The Unluckiest Town in America

  • Share
  • Read Later
Brent Perrott / Lawrence Co. Emergency Management Agency / AP

Homes and farmland are flooded near a levee break in southern Illinois

It was early evening in Grand Tower, Ill., and Josh Franklin, 23, was standing outside his aunt's double-wide trailer. He'd like to move away from this community of 585 people to Carbondale, a college town about half an hour's drive to the north. But he can't afford to. Grand Tower isn't much of anyplace anymore. Its last restaurant closed shortly after the great flood of 1993. There isn't a bookstore. Don't even ask about wi-fi access. "If we get a major flood," he says, "it's all over. A lot of small towns, they've just disappeared. We're going to be next." The floods are certainly coming. And who knows when the next big earthquake will hit, since the town sits within the New Madrid Seismic Zone, one of the continent's most violent.

This tiny town on Illinois's southern tip is caught between catastrophes, literally. A dispute with the Federal Government has resulted in its loss of flood insurance — unless the impoverished town takes expensive measures, like hoisting homes and the few remaining businesses on stilts a dozen feet into the air. But if they scratch together the money to do so, it will be impossible to afford earthquake insurance, which is already prohibitively expensive.

Now Grand Tower residents are anxiously watching the surrounding rivers. Stubborn bands of storms have saturated the region's corn and soybean fields, swelling the Mississippi River and its tributaries above St. Louis, Mo. Today the rising waters were only about two hours' drive to the north. Some 21 Illinois counties and all of Missouri have been declared disaster zones, and dozens of points along the Mississippi River's levees in both states have ruptured. "We're just standing by, hoping for the best but expecting the worst," says Burke "Bear" Ellett, 49, Grand Tower's mayor for the past dozen years. If the floods ravage the town, there probably won't be any money to rebuild it.

Grand Tower sits along one of the Mississippi's narrowest points, across from Missouri. A levee runs along what remains of Main Street, but it's weak. That puts Grand Tower in a flood plain. Floods have repeatedly battered the town. And a handful of folks here recall 1947, when the Mississippi sent some 1,000 residents racing for the rocky hills above town.

In April 1990, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) placed Grand Tower on probation from the National Insurance Program for failing to adhere to guidelines intended to mitigate risk of flood damage. Among the guidelines: newly constructed buildings, and some existing ones undergoing significant upgrades, had to be raised some 12 feet. That's partly because major floods were projected to send at least 10 feet of water into town. Federal authorities imposed a $25 surcharge on residents' insurance policies, hoping it would pressure elected officials to comply with the guidelines.

Local government, however, refused. "We're a town that's just barely getting by and can't afford to fix all those violations," says Mayor Ellett. Nevertheless, in June 1991, FEMA suspended Grand Tower from the insurance program altogether. "Taxpayers will not be called upon to put money back into a flood area if the community hasn't done its part by enforcing the ordinance," says David Schein, FEMA's senior flood-plain-management specialist. That essentially means the only assistance the Federal Government is likely to provide is temporary shelter and food. "That's really humanitarian," snaps Ellett. "We don't have million-dollar homes here. We have $30,000 and $20,000 homes. And we're hurting."

But disaster could be just a few miles away. The Mississippi River at nearby Cape Girardeau, Mo., is projected to reach 41.5 feet — nearly 10 feet above flood level — on Sunday.

Further complicating matters are the earthquakes. While tremors are rare in this part of the country, they can be just as powerful as those in other parts of the world. The so-called New Madrid series of earthquakes in 1811 and 1812, for instance, are believed to have been on a scale of 8.0 or higher (by comparison, the 1994 Northridge earthquake in California had a 6.7 magnitude). And historically, earthquakes in the Midwest convulse much greater territory than their equivalents in California. Another problem: the region is also affected by the Wabash Seismic Zone. An April 18, 2008, earthquake from that zone, centered near Belmont, Ill., 128 miles east of St. Louis, carried a magnitude of 5.2.

Since that April temblor, the governors of Illinois and Missouri have formed task forces to assess earthquake preparedness. "We know we're racing with time to get our communities prepared," says Jim Wilkinson, executive director of the Central United States Earthquake Consortium. One of the things the state commissions are likely to discuss is whether to follow the lead of Kentucky, which requires companies that sell homeowners insurance to offer earthquake insurance without question. In the meantime, however, State Farm, the nation's leading home insurer, has imposed a 30-day moratorium on new earthquake-insurance policies in much of Missouri, Illinois and Indiana.

On a recent humid afternoon, Jack "Whitey" Knupp stood atop Grand Tower's levee, surveying the Mississippi. The portly 73-year-old with ruddy cheeks and a shock of silver hair spent much of his life steering barges along the river. Indeed, for years, the river produced the drama in this town's life. Pirates escaping the colonial Spaniards were among the area's first residents. Legend has it that Mark Twain frequently landed here to unload freight. Many of Grand Tower's sons took to the river's barges, hoping to escape into a relatively middle-class existence, and glimpse life beyond the Midwest. Few, however, returned. Last month Knupp opened the modest Mississippi River Museum in an abandoned 1890s Main Street doctor's office here to try to preserve that colorful past. But the river may well be the very thing that causes Grand Tower's undoing.