ILL. FLOOD RECOVERY DUMPS NEW PROBLEMS IN FARMERS' LAPS

ILL. FLOOD RECOVERY DUMPS NEW PROBLEMS IN FARMERS' LAPS

This village of 500 is alive again. Hammers are pounding, saws are ripping and horns blare as a mini-traffic jam develops in front of the lumberyard.

Residents and volunteers move with purpose to repair and rebuild following the Mississippi River flood in late July.In the nearby countryside, much of it still flooded, the silence is ominous in mid-October.

Where combines should be whirring to harvest the crops of golden corn and soybeans, the water grudgingly falls back, leaving gray, knee-high stalks, dead carp that don't shine in the autumn sun and a green slime of algae on the land.

Corn stalks cling to electric wires 15 feet off the ground. And huge metal grain bins lean like the Tower of Pisa, twisted off their foundations by wave action.

Despite frustrations, recovery appears assured for the little town, where only about a half dozen of the 230 homes will have to be demolished, according to Mayor John Lehr.

"Like Dorothy said (in "The Wizard of Oz"), 'There's no place like home,' " the mayor said. "We have a bunch of determined people here." About a dozen residents have moved back in, and Mr. Lehr said several more should be able to return by Thanksgiving.

In contrast, farm homes, grain bins, machinery sheds and other rural buildings in the flood plain of western Pike County, known as the Sny Basin, in many cases appear to have been damaged far more severely.

The Sny, which is 56 miles long, varies from 3 to 7 miles wide from the east bank of the Mississippi to an outcropping of limestone bluffs. A 28-foot levee on the river was the scene this summer of frantic efforts to keep the flood waters contained.

Even as the residents strive to recover, their top priority for the longer term is a quest for funds to raise the 52-mile levee to 35 feet. The projected cost is $1 million a mile, though some sections just about meet federal standards and wouldn't cost that much.

While damage costs are still being tallied, the estimate for Pike County is at least $25 million. That includes property damage of $5 million to $6 million in Hull, about the same to rural structures, more than $1 million to roads and bridges and $13 million to $14 million in crop damage.

Area farmers are threatened on several fronts: Flood waters may not recede in time to plant next spring; government flood insurance policy may make rebuilding too expensive, or force costly changes in farming methods; improvements to the levee system are not assured, and government agencies are moving at an agonizingly slow pace when the farmers need quick answers to make business decisions.

There is a real fear that unless government policies are changed, many farmers won't be able to rebuild and the Sny Basin will become depopulated.

"During the flood fight, we saw the government at its best," said Blake Roderick, manager of the Pike County Farm Bureau. "There weren't any rules or regulations - we just got the job done."

Now, he said, it is government at its worst: "Our goal is trying to get people back in their home by Christmas, while some agency people are talking about having application forms ready by Dec. 1.

"We're seeing self-serving bureaucrats who are interested in getting their names in the paper and turf battles over authority," he said. "They've forgotten why they are employed by the people. They have no vision except how to pad their own little empire."

Or, as farmer Dan