The Soldiers Grove Story: Lessons For Post-Sandy Sustainability

This is the first in a three-part post about the potential for sustainable recovery along the Atlantic Coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

by Bill Becker

As the communities on the East Coast contemplate rebuilding after Hurricane Sandy, here is a story they might consider. I’ve told it before. It seems like a good time to tell it again.

In the late 1970s, a small community in Wisconsin made a big decision. The Village of Soldiers Grove decided that when people and nature come into conflict, it’s sometimes better for people to get out of the way.

A little history is necessary. From its founding in 1856, the Soldiers Grove had been a river town. It was built on the banks of the Kickapoo River, a 126-mile-long tributary of the Wisconsin River in the southwestern corner of the state.

Being “river rats”, as the townspeople liked to call themselves, made sense then. The river furnished mechanical power for the village’s principal industry, a sawmill, and provided an easy way to transport logs cut from the forested hillsides upstream. The Kickapoo eventually provided the village with electricity, too.

But in 1907, the community’s relationship with the river began to change. The Kickapoo hit Soldiers Grove with its first big flood. Forestry and farming were denuding the hills so that runoff flowed more freely into the river. More big floods slammed into the community in 1912, 1917 and 1935.  Each time, the villagers cleaned up the muck, repaired the damage as best they could, and resumed their routines.

The 1935 flood persuaded Soldiers Grove and its neighboring river communities that they needed to lobby Congress to dam the Kickapoo River.  But Congress, always slow, was slowed down more by World War II.

There still was no dam when in 1951, the Kickapoo surged down Main Street with such force that it sent cars tumbling side-over-side and pushed homes off their foundations, floating them away like houseboats.

In 1962, Congress finally authorized the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build a dam and  recreational lake on the upper Kickapoo River, the largest public works project in Wisconsin history at the time. In the late 1960s, the Corps used eminent domain to buy 149 farms. Construction began in 1971.

That’s when I came into the picture. I bought the village newspaper in the mid-1970s and became its editor, looking forward to a bucolic country life. That dream ended with my first assignment: a public meeting in which the Corps presented its plan for saving Soldiers Grove from more floods.

Because the village was far downriver, the dam would not offer much protection, so the Corps proposed to build a $3.5 million levee around the community. It didn’t make much sense to the villagers. The levee would protect only about $1 million worth of property, including the community’s business district and a few homes.  If the levee was ever topped, it would keep water inside the village rather than keeping it out.  To prevent that possibility, the Corps recommended several pumping stations. But the cost of maintaining the levee and pumps would double local property taxes.

As we left the meeting, the owner of one of the community’s several taverns cracked:  “They ought to just pick this town up and move it out of here.”  We laughed.

But at 3 a.m. the next morning, the idea of moving the town woke me up from a sound sleep. I got dressed, went to my office and hammered out a counter-proposal to the Corps: Let us spend the $3.5 million to move the town’s flood prone buildings to higher ground. We’d never ask for federal disaster assistance again.

The Village Board endorsed the idea, but the Corps declined.  It was not in the business of moving people; it was in the business of building things and naming them after members of Congress.

In 1975, after opposition to the dam grew intense and after the Corps had spent $19 million and built half of the dam, Congress withdrew its support for the Kickapoo Valley flood control project.  Soldiers Grove decided to march on with the idea of relocation anyway. In the late 1970s, with innovative local financing and federal grants, the village began moving its business district to higher ground.

It was not an easy project.  Soldiers Grove was an economically depressed community. Students from the University of Wisconsin helped with much of the planning. There were regrets about leaving the “river rat” tradition behind. There were frictions about who got the best lots at the new site, or whether disaster recovery funds were distributed equitably. Some people took their disaster assistance funds and left town for good. Others believed the village should remain where it was – that there wouldn’t be any more big floods.

In searching for federal help, the villagers found there was no single source of government money for relocating a community, so they became skilled grant writers and lobbyists. At one point after public attention in Washington shifted from Soldiers Grove to other more current issues, federal funding stopped, leaving the village only partly moved. But in 1978, another record flood hit the community and funding resumed.

The relocation was completed in the early 1980s. The villagers not only accomplished one of the country’s first nonstructural flood prevention projects; they also had built the nation’s first solar community, requiring every new building in the cold Wisconsin climate to obtain at least 50% of its heating energy from the sun. Memories of the Arab oil embargoes in the 1970s were still fresh.

The community planned its new construction carefully to capture benefits well beyond flood prevention. The entire business district was built to be handicapped accessible long before the Americans With Disabilities Act became law.

Students surveyed townspeople to identify retail services the village needed so people wouldn’t have to shop elsewhere. The Village Board set energy efficiency standards for new buildings, far more ambitious than required by state law. Those standards combined with solar heating meant that some of the new buildings paid very little for energy.

