River Town Mayors Nervously Watch Rising Water, Want More Funding For Flood Prevention

May 5, 2019
Originally published on May 5, 2019 1:07 pm

Civic leaders along the Mississippi River are bracing for near-record flood levels in the coming days and weeks.

Mayors in Missouri and Illinois say federal programs that aim to prevent flood damage need more funding to adequately support river towns that face evacuation and income loss.

Flooding in Alton is expected to crest next week at 35.2 feet, the fifth-highest flood level on record, according to the National Weather Service. The river at Grafton is expected to reach the fourth-highest flood level on record for the city. River levels at both Illinois towns are expected to exceed levees and rise within 10 feet of historic levels reached during the Great Flood of ’93.

In Grafton on Friday, roads were already closing, people were already evacuating, and water was approaching the city hall, said its mayor, Rick Eberlin.

“We’re basically at wit’s end,” Eberlin said Friday in a conference call with mayors from Iowa, Missouri and Illinois. “We’re totally unprotected. Our entire length of our city is wide open, so we just have to wait and see how much debris gets pushed into our banks.”

River town mayors band together

Eberlin is among many elected official supporting a proposal that would direct $7.8 billion into funding existing federal grants related to flood prevention. It would also establish a new federal loan program.

The proposal comes from the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative, a collaborative that organizes 89 mayors who want to to better manage flood prevention along the Mississippi River.

The group has already pushed the Pre-Disaster Mitigation Grant program, which aims to decrease natural hazards, to increase its funding. In fiscal year 2018, the program offered $235 million in funding — an increase of more than $200 million since fiscal year 2015, after which the group first successfully lobbying to increase the funding.

But that’s not enough, according to the group’s executive director, Colin Wellenkamp.

“We can’t hope to solve our flood issues within the bounds of our cities alone. The Mississippi River is a system where one part affects the other,” Wellenkamp said.

The initiative wants the federal government to create a $100 million fund for loans that would help river towns rebuild infrastructure like levies and renew wetlands and floodplains that can mitigate flood damage.

Flooding is already taking a toll

Mayors in the St. Louis region said the fund would help their towns prevent and recover from the economic damages caused by flooding.

Mayor Phil Stang of Kimmswick said that one of the city’s biggest sources of income — its strawberry festival in June — is in jeopardy this year because fields and roads have flooded.

And Alton mayor Brant Walker said that the costs of flood protection drain the city’s coffers. The city’s revenue is also hurt because floods cause a decline in retail spending, Walker said.

“Retail in Alton is over $500 million a year,” he said. “So when we start losing the casino, portions of our downtown area, our riverfront park is under — that has significant impact on how we are able to operate and run our city.”

Cities elsewhere along the river have new natural infrastructure, such as wetlands and protected floodplains, and governments have increased spending on disaster planning.

But Wellenkamp, of the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative, said that he and members of the group hope Congress will still approve supplemental funding.

“We’re just getting started here in terms of the water moving south,” Wellenkamp said. Floods are expected to continue for at least another week, according to the National Weather Service.

Mayors in the St. Louis area will meet with the East-West Gateway Council of Governments, a regional planning organization, and others to create a plan for managing natural disasters from 2020 to 2025.

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