Flood buyout reduces water damage in Cape

Wednesday, May 22, 2002

The Southeast Missourian presented Cape Girardeau police chief Steve Strong a check for $18,074.88, the proceeds from the newspaper's "Pay for the Pup" fund-raising effort. The money will be used for two drug-detecting dogs. From left were: Jon Rust, co-president; Tracker; Cheryl Ellis, editor of the Southeast Missourian Jr.; Strong and Kris Dowell, advertising director.

By Mark Bliss ~ Southeast Missourian

The Mississippi River at Cape Girardeau crested at its third-highest level ever on Sunday, but the flooding was more coffee-shop chatter than a disaster story in the flood-walled city thanks to a government buyout of homes and businesses that left most residents high and dry.

The flooding reached only six houses in the Red Star neighborhood north of the flood wall and two houses on South Sprigg Street, city officials said.

That's in sharp contrast to the flood of 1993, which threatened 151 homes in the city.

The river crested Sunday at 45.7 feet, which was 13.7 feet above flood stage. By Tuesday morning, the river had dropped to 43.8 feet on the Cape Girardeau gauge. Flood stage is 32 feet.

The highest crest was on Aug. 8, 1993, at 48.5 feet. Less than two years later, on May 24, 1995, the river crested at 46.7 feet.

Those two floods spurred buyout efforts in the city, paid for by the state and federal governments, along with funding from the Salvation Army and the InterFaith Disaster Response charities.

Creating vacant lots

Fueled by the funds, the city bought and demolished 94 houses and four businesses and purchased 16 vacant lots. Those properties, purchased over six years, now are grassy lots.

In 1994, the city demolished 30 buildings after residents moved out. That wasn't a part of the buyout program as the city didn't buy the properties, but the effort had the same impact of clearing off flood-prone ground. An $88,000 Missouri Department of Economic Development grant paid for the demolition, but the homeowners didn't receive anything from the government.

City officials said having to mow the grassy lots is a small price to pay to keep flood damage to a minimum.

"In the long run, it saves money," said Steve Williams, the city's housing assistance coordinator in the planning services office.

The federal government has to pay out less in flood insurance claims, and the city and residents aren't saddled with a costly flood fight and ruined houses.

In 1993, the city spent $442,000 to sandbag, hire extra crews to man pumps and monitor water treatment facilities, rent generators and, finally, clean up flood damage. The 1995 flood cost the city another $300,000.

Kent Bratton, city planner, said all but two of the bought-out residents stayed in Cape Girardeau, using the money they received to relocate to homes on higher ground.

Woody Sadler and his wife, Virgie, lived on Water Street in the Red Star neighborhood for 47 years. But the flooding in 1993 and 1995 convinced them to move.

During those earlier floods, Sadler said pumps and sandbags managed to keep water out of his house. The couple walked to and from the house on a plank stretched across the water-covered yard.

Sadler said the buyout didn't make him rich, but it allowed him and his wife to buy a house on North Spanish Street well out of the flood plain.

He still praises the buyout.

"It's one of the best investments that government ever made," Sadler said.

Leroy Lemonds agreed. He and his wife, Martha, moved to the Tanglewood Subdivision after the city bought out their home in the flood-prone Meadowbrook area along South Kingshighway near Interstate 55.

"We have been tickled to death we left there," Lemonds said.

A number of the houses now surrounded by floodwaters in the Red Star neighborhood are rental homes. These are homes whose owners refused to sell to the city in the buyout, city officials said.

Sherry Hawk and her 17-month-old grandson, Julius McIntosh, watched the water slowly recede Tuesday near a small house on Main Street that her daughter had rented until driven out by the flood.

"We come and see the water every day," Sherry Hawk said.

Her daughter won't rent the house again, she said. But Hawk, who grew up in the neighborhood, is considering renting the house herself.

Floodwaters came close but didn't get into the house this time. Hawk said she and other Red Star residents have seen a lot of flooding over the years.

"We've seen it worse," she said.

In addition to the buyouts, the city also helped prevent future flood problems when it raised the elevation of South Sprigg and LaCruz streets to provide access to the city sewer plant, raised the intake pump for the water plant and added emergency generators at both plants.

mbliss@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 123

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