New ordinances encouraged business owners to use indigenous materials in their buildings to provide a few additional jobs for local lumber mills.  Even the local Mobile gas station was a solar building.

In 1983 when the new village was largely finished, everyone turned out to dedicate it with a plaque that read:

Respectfully dedicated to all the minds who had the courage to dream, to all the hands who helped make the dream a reality, and to all the souls, some yet to come, who will nourish this idea: that people working together can make a better life.

Although we didn’t know it at the time, Soldiers Grove was a pioneer in what today is called “mitigation and adaptation” in the vocabulary of global climate change. Solar energy reduced the community’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, while relocation adapted it to growing extreme weather events.

Those who were involved in the project hoped it would shift the paradigm of  disaster mitigation by showing a viable alternative to the Corps’ practice of deploying bulldozers to tame rivers with dams, levees, river channelization and the like. Congressional studies showed that despite billions of dollars of investment in flood control structures,  deaths and property damage were increasing, often because the dams or nature didn’t perform as expected.

It wasn’t until 25 years later that the Kickapoo River confirmed the wisdom of relocation.  In 2007 and aain in 2008, all of the villages along the river were hit with the largest floods in their history – back to back “500-year” disasters. The floods caused incredible devastation to other Kickapoo Valley villages, but Soldiers Grove remained virtually unscathed.

Does the Soldiers Grove story offer lessons for how the neighborhoods in New York, New Jersey and elsewhere on the East Coast might rebuild? Can they find a silver lining in this disaster?

I’ll answer those questions later. First, there are a few more stories to tell.

Bill Becker is the Executive Director of the Presidential Climate Action Project. For more specific information about the Soldiers Grove experience and its lessons for other disaster-affected communities, see Becker’s report,  “Rebuilding for the Future”.

11 Responses to The Soldiers Grove Story: Lessons For Post-Sandy Sustainability

  1. Joan Savage says:

    Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin, is a solid and inspiring story. Thanks for sharing it.

    Let’s be mindful in making comparisons that the Soldiers Grove community was blessed with enough years between major floods to achieve their move to higher ground, and that there were enough resources and space to accomplish that move as an intact community.
    The time intervals among Hurricanes Irene, Lee and Sandy are far shorter, and available higher ground a mile or so inland, or upland, isn’t a reality for much of the northeast coast.

    The Wisconsin story is still inspirational, none the less.

  2. fj says:

    Yes, this is a very effective narrative further confirming the fundamental design stategy for the future.

    Profound integration with natural capital where human capital is the most important component.

  3. Merrelyn Emery says:

    This story destroys a couple of myths regularly paraded on this site: 1. people can only do short term thinking or neglect long term goals; 2. people are hard-wired for self interest and greed rather than cooperation towards a shared desirable future, ME

  4. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The problem is not that ‘..people are hard-wired for self-interest and greed..’, but that they are ‘soft-wired’ for those traits by the social system. I agree that there is plenty of evidence that people prefer co-operation rather than competition, sharing with others rather than greedily keeping as much as possible for themselves, but the rulers of society are just the opposite. And they have projected their pathopsychology onto society through their near monopoly on the MSM brainwashing apparatus and control of the economic and political systems, and there is, unfortunately, a certain fraction of the proles who can be incited to ape their masters and act out of greed and general misanthropy. How else did John Howard win four elections and be replaced by a simulacrum?

  5. Cugel says:

    With the way things are in the UK just now it has struck me that living close to any watercourse is risky. You can’t go by past behaviour anymore in what are unprecedented conditions – but likely to become quite common.

  6. Merrelyn Emery says:

    You are not the only offender here where I regularly read about the nasty inevitability of ‘human nature’ and new versions of the old, thoroughly discredited ‘authoritarian personality’. People have affect systems, free floating at birth which usually attach themselves to the beliefs of their families and social groups. As they move around and grow, people come under the influence of different ‘panoramas of social ties’ and different organizational structures which change their behaviours and beliefs. The process of changing your mind continues till death.

    I have no idea who or what the Right or ‘rulers of society’ are or is. The ‘captains of industry’, the politicians and the big financiers are all far from internally coherent groups. You are left to hypothesize some shadowy community of belief who exercise some mysterious form of power that cannot be analyzed or challenged – yes, there are some characters out there who break all our moral rules but that is a hypothesis for which there is very little evidence.

