KIMMSWICK — When the Mississippi River swelled to near-record levels earlier this year, officials raised an emergency levee and rented a fleet of pumps to keep this 160-year-old river town dry.
The hard work paid off, stemming the floods that ravaged other areas. But the efforts came with a price — nearly $150,000 — that means financial stress for the town of 180. And now officials fear the Federal Emergency Management Agency won’t help pay the bill.
“I consider that to be a punishment for not drowning,” said Kimmswick Mayor Phil Stang.
With historic homes, shops and restaurants tucked within a quiet handful of city blocks, the charm of the Jefferson County town is obvious. “It’s like living in another century, but in five minutes you can go enter another world,” said Stang, describing life in Kimmswick.
But maintaining that feel can be difficult, especially with increasingly frequent bouts of major flooding on the adjacent Mississippi. This year’s emergency pumps alone cost $49,000, Stang said.
As of this week, Jefferson County residents and small businesses are eligible for flood relief resources from FEMA. But the new federal designation does not extend to public assistance for municipalities in the county. As a result, Kimmswick is expected to absorb the $150,000 hit from its flood fight on its own.
“Money well spent, but it still hurts,” said Tammy Benack, Kimmswick’s city clerk and treasurer. She said the city started the year with about $250,000 in working revenue — the pot that runs the police department, public works, city hall, the post office and more.
In such a small town, Stang said, effects on the budget are magnified.
Officials in the area aren’t holding their breath for outside aid to help fill the fresh crater in the city’s books.
“At this point in time we are assuming it won’t work out,” said Warren Robinson, director of Jefferson County’s Office of Emergency Management. “I’m not familiar with any other recourse for them to get public assistance. It is unfortunate.”
He explained that based on population, the county would need to reach a threshold of about $820,000 in certain flood-related expenses to qualify for public assistance through FEMA. Currently, he said the county falls well short — with Kimmswick accounting for nearly all of the eligible expenses.
Having that relief system hinge on countywide totals has left Kimmswick in a bind, and city leaders unhappy. Stang, for instance, believes the county-level approach is too imprecise. He thinks aid should be available for places that paid out-of-pocket for painstaking flood preparation.
“I think it’s counterproductive to not include significant preparedness,” he said. “By being prepared, we’re hosed. We don’t have the funds to fight this stuff all the time.”
He said the town will maintain “essential services” but will probably cope with its greatly diminished budget by postponing things like roadwork and purchases of some “things we ought to buy.” At other times, he said services like police staffing at certain events would still be sufficient, but perhaps “less than optimal,” and trimmed by an officer or two. Meanwhile, the emergency levee will stay up — minus a hole punched in it for a road to pass through — unless some outside money comes along.
“If nobody is paying me to take it down, we’re keeping the rest of it,” Stang said.
The flood’s fiscal impact to Kimmswick encompasses more than city money spent. Maybe the most visible casualty was the cancellation of the annual Strawberry Festival — an event that Benack said consistently generates $30,000 to $35,000 for the city, not including the economic boost to local businesses. That loss, she said, “already nips into” next year’s budget.
Tourism is a mainstay for Kimmswick. Visitors flock there each June for the Strawberry Festival and in October for its Apple Butter Festival. Quaint shops and “levee-high apple pie” at the Blue Owl Restaurant and Bakery pull in visitors the rest of the year.
But more and more often, the city has had to engage in expensive flood fights. So far, the town has been able to protect and maintain itself, but Benack believes the furious pace of flooding has prevented it from investing in opportunities for growth or improvement.
Stang agreed that the recent sequence of flooding is financially unsustainable for the town.
He hopes that will change — and that better flood protection could become affordable — if a bid to make the town a hub for steamboat tourism pans out. If all goes well, he said, a plan to relaunch the Kimmswick-based Delta Queen steamboat in 2020 could quadruple revenue for the town in three to five years.
“We’re looking forward to a bright future,” said Stang, “as long as we get there.”