Some willing to consider buyout in Dutchtown

Saturday, March 22, 2008

For more than a dozen years, the residents of Dutchtown have been working to obtain grants, tax themselves and enlist landowners to contribute ground to build up the Diversion Channel levee just south of their village of 99 people.

But the goal seems to move away faster than they can gather their share of the cost. And after this week's record-shattering storm sent water pouring over the levee in quantities and at a speed even old-timers can't recall, many are ready to listen to an alternative -- accept a buyout and move to higher ground.

On Thursday, when Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder came to the edge of floodwaters covering Highway 25 just north of their town, he was met by a contingent of residents who told him they were gathering the names of people who would listen to an offer.

If the money can be found to help build the higher levee -- a project that was originally estimated to cost $1 million when it was first studied in 1996 but has now ballooned to a cost of $3 million -- the people will stay, about two dozen residents said as they met with a Southeast Missourian reporter, who was introduced by town clerk Doyle Parmer. The meeting was on the parking lot at Affordable Furniture.

In an interview earlier in the day, Parmer put it this way: "You have tried and tried and tried and tried and listened and listened and what happens? There is a foot of water in your house 12 years later. What would you do? You'd say if you can't get a levee, buy my damn house."

Dutchtown has fought off floods throughout its existence, which can be traced to 1801. In recent decades, residents fought floods in 1983, 1993, 1995 and 2002.

Use of buyouts

Buyouts became one of the preferred options for dealing with flood-prone properties following the Flood of '93, which set records for crest heights along most of the Mississippi River north of Cairo, Ill., and the Missouri River from Rulo, Neb., to the river's mouth north of St. Louis. The Federal Emergency Management Agency will provide 75 percent of the cost of paying a property owner the pre-flood value, money which must be matched from state or local resources, said Sheila Huddleston, state mitigation officer with the State Emergency Management Agency.

In locations where a buyout occurs, the land is turned over to public use, construction that can be damaged by a repeat flood is prohibited and property owners who refuse an offer can be denied flood insurance. The buyout program was used in numerous communities in Missouri after the floods in 1993 and 1995, including the Red Star neighborhood of Cape Girardeau and the area once known as Smelterville.

But property owners are not bound by any town decision in favor of buyouts and can refuse at the last minute to accept an offer, even if they had previously said they were willing, Huddleston said.

Levee construction

The promises of help for levee construction have been made on numerous occasions. A design is finished, said Larry Sharpe. a project manager for the Memphis District office of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Plans call for building a 7,200-foot-long levee beginning at Highway 74, 3,000 feet east of the Highway 25 intersection and extending across Highway 25 to Hubble Creek. Four culverts and two portable pumps would handle interior drainage and runoff in heavy rain events.

The Missouri Department of Economic Development awarded a $297,614 Community Development Block Grant for use as a local match in 2002. U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson issued a news release in 2003 trumpeting $200,000 she was bringing to the project in earmarked federal money. U.S. Sen. Kit Bond and then-U.S. senator Jim Talent issued a news release announcing their efforts to bring money to the protect the area in 2006, and Bond added language to this year's appropriations for the Corps directing it to make the levee project a priority.

Under Corps rules, Sharpe said, the local community must find 35 percent of the money for the project. According to Sharpe, the community has $360,000 in cash and credit with the Corps, meaning it must find another $700,000 to pay its share.

Finding the money

The price has escalated, he said, because construction costs have risen sharply since the original studies were completed. And the Corps can't request money from Congress for the federal share until the local matching funds are on hand. The absolute earliest that could happen is in the budget that Congress will write this year to begin Oct. 1, and the earliest construction could begin would be the summer of 2009, he said.

If the levee had already been built, he said, Dutchtown would have remained dry this week.

While the town remains short of its goal, Parmer said, he thinks the community has more money available than Sharpe gives it credit for having. A bank account for the project holds $105,000, he said, the block grant of $300,000 is still available and town chairman H.W. Oberman has promised to provide 27 acres of land for the construction as an in-kind contribution worth $90,000.

But as they surveyed their drying community Friday, residents said they were weary of the wait. Nineteen families have attached their names to the list of people who are willing to listen to a buyout offer.

Most of all, they said, they want to know where they stand. "We are ready for some straight answers from the people in the know," said Larry Crutsinger.

Fighting floods

That's the message Sheriff John Jordan said he heard when he accompanied Kinder to the water's edge Thursday. Residents of Dutchtown have resisted buyouts in the past, choosing instead to fight floods with temporary levees and sandbag walls around their homes. But many of those present told the officials they had endured enough.

"This is the worst head pressure and headwater they have seen," Jordan said. "This is the first time they have seen water over the intersection of Highway 74 and Route A with force. This was running through with current. It is a big difference."

The water that flooded Dutchtown came in a rush when 13 inches of rain overwhelmed the north levee of the Diversion Channel, which collects runoff from the Castor River, Crooked Creek, Whitewater River and Hubble Creek watersheds to prevent flooding of hundreds of thousands of acres to the south. The levee on the south side is several feet higher than the north levee and land to the south was spared the worst of the high water.

The water this week was just too much for the Diversion Channel, Jordan said.

Dutchtown's history

Dutchtown has a long history of habitation.

Martin Rodner, a Hessian soldier who came to America in 1776 to fight for the British during America's Revolutionary War, moved his family to the Dutchtown area in 1801, where he owned a water mill on Hubble Creek. Because his American neighbors had trouble pronouncing his name, it became "Rodney," and his mill was known as Rodney's Mill. He died in 1827.

In the mid 1830s, the area near Rodney's Mill began being settled by Swiss and German families; they called their settlement Spencer. That later became Dutchtown, a variation of the word "Deutsch," which means German.

The small village grew. A blacksmith and a bricklayer settled there. Bloomfield Road ran through the town, as did railroad tracks.

In 1836 the German Evangelical Church was founded and remained an active congregation until about 1900. The original church was log, but a brick edifice was built in 1887. The church remains, as does its cemetery with about 150 markers.

The church was also referred to as the "Swamp Church," since the village was built on the edge of a swamp.

Before heading out on a helicopter tour of her flooded district Friday, Emerson said she always felt resistance to buyout proposals from Dutchtown residents. At the time of her statement, made in reply to a question from the Southeast Missourian, she and the reporter were unaware of the sentiments expressed to Kinder on Thursday.

"It is a very hard question" to ask people to move, Emerson said. "How would you feel?"

A buyout usually is a complicated and difficult negotiation, she said. "There have been challenges in other areas getting people to sell."

Southeast Missourian librarian Sharon Sanders contributed to this report.

335-6611, extension 126

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