Waters Rise Beyond Flood Plain In Rural Mo., Raising Questions about FEMA Mapping

The record-breaking flood has drowned economic drivers like tourism and logging and created public health hazards from contaminated water. Areas like Ripley County pull together for the difficult cleanup.

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Nancy Smith has seen the Current River come out of its banks before. But the latest flood has been one for the record books.

“The Current gets out occasionally. But it’s nothing like this,” said Smith, who lives near the Ozark National Scenic Riverways in Southeast Missouri. “I’ve never seen anything like this one.”

Heavy rains produced a record flood event that hit the all of southern Missouri and Illinois hard in late April. In Doniphan, Missouri, just south of the Ozark Scenic Riverways, the Current crested at 33.13 feet, shattering the previous record of 26.8 feet, set in 1908.

“All of Southeast Missouri is an island for now,” Smith said. “Nobody can get in. Nobody can get out.”

Smith lives on a bluff above the Current River downstream from Doniphan. “We went for 60 hours without power, but things are kind of back to normal by now. I’m still drinking bottled water, but my food supply is holding up. The freezer stayed cold somehow, so I have still have something to eat.”

The Current River and its Jack’s Fork tributary make up the heart of the Ozark National Scenic Riverways. It’s normally a special place for many Missourians, with cool and clean spring-fed water meandering through the region’s limestone bluffs, oak-hickory woodlands, and numerous caves. In the National Park section of the river, no motor-powered boats are allowed. The region is dotted with outfitters to serve the paddlers, many coming from St. Louis and Mid-Missouri to escape the scorching summers.

Smith is concerned about the toxic sewage and chemicals traveling in the floodwaters, and of the long-term damage that could come to the region. She says that propane tanks floated away, that gas stations were underwater and leaking and that many people are unaware of the damage flooding can bring to their wells. She’s also worried for the many homes and businesses in the region that don’t carry flood insurance.

The timber economy, too, is hurt by the flooding. “We’re completely shut down,” said Greg Iffrig, executive director of the LAD Foundation. The foundation owns the Pioneer Forest, with more than 150,000 of sustainably-managed woodlands. “The forest soil, the ground where operations would occur, they’re just too soft. We’re not sure when we’re going to be back up and running,” Iffrig said.

LAD Foundation also owns numerous natural areas operated by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, such as Grand Gulf State Park. “The whole canyon is just flooded with water and debris,” Iffrig reported. “What’s usually a greater than 100 foot overlook above the canyon is now just about the water level.”

As with most floods, the rescue and rebuild efforts will focus on the pooling of resources from the private and public sectors. In Doniphan, the Ripley County Health Department has been working around the clock to provide public health services to those cleaning up. “We’ve been in prevention and protection mode here,” Executive Director Jan Morrow said. “We’re providing numerous shots and vaccinations to the support workers and the relief people. We’re all under such stress, we have to support the people cleaning up here from additional worries about sickness and injury.”

Morrow spoke repeatedly of the “devastation” all over Ripley County due to the floodwaters, but she remains hopeful. “As bad things are, there’s and an outpouring of kindness and goodness from people all around the area. Ripley County has rallied. You have to smile when you hear how people pull together in tough times like these.”

While the local population cleans up, it’s uncertain whether, or when, the flooded region will receive federal support. The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s National Flood Insurance Program is already $25 billion in debt.

Rural Pulaski County, another rural Ozark county in the flood zone, has not had a positive experience with FEMA’s flood relief efforts. Presiding Commissioner Gene Newkirk told the Waynesville Daily Guide, “They don’t pay” and went on to describe a process of doing what FEMA asks, submitting paperwork for repayment, and being denied. “They say we’re not paying for it,” Newkirk said.

Newkirk told the Daily Guide that because FEMA hasn’t paid out for projects from the 2013 and 2015 floods, the current flood would “bankrupt road and bridge.”

“You have to spend your money and then FEMA reimburses you, but right now [Pulaski County] is owed so much money from FEMA, from projects done, that they’ve emptied their till doing those projects waiting for FEMA’s money to come in and FEMA has not produced the money,” Newkirk said. “So right now with this flood they’re sitting there with no money.”

Others point to FEMA’s lack of focus on less populated rural communities for flood prevention resources. “It appears that mapping rural areas, like the places in the Ozarks and Northeastern Arkansas where the flooding happened last week, are not high on FEMA’s priority list,” Temblor‘s David Jacobson said. Jacobson posted maps documenting places that are not currently part of the online database of high-risk flood zones.

“What worries me is that these rural places have very high flood risk, but they get very little attention from FEMA. As resources are scarce, it appears that updating information with modern mapping and technologies has not been priority. Property losses in Van Buren, Missouri, or Pocahontas, Arkansas, are just as damaging to families and the region as they are in cities like St. Louis.”

“Disaster assistance and flood relief are a shared responsibility, from the individual all the way to federal government,” said Laura Lightbody, project director of the Flood-Prepared Communities Project of the Pew Charitable Trusts. She works full-time to reform federal flood by “advancing holistic solutions that prepare communities in advance for flood risks, policies that will save money and lives down the road.”

Lightbody and Pew have studied voter attitudes toward FEMA flood relief programs. Their recent poll found that:

  • 81 percent of the registered voters who responded support a single, national standard to disclose property flood risk. This reform would ensure that potential homebuyers are aware when a home has flooded repeatedly—which could require its owners to purchase flood insurance.
  • 64 percent support local action to reduce flood risk in communities with repeatedly flooded properties. Under this reform, certain communities with homes that flood repeatedly would have to take action to reduce the risk of future flood damage, for example by improving drainage, protecting wetlands, or helping homeowners safeguard their properties. The proposal is included in the Repeatedly Flooded Communities Preparation Act (H.R. 1558), introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives on March 16. 
  • 82 percent of those polled support a requirement that all federally funded infrastructure in flood-prone areas be constructed to better withstand the impacts of flooding. This would apply to new construction and to repairing and rebuilding structures severely damaged by flooding, including roads, transit systems, or hospitals.
  • 75 percent support prioritizing FEMA buyouts of repeatedly flooded homes in environmentally sensitive areas. These properties would then be restored to a natural state, such as wildlife habitat or recreation area. This would give willing homeowners compensation for their property—at pre-flood values—so they could purchase a new home in a lower-risk area.

The current FEMA Flood Relief Program, already facing budget deficits and reimbursement backups, expires in September of 2017.

 

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