi River are bound together. Retired now, he was a riverboat pilot for 38 years. He was on the river when the Mississippi came after his family's double-wide mobile home in July of 1993. With the help of neighbors and family members, his wife, Mary, moved their belongings to a relative's house while vowing to return.

"She just didn't want to leave," Buddy said.

When Mary died last year, the Vetters were still living on the same lot at the corner of St. Mary and Tywappity streets, albeit in a different mobile home. Some of their neighbors had taken a government buyout of their properties which led many to leave Commerce altogether. In 1993, only 17 of the 94 houses in Commerce were outside the floodplain.

Those who remained have had to be resourceful. Vetter built a mound on his lot to put a new mobile home on. Shopkeeper Dixie High has surrounded her property with a concrete wall meant to keep the river at bay.

Commerce boasts that it is the only river town in Missouri that has never been moved from its original location. Its unobstructed view of the Mississippi River is also its problem. High water usually makes islands of houses in the floodplain.

Today, there are 31 fewer houses and mobile homes in town than in 1993 due to the Missouri Community Buyout Program, which was created to eliminate frequently flooded housing from the state's floodplain.

The buyout left Commerce's number of households at 49, according to the 2000 census. It helped reduce the town's population from about 180 in 1993 to 110 in 2000.

The residents of Commerce have lost a lot but not their sense of humor. After the flood of 1993, the citizens started an annual fall event called the Commerce Floodfest.

Vetter is one of a number of Commerce residents who stuck it out and think the floodplain buyout was a washout.

Ann Huck, who was mayor of Commerce in 1993, think the same thing.

"It just ruined the town," she said.

Mowing the buyouts

Down by the river, Commerce is now a ghostly landscape of empty lots and mobile homes. The city now holds the deeds to the buyout properties but can do little with them besides mow the grass because few of the lots are contiguous. A few are leased out for storage for $25 a year.

Buyout properties can be used only for open space or for recreation or as wetlands, said Susie Stonner, a public affairs officer for the State Emergency Management Agency in Jefferson City. Only buildings for recreational purposes can be constructed on the land.

Commerce refused the government buyout program in 1993 under Huck but took the buyout when offered again two years later under a new mayor, now deceased Roy Jones. The battle over whether to accept the buyout offer was bitter, but the floodwaters were even higher in Commerce in 1995 than in 1993.

In 1995, Huck remained opposed to the buyout but accepted an $11,000 Community Development Block Grant that enabled her move her house five blocks away to higher ground. "If it gets up here, everybody will have to be building an ark," she said.

Huck still owns five lots in the floodplain.

"When it got to 7 inches in the house, I thought it was time to do something," she said. "I was getting too old to do that every three years."

The federal government originally planned to offer $1.75 million in buyouts to the Commerce residents who qualified, with the state contributing another $680,000, but some decided they weren't interested in the buyout or that the offers were too low. The total amount ultimately paid by the government to 31 residents was $796,733, which averages to just over $25,000 per buyout. After his $30,000 flood insurance payment was deducted, that's about what FEMA offered Vetter.

Lack of land

The problem with the buyout, some residents say, was that the prices offered were low because the very location of the houses or mobile homes in the floodplain reduced their value. If residents wanted to stay in Commerce they often could not because land on higher ground was at a premium.

David Mayberry and his wife, Marie, took a buyout in 1995, They tried to buy higher ground in Commerce, but none was available. Instead they moved 3 miles outside town.

They thought the money offered was too low, but viewed the buyout as the only chance to free themselves of the ordeal of flooding.

"You had to live in it to understand it," he said. "It didn't have anything to do with the people or that town. It was just the idea of the way it disrupted your life."

Dixie High decided that her own personal floodwall was the best way to protect her property. High's Gift Shop is across the street from Vetter's mobile home. The two buildings are surrounded by a 5-foot-high concrete wall built a few years ago. High built another concrete wall around two rental cottages she owns a block away.

She had the wall built because government buyout programs will not pay for commercial property. "I had too much money invested in the merchandise in there," she said.

She's also protecting a yellow pre-Civil War house that lodges part of her gift shop. The other part is in a neighboring house built only four years ago.

"I was buying when some other people were selling," High said.

She disagrees with the buyout approach to controlling the costs of repeated flooding. "You've got people up and down river, towns that are built to accommodate the high waters," she said. "You don't just turn them into wetlands."

Leaving for good

Most people who took the buyout left town for good, Vetter said. He was born on a farm just outside Commerce. He and his family had lived on their lot for 25 years before the 1993 flood. Now 70, he is glad he and his wife decided to stay.

"The people that sold out didn't live here very long," he said.

Both of his sons live in the floodplain. Dealing with the Mississippi River is something they figure to do for the rest of their lives.

A few years ago, Vetter raised the level of part of the lot 4 feet and added a 1-foot-thick concrete pad before moving into a new single-wide mobile home. The flood last spring came within a foot of the top of the mound.

After the buyout, Vetter joined the town council hoping to change the situation and eventually became the mayor of Commerce. "It was too late to do anything," he said. He resigned when Mary became ill. One of his sons, Coy, is now the mayor.

Commerce is holding its own right now but has many needs, Coy Vetter said, beginning with a new city hall. The current one has been flooded many times, has termites and is small.

"Ten people can't get in it," he said.

The buyout cost Commerce a considerable amount of its tax base, Vetter said.

A farmers levee surrounds Commerce like a horseshoe, and a government levee is south of town, but no levee protects the city itself. "The older people didn't want a levee, they wanted a view of the river," Coy Vetter said. "Now we're stuck with the mess."

Peggy Kight is another who decided to keep on living in the Commerce floodplain, another resident of Tywappity Street. "I love it here," Kight said. "When the river is not up, it's a beautiful town."

She lives in a triple-wide mobile home with her son and daughter. The 1993 flood came within an inch of getting in their home. Only constant pumping and sandbags kept it out.

She refused the buyout because the offer was low and her husband was in bad health. Besides, she said, "This is our hometown. ... The ones that moved out were older people who couldn't deal with it anymore."

The battle continues for the 58-year-old Kight, whose husband is now deceased. They had to sandbag last year and go to and from the house by boat.

Sometimes she wonders what it might have been like to be freed from the river's whims. "There are times when I think maybe we should have moved," she said. "There are other times when I say, 'I'm going to fight it again.'"

335-6611, extension 182

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