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Nebraska town’s grim choice: can it pick up and move?

Posted at 12:54 PM, Dec 29, 2019
and last updated 2019-12-29 13:54:40-05

WINSLOW, Neb. (AP) — It took only minutes for the icy Elkhorn River to surge over a levee and engulf tiny Winslow, but months after the floodwaters receded, the village finds itself struggling to decide its future — or if it has a future.

Will it be reborn atop a nearby hill, or will the town stay put, living under a dark cloud?

“It’s never flooded like that before,” said Bill Whitley, 72, who owns a house where his daughter lives in town. “But it will someday again.”

This town of about 100 residents is one of a growing number that may face the choice of moving or dying as climate change worsens flood risks, leaving people who have lived for years through nature’s extremes to accept that their hometowns may no longer be habitable where they are.

Since the creation of a buyout program in 1989, federal and local governments have poured more than $5 billion into buying tens of thousands of properties threatened by persistent flooding to avoid the need for frequent rebuilding.

Many residents have agreed to move to other places, but still rare is the relocation of entire towns.

But that’s the choice Winslow now has before it, and more may follow. While 30 years of buyouts would seemingly have addressed all the most threatened places, climate change is now putting ever more towns into danger from rising tides and heavier storms.

Meanwhile, state and federal authorities have imposed restrictions on disaster aid that make it harder for them to rebuild after flooding.

“I would say our current weather pattern is making it difficult if you’re living in a flood plain area,” said Bryan Tuma, assistant director of the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency.

It’s unclear how many communities in recent years have been reclassified by the Federal Emergency Management Agency into higher risk flood zones, but a 2013 FEMA-funded study found the amount of land vulnerable to extreme river flooding would likely increase by 45% by the end of the century.

Winslow residents must raise their homes, leave or restart the town at a site a few miles away and 100 feet (30 meters) higher with government financial help.

“We are going to flood again,” said Winslow village trustee and volunteer fire chief Zachary Klein, who is leading a relocation effort.

Winslow was incorporated 110 years ago about 40 miles (65 kilometers) from Omaha, a half-mile (800 meters) south of the Elkhorn River; most residents are farmers or blue-collar workers.

They’ve occasionally had to deal with rising water. But nothing like the last decade, when nine of the 10 highest crests ever have been recorded, including the worst of all in March.

Torrential rains falling on frozen ground poured into the river and sent the normally lazy stream surging into the town and inundating thousands of acres of farmland.

Other towns along Midwest rivers also flooded, but as spring stretched into summer, most at least started to recover.

Winslow, though, looks like a ghost town, with its gravel streets empty and its 48 homes and businesses posted with official warnings against entering.

With many towns pleading for higher levees, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has no plans to invest millions to upgrading Winslow’s.

“Even the Corps can’t afford to build up levees everywhere,” said Rob Moore, an analyst with the Chicago-based environmental group the Natural Resources Defense Council.

So local leaders found land about 3 miles (5 kilometers) away on a hilltop and negotiated a price. Klein hopes to have the purchase finalized by February so crews can begin putting in infrastructure, initially along a single street. Houses would be built or moved in, starting as soon as late next year.

Then would come the community structures “that make a town a town,” Klein said — including a community center, post office, fire station and even Smiley’s, the town’s only bar.

A handful of other towns have been transplanted over the years, including Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin, in 1983 and Valmeyer, Illinois, in 1993.

The big question is whether enough Winslow residents will commit to move to make it worthwhile.

About 25 households — or half of Winslow — have signed on so far. Those who don’t move to the new town can take a buyout, which covers 75% of a structure’s pre-flood market value, and move elsewhere.

Or they can stay, although they would have to elevate their property at considerable cost to get flood insurance.

At a recent meeting, more than 50 people gathered to ask questions. Final decisions must be made by spring.

Ken Rice, who is repairing his nearly 85-year-old home and hopes to move it to the new site, said it’s hard to imagine the village dissolving.

“This is home to me,” the 57-year-old Rice said. “I’ve lived here all my life.”

Nilene Parker has lived in Winslow only two years, but said she’s ready to rebuild “up top,” as residents call the new site.

“I can’t afford to do anything else,” she said.

But at least three households have decided to stay in the old Winslow, even if that means paying a hefty price.

Fran Geisler and her husband will have to raise their house more than four feet and get an above-ground septic tank. Some of the outbuildings and farm equipment will remain at risk of flooding.

Nevertheless, “this is home,” she said. “I’ve lived here 33 years. My husband has lived here all his life. We just couldn’t live any other place.”