    To get to grips with our climate problem requires that we separate out at least 3 interrelated components of so-called capitalism, the ubiquitous use of the first design principle that pits person against person with dire long term consequences for human psychology and the planet, an economic theory which assumes individuals are atomized economic units devoid of feelings and other than economic purposes, and the ability to make profit from capital. Until we see these interrelated components clearly and address them adquately, we won’t get very far, ME

  7. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Well, as I tried to say, I believe that ‘human nature’ is very variable from one individual or group to another. I agree absolutely with your description of people’s beliefs being plastic and influenced by nature and nurture and peer pressure, and capable of changing throughout life, but that is true to very differing degree from one individual to another, and most Rightists that I have met or observed in politics seem to me to have very obdurate opinions and biases, and change only rarely. I suggest reading ‘The Australian’ for a few months, if that is not impertinent and cruel.
    However, from my experience, there is very definitely a ruling class, driven by a quite uniform ideology, itself a reflection of individual and group psychologies. They’re the ones with the money and power, the infamous 1% and the even more powerful 0.01%. I find the denial of their existence quite mystifying. They are ‘shadowy’ only if you ignore the yachts anchored off Monte Carlo, or the million dollar apartments on sale in New York, or the hypertrophied art market, or the growth like topsy of luxury consumption. As for their ‘mysterious’ power, it is, I would assert, not a mystery at all. These are the people who pay for politicians’ campaigns, careers and lucrative retirements. They are the ones who fund the propaganda ‘think-tanks’ that proselytise hard Right ideology. They are the ones who move industry to low wage jurisdictions, who bribe poor world officials and who set up and financed the climate change denial industry. They are actually quite blatant (and increasingly so) in their control of society. They are, for God’s sake, the Murdochs et al who own and direct the MSM in its endless indoctrination.
    As for the ‘authoritarian personality’ being a ‘thoroughly discredited’ idea, I’d simply have to disagree. Are you really asserting that there are no ‘authoritarians’ or just that it is too simplistic a notion? The very nature of the capitalist corporation is that of an authoritarian mini-state, with the Boss at the top dispensing the orders and the drones all the way down to the bottom following orders or seeking employment elsewhere. And political parties and ruling Governments in the so-called ‘democracies’ are more and more elected dictatorships with a ‘great leader’ calling the shots and any questioning by his colleagues is instantly portrayed by the MSM as internal dissension. ‘Strong’ ‘authoritative’ leadership is simply demanded by the MSM.

  8. Patrick Linsley says:

    I’m surprised he didn’t mention that Gays Mills has been in process of the same thing after the 2007 flooding of the Kickapoo River.,_Wisconsin
    Also here in Janesville since the 2008 flooding a subdivision has been been pretty well torn down on the Rock River to just revert back to nature. At first a lot of the residents said they would rebuild but, after seeing many of their neighbors decided otherwise, they left too. Probably what will happen with a lot of places due to Climate Change :(.

  9. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Sorry Mulga but you’ve really missed my point which is that for the large part, the problem is not vested in the people who you call ‘authoritarians’ but in the powerful components that contribute to your perception. Of course most of our organizations are autocracies (bureacracies) and we have representative democracy, with the structure that results from the first design principle. I have spent most of life working on, and changing, these and in the process have worked with a lot of their bosses. Some have changed the design principle and hence no longer have those destructive structures while others simply could not believe all people could be responsible and productively self managing. Or that ‘private enterprise’ could flourish without the intrinsic competition that that design principle produces.

    Yes, it has gotten worse over time and ‘leadership’ has now assumed cult status, also pushed along by parrot academics themselves organized into often vicious hierarchies chasing dollars.

    I have acknowledged there are some strictly amoral or immoral ones out there who have increasingly exploited the potential for self interest and corruption that our structures and theories afford but these are not a majority. Most are ordinary mortals who see themselves doing their job according to the accepted rules and do not understand the system in which they are trapped. The trappings of wealth are a poor indicator of beliefs or personality. Lumping them all into one group who deserve our villification will not solve anything and risks serious unjustice. This is a problem to be solved, not a moral crusade however it may seem on the surface, ME

  10. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Well, ME, I see your point, and of course I understand that my personality, inclinations, experience and prejudices have me judging these people more harshly than you. It is probably a difference of temperament, and, plainly, one where forebearance and forgiveness for the prodigal is, in principle, the far preferable position. As you say, these are still human beings, and I agree that some, perhaps many, might be turned away from their destructive behaviours. However I am still convinced, from my own study and direct experience, that there are such things as authoritarian psychopaths, that they congregate in business, because it works by exploiting others and the natural world, that they are the root cause of our ecological and social crises, that they have created and energised the climate denial industry, one of the most wicked enterprises in human history, and that they stand between humanity and salvation, physical and spiritual.

  11. Bill Becker says:

    Patrick, there are two reasons I didn’t mention Gays Mills. First, we encouraged Gays to relocate back in the late 1970s, following the Soldiers Grove example. It declined.
    Second, I wanted to focus on communities that have succeeded at relocation to show it can be done. I’m very happy to see that Gays Mills is finally looking at getting parts of the community out of the floodplain. It’s a great village and I wish it well.

    In regard to Janesville, although it is often smart to allow an evacuated area to return to nature, we’ve found that some communities are reluctant to lose the economic value of floodplain land. Soldiers Grove, for example, is using the floodplain as a riverside park with some recreation facilities that can’t be damaged too badly by flooding.