High and Dry: The Soldiers Grove Story

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"High and Dry: The Soldiers Grove Story"

flood-ohio.jpgIn my first post, I promised to offer some new rules for climate action. But that promise was swept away this past week by the Great Floods of 2007.

Apocalyptic storms have been slamming Illinois, Ohio, Indiana and Wisconsin, dislodging homes from foundations and flooding entire communities. Along the Kickapoo River in southwestern Wisconsin, where I published a weekly newspaper 30 years ago, all the villages are under water. Except for one community called Soldiers Grove.

In the 1970s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (more recently known for its flawless protection of New Orleans) proposed building a $3.5 million levee around Soldiers Grove. I cranked up my printing press and wrote a counterproposal: We’d take the money and move the town to higher ground. Rather than re-engineering the river, we’d relocate the people, never to be flooded or to require federal disaster relief again.

soldiers-grove.jpgThe Corps didn’t buy it, but we found other state and federal agencies willing to help, kicked in our own money and moved the town between 1979 and 1983. Fresh from the second Arab Oil embargo of the 1970s, we decided to make Soldiers Grove the nation’s “first solar village.” With unanimous support, the Village Board passed the nation’s only ordinance requiring that all new buildings receive at least half their heat from sunlight.

The first big test came last week with record flooding in the Kickapoo River Valley. I scanned the web in vain for news about Soldiers Grove and finally got a call from the Associated Press: Alone among the villages on the Kickapoo, Soldiers Grove was untouched.

As the story points out, relocation is extraordinarily difficult for a community, and neither the Corps nor FEMA yet has invented a program to help. But my prediction is that we’ll see a lot more extreme weather and flooding in the United States in the years ahead, and it would be good government policy to help move people – and in some cases, entire neighborhoods and communities – out of the path of rivers.

As an important fringe benefit, relocation is an excellent opportunity to build smart and green. Soldiers Grove proved it can be done. You can read more about the story at their website.

— Bill B.

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6 Responses to High and Dry: The Soldiers Grove Story

  1. Cliff says:

    There needs to be a new position in local, state and maybe federal government, responsible for relocating communities – Moving Town Planning. There’s lots to be learned from cases like Soldiers Grove.

    Re: the AP article, thanks for pointing to it and explaining your involvement in it, Joe.

    I’ll bet that peoples’ attitudes about relocation from the flood plain change as they reassess the risks of staying leaving. If the flooding becomes more frequent or more extreme, more people reach their tipping points. “Hmm,” they think, “That hilltop site is starting to look a lot better to me.”

    What the NFS concludes about the relative merits of relocating towns compared to restoring them after every flood make sense only in terms of pre-AGW assumptions. When the 100-year flood becomes the 10-year flood, or if the sea level has risen, the equation must shift. The old town is going to be ruined whether the people stay or go.

    These relocation scenarios may apply to small towns, but they wouldn’t seem to scale well for riverside cities or coastal cities. Is anyone even considering such exigencies? Long range plans? Short? Theories? Anything?

  2. Joe says:

    Cliff:
    Thanks for the comment. This was, however, Bill Becker’s post.
    Joe

  3. Joe says:

    Oh, I see, if you go directly to the post from the feed, you can’t tell that I didn’t write it.

    I will fix that!

    Joe

  4. Bill Becker says:

    Cliff:

    Your question about bigger riverside and coastal cities is a good one. The move at Soldiers Grove was do-able in part because the village is small.

    In many cases, however, the floodplain areas within big cities along rivers don’t involve the entire cities, but neighborhoods, often the poorest parts of town. Relocation is still a plausible option at that scale.

    (There are two ways to move a neighborhood or community out of a hazard zone, by the way. The first is evacuation: the government pays people to leave and they scatter. The second, relocation, reestablishes the neighborhood or community somewhere else.)

    Coastal cities are a different issue, New Orleans being the obvious example. In those cases, and in cases where huge urban areas are within river floodways or floodplains, the first step is to restore natural protection.

    We know about what development has done to the wetlands that once served as buffers in New Orleans. In riverine ecosystems, watersheds often have been heavily farmed and forested so that the rain doesn’t stay where it falls. Riverbeds begin to collect silt, decreasing their capacity to hold water…and on and on it goes.

    The first step is to restore the flood-prevention properties of the watershed by switching to conservation tillage, replanting forest lands, and maintining the rivers. In California, one set of communities established a special tax to restore a riverine ecosystem to prevent flooding, reestablishing wetlands and even putting the “meander” back in the river — the natural bends and turns that help slow the flow of water. (http://www.napaflooddistrict.org/Flood.asp?LID=535)

    Man-made flood-control systems are another response, of course, but they cannot replace good watershed practices and they sometimes make problems worse upriver and downriver.

    In the final analysis, many coastal and riverside cities — originally built at these locations to take advantage of ports, hydropower or, in the case of Soldiers Grove, the river’s ability to move logs to the local sawmill — are simply vulnerable to natural disasters. And it’s likely those disasters are going to become more frequent and more damaging.

    As is the case in New Orleans right now, it may be unaffordable or unavailable insurance that forces people to move, rather than an organized relocation like Soldiers Grove’s.

    But it would be smart for federal and local governments to have plans for reducing the loss of life and property that worsening weather will cause — plans both for prevention and recovery — particularly with so many Americans, like others around the world, living in coastal areas. What used to be disaster prevention has become climate adaptation.

    Bill

  5. Bill Becker says:

    Here is an op-ed in the New York Times that addresses the growing insurance problems being caused by natural disasters:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/25/opinion/25hkunreuther.html?th&emc=th

    Bill Becker

  6. Thanks, Bill. I appreciate the response.

    As to the coastal cities, it all depends on how much sea level rise we get. I could certainly see NYC’s financial district taking on some water. And that mall in Washington, D.C.? What’s the elevation there? I grew in in D.C. and always had the impression that the Tidal Basin was not very much below the Reflecting Pool.

    I found this site that includes lots of photos of the old flood-prone Soldiers Grove and the new, dry Soldiers Grove:

    http://www.fortunecity.com/meltingpot/wisconsin/970/tour.html