Weary of annual cost, Missouri city leaves it to residents to fight Mississippi River flooding

For years, tiny Clarksville has paid for temporary sandbag walls to protect its quaint business district and historic waterfront homes from Mississippi River flooding. But unwilling to raid its coffers again despite rising water levels, the city has left it to individual merchants and residents to safeguard their property.

After an unusually calm spring, the river is raging. Recent heavy rains in the upper Midwest have caused a sudden surge in the water level and by the middle of next week, the National Weather Service is projecting it to reach 9 feet above flood stage in Clarksville.

At that level and without sandbag protection, the downtown art galleries, antique stores and craft studios that bring tens of thousands of tourists to Clarksville each year would be threatened, as would the 19th century homes perched along a wide swath of the river.

Mayor Jo Anne Smiley said the City Council voted at an emergency meeting Monday not to fund the flood fight, and the reason was simple: There's no money for it.

"We just can't keep doing this," Smiley said.

If there was any resentment by those whose property would be in harm's way, it wasn't evident Wednesday. Several merchants and homeowners have begun working together to fill sandbag left over from last year, hoping their efforts will be enough.

"You can't fault the city for not spending money they don't have, but we're out here because you have to do something," said Mike Brewer, a 62-year-old blacksmith and sign artist.

Marge Greenwell, who runs a furniture-making business with her husband, Mike, said some merchants are unhappy with the city's decision. Rather than gripe, though, she said they are simply pitching in to fight the flood on their own.

"We're here and we're going to do something," Greenwell said. "We've worked too hard. We rehabbed all these buildings, the store fronts. We're on the National Register of Historic Places. We just pray we'll be able to keep the water away."

Whether it's due to climate change, new levees upstream that funnel more water downriver, bad luck or some combination of all three, extreme flooding has become commonplace along the Mississippi.

Six of the 10 worst floods on record in Clarksville have occurred in the past two decades. Smiley said sandbagging has been required in four of the past eight years, costing $400,000 to $700,000 each time. Much of that is reimbursed by the state and federal government, but the city of roughly 450 residents picks up enough of the tab to consume a big chunk of its $350,000 annual budget.

The state is offering some help. Mike O'Connell, spokesman for the Missouri State Emergency Management Agency, said the agency is working with the Army Corps of Engineers to help get sandbags and plastic tarps to Clarksville, and is reaching out to volunteer groups such as the American Red Cross for assistance, in case they are needed. Federal Emergency Management Agency spokesman Michael Cappannari said FEMA could provide assistance if a disaster occurs.

Some might argue that Clarksville's flooding problem is self-imposed.

Since the Great Flood of 1993, which was the worst ever along much of the upper Mississippi River and caused $15 billion in damage, most river communities have built flood walls or levees, or bought out homes and businesses that were then either moved from the flood plain or bulldozed to turn the areas into green space.

Hannibal, 45 miles to the north, saw its downtown flooded time and again, often threatening Mark Twain's boyhood home and damaging many of the 19th century buildings along Main Street. The community finally gave in and built a levee, which was completed in 1992. If it had not existed, the 1993 flood would have been devastating.

But Clarksville refuses to give ground, and there is a general consensus among its residents that a levee isn't an option.

Smiley has been lobbying state and federal lawmakers to help pay for an "easy-up" wall. A German company, EKO, has developed a removable modular floodwall system. Panels are stored and can be quickly installed when a flood is imminent, and there is no unsightly permanent wall or levee.

But the system would cost $3.5 million in Clarksville, and the town has no money to pay a share of the cost.

"One of the only things we've got going for us is the Mississippi River, and the view of it for tourists is mightily important," Smiley said.

Brewer agreed as he peered out at the surging and fast-rising river.

"This is part of who we are," he said.