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CLARKSVILLE, Mo. — The carpet that once covered the sprawling floor is long gone — a casualty of this year’s flooding. So, too, are the snakes found swimming in the 45,000-square-foot Clarksville Antique Center, after it filled with more than seven inches of water several months ago.

But there’s still work to be done and money to be spent. Owner Angi Grossnickle has to fix the labyrinth of rooms and vendor stalls before she reopens the facility nestled in the Mississippi River floodplain more than an hour north of St. Louis.

She says she understands why so many businesses fold after a flood.

“Unless you’ve got enough insurance to cover it," she said, "… you’re going to go through your entire life savings.”

River towns up and down the Mississippi are stuck in a dilemma after the river's nearly annual floods: Federal aid often doesn't pay enough to protect their towns, yet also doesn't fully pay to rebuild afterwards. Homeowners, businesses, and entire communities have to decide how, and whether, to rebuild. Mayors complain that, with so many homes and businesses in the floodplain, they'll lose the essence of their communities if they don't rebuild.

Meanwhile, as the Federal Emergency Management Agency responds to more frequent, costly and intense disasters, the agency aims to advance larger conversations about reducing flood vulnerability. That often includes discussion of buying out high-risk properties — a strategy that can threaten to erode the nucleus of tourism-reliant river towns. 

David Maurstad, flood chief for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, was in St. Louis on Monday to speak with Mississippi River mayors about disaster preparation dollars, among other issues.

“There’s a recognition that we can’t just do mitigation after a disaster,” Maurstad told the Post-Dispatch after the meeting.

Flood policy conversations resonate in places like Clarksville. This handsome and historic small town has hugged the riverbank for 200 years, but its relationship with the Mississippi has changed dramatically. Since 2008, the town has been through nine major floods, according to Mayor Jo Anne Smiley's tally. None has been as fierce as this year’s, which came within inches of overtaking the Great Flood of 1993 as the highest in the 500-person town’s recorded history. 

Though the floodwater crested in early June, its toll on the town has been felt most of the year. The marathon flood fight started in March. Its aftermath still dominates daily life for many in Clarksville.

“We still don’t have the Post Office, we still don’t have a bank, we still don’t have a gas station,” Grossnickle said. “And until a couple weeks ago, we still didn’t have a place to eat.”

As other businesses and commercial spaces around town have remained dark, changed hands, left for good or been put up for sale, Grossnickle wages an expensive and arduous battle to fix up the cavernous antique center.

Smiley said the business provides the bulk of the town's sales tax revenue. “She has an overwhelming job trying to put it back together again,” she said.

Costs of that effort have far outweighed the $100,000 flood insurance payment for the building, Grossnickle said. The estimate to redo the floors was $78,000, alone, she said, and about $2,000 went toward Rubbermaid totes to move items into a rear storage area.

Business owners like her are not eligible for individual assistance grants through FEMA, although the agency refers affected individuals to low-interest loans through the Small Business Administration. An SBA assessment estimated Grossnickle’s losses from the flood at $275,000, she said. But she did not pursue a loan, saying that it does not make sense to take on debt without current income.

Insurance pitfalls

Other residents said they also get too little from flood insurance.

The city’s maintenance manager, Roger Dowell, moved more than 150 loads of material in a backhoe during the town’s flood fight, helping it build emergency barriers with 3,300 tons of rocks and 1,000 tons of sand.

But he couldn't protect his trailer, a few blocks away. Floodwater rose up to its floor and underside. Insurance paid more than $1,000 for the damage — but it has cost more than $5,000 so far to repair. 

He raised the trailer off the ground, as FEMA often requires after one home floods multiple times. But all that did, he said, was reduce the money he could claim. 

“Flood insurance only pays me if it gets on my floor,” said Dowell.

He has been living with relatives, hopes to move back by Christmas, and has all but given up on FEMA as a source of reliable aid. He'd be better off letting his trailer flood, he said, in order to be eligible for greater recovery assistance.

Dowell isn't alone.

Clarksville’s flood defenses held, but some businesses closest to the river were affected by water that came up through the ground, Smiley said. FEMA doesn't treat that damage the same as if the water had gone over or through the town’s barriers.

“It would be very different if there was a breach in that wall,” said Smiley. “The reaction and response would be different.”

The fate of the flood-ravaged Clarksville Boat Club, though, hints that some policies could be changing. Water came nearly to the top of the riverfront building, reaching a damage threshold where the building would need to be raised if the club stays.

“FEMA’s not allowing them to rebuild it. They have to raise it up,” said Jennifer Calvin, the city clerk, adding that she was not aware of any other local properties facing the same requirement. “I think we’re to the point where we’re done fixing. If you want to keep this, then you’re raising it.”

Facing the future

The town is preparing for more major floods — a risk fueled, in part, by the greater likelihood of heavy precipitation in a warmer climate. But town residents like Calvin and Dowell also direct blame at nearby levees, especially across the river, in Illinois. “The more they build those up, the more water comes this way,” said Calvin.

Still, there are clear signs of optimism about Clarksville’s future, including from new business owners on First Street, facing the Mississippi.

Robbert Howland, a Clarksville native, moved back home from Sherman, Illinois, in August to open Steamboat Bistro earlier this month. He is pinning hopes on the town’s long-standing ambition to get funding for a $4.5 million temporary flood wall that could be erected in times of high water. An assurance for some of that money, residents have heard, has finally clicked into place.

“When I found out the state of Missouri has allocated the first $2 million for this flood wall, that made me want to come back,” Howland said. “It was a big decision to take money out of my retirement and come do this.”

But a quick drive around town suggests that not everyone’s concerns are allayed. Along Highway 79, a for-sale sign stands in front of the Clarksville Veterinary Clinic. Next to it is another sign with much bigger, bright red letters, reading: DID NOT FLOOD.

Howland isn't deterred.

“Clarksville is 200 years old for a reason: It has survived, it knows how to survive,” he said. In fact, it's the river that attracts him. “You can’t buy a view like this.”

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