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The U.S. has experienced its wettest 12-month period on record. Scientists warn that climate change is causing more intense storms, resulting in increased flooding risk for millions of Americans living near rivers and along the coasts. How can vulnerable communities prepare? Special correspondent Cat Wise reports on a radical approach some are exploring: relocation of the towns themselves.
Beyond the immediate flooding of this spring, the U.S. just experienced its wettest 12-month period on record.
It comes amid warnings from many scientists that climate change is causing more intense storms, which, in turn, are increasing flooding risks for millions of Americans living near rivers and along the coasts.
Many communities are now struggling with how to prepare.
Special correspondent Cat Wise has our report about a small number of towns that have taken a unique approach to addressing their problem.
Midwesterners are no strangers to floods. But this year's record-breaking floods, which have impacted hundreds of communities and cost billions in damages, have caused some to question the wisdom of rebuilding, once again, in floodplains.
A different option is getting new attention: relocating entire towns. That's what recently drew a caravan of cars to a small town near the Mississippi River, Valmeyer, Illinois.
The visitors, from as far away as Japan and Australia, were touring several of the 20 or so towns that have moved over the past century. They wanted to hear how the town's former mayor, Dennis Knobloch, had managed to pull off one of the country's most successful relocations.
We wanted to be able to annex the relocation site to the original town site to try to retain the original identity.
What prompted the town's move was the Great Flood of 1993, which impacted hundreds of Midwest communities and submerged Valmeyer under up to 18 feet of water for more than a month.
Today, most of those flooded homes and businesses no longer exist.
On the right, this was all residential property. This was some of the later construction in town, very nice, newer homes. There was nothing available as far as any kind of reference information on how to move a town.
We actually took it to the people as a vote, and the majority of the residents that were involved said, yes, we will help you out. We want to be a part of this.
Today, a mile and a half away and 400 feet above the original town, is New Valmeyer, completed two years after the flood.
The relocation was made possible by the federal government. Since 1989, FEMA has provided $3.2 billion to states and local governments to buy nearly 46,000 properties in flood-prone areas. Once the homes are purchased, from willing owners at pre-flood appraisal prices, they must be demolished and turned into green space in perpetuity.
Many move away, but Valmeyer's residents wanted to stay together, so they pooled their buyout money to purchase the town's new land.
Valmeyer is really the poster child of a floodplain relocation in the U.S. They got a lot right here.
University of California-Davis Professor Nicholas Pinter was the tour leader. He's a geologist who's spent years studying a process known as managed retreat.
Instead of building a levee, a flood wall around your town, instead, giving nature its due, backing away, say we're just going to step away from the river, we're going to step away from flooding, from sea level rise once and for all.
When is managed retreat an appropriate strategy?
Oftentimes, for a small rural community of a couple hundred, up to 1,000 or more, it has been cost-effective and successful to move them, rather than rebuilding.
There's many ways by which you evaluate a project like this, but one is simply what FEMA wants to look at. Are they going to pay out more in disasters just by rebuilding on the same spot, down in the floodplain, again and again and again.
Flood-risk modeling done by Pinter and his colleagues has shown millions to tens of millions of dollars in damages and federally backed insurance claims have been saved because of the moves.
This is where the original part of the town was.
But he says, towns considering relocation should pay attention to some important lessons learned.
One persistent failure is our ability to move businesses along with the residents. The U.S. government is willing to invest in moving homeowners, but not invest in moving the businesses within those homeowners' communities. That's a challenge we have to overcome.
Another challenge? Retreating from cherished land is not always a popular strategy. That's an issue Jessica Simms cares a lot about.
She's a program manager for Louisiana state's $48 million resettlement plan for Isle de Jean Charles. Flooding is now a common occurrence on the only road into the predominantly Native American coastal community. But not everyone is supportive of the government's plans.
Unless this is something that the people who are going to be moving are leading themselves, it just won't work, right? You have to understand what's important to them. If they feel forced, or pressured in any way, it just won't work.
Simms and her companions saw how that struggle over community identity is still playing out in a town that split up a long time ago, Old Shawneetown, Illinois, which sits on the banks of the Ohio River.
The town flooded in 1875. It flooded in 1882. It flooded in 1883. It flooded in 1884. And it flooded in 1898.
After another huge flood in 1937, many residents decided enough was enough, and built New Shawneetown three miles away. But a small number of old town residents have chosen to endure repeated floods rather than move.
Fifty-year-old Lee Cook, who was raised in Old Shawneetown and is now raising his family there, is one of those who won't leave.
You can't get flood insurance here, as of now. I don't know if you will ever be able to get flood insurance here. But we still choose to stay. It's in your blood. Old town is in your blood, you know? It's just, you're just going to be here.
Back in Valmeyer, the town is now gearing up for their annual midsummer celebration. Like last year, and many years before that, residents will return to their former lawns to watch a community parade.
But, if it starts to rain, they can always head for the hills.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Cat Wise in Valmeyer, Illinois.
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