Move gives small Missouri town of Silex shot at rebirth

Sunday, June 21, 2009
Buildings are seen Friday on Main Street in Silex, Mo. Just like Rhineland, Mo., and Valmeyer, Ill., before it, much of Silex will soon be moving to higher ground. Missouri has approved $1.9 million to relocate most of the 200 residents of the Pike County town. (JEFF ROBERSON ~ Associated Press)

SILEX, Mo. -- A struggling town flooded after Hurricane Ike last year is getting a facelift and a chance at rebirth, as much of the town will move to higher ground with the state's help.

About one-third of the homes in Silex will be moved from low areas along the north fork of the Cuivre River to a hill.

The town of about 200 residents in northeast Missouri experienced major flooding in September, when the remnants of Ike brought heavy rain that caused the river to rise suddenly and spill over its banks. Nearly every home, business and church was damaged.

Earlier this week, the Missouri Department of Economic Development approved a $1.9 million grant to buyout and rebuild the homes.

"For people who want to move, this is a great opportunity," Mayor Janet Baker said Friday. "The flood's been here twice now. This is a chance for everybody to get their lives back together."

Some say it's also a chance for a rebirth for a community that has long struggled financially. As of the 2000 census, the median household income in Silex was less than $25,000.

"It's a way for a town that has suffered the calamity of a flood to get a new start," Department of Economic Development spokesman John Fougere said.

Buyouts of flood-prone land have been common since the Great Flood of 1993, when states and the federal government decided the best course of action was to get people out of the floodplain. Often, that meant buyouts for entire neighborhoods. In a few cases, it meant entire towns.

Pattonsburg, in northwest Missouri, was nestled in a plain surrounded by three creeks and the Grand River, a tributary of the Missouri. The Grand flooded twice in July 1993, the second time leaving the town buried in nearly 4 feet of water. The entire town moved to land on a hill about two miles away.

Valmeyer, Ill., a Mississippi River town near St. Louis, also relocated after the 1993 flood. So did Rhineland, a Missouri River community near Hermann in eastern Missouri. Much of Winfield, north of St. Louis, relocated atop a hill.

Today, the new section of Winfield is vibrant, with a new shopping center, a growing number of new homes and an influx of wealthier residents.

Rhineland has also been revitalized since its relocation. It began with 30 homes and now has about 60, said Jay Gourley of the Boonslick Regional Planning Commission, who helped coordinate the moves of Winfield and Rhineland and is doing the same with Silex.

"I'd hate to be so bold as to say those towns would cease to exist, but without the moves, they would have become low-rent areas, a lot of poverty," Gourley said. "New businesses wouldn't want to locate there."

That's been the case in Silex for some time, in part because of the threat of flooding. It's not just the Cuivre River, it's the layout of the community.

"Visualize a bowl, and they're the bottom of the bowl," Gourley said. "There's hills around them. When they get flooding, it's typically a flash flood."

Fougere said about 18 Silex properties will be bought out. New homes will be built on a hill. Several nearby landowners are offering land on higher ground, and Gourley said the exact site for the relocation has not been determined.

Gourley said some existing homes may also be moved to the new site. A town meeting is scheduled for July 13 to discuss what happens next. Gourley expects the relocation project to take at least two years.

For Baker, the most important thing is getting people away from the ever-present flood danger.

"Until you've had 2 feet or 4 feet of water in your house, you can't imagine what it's like," she said.

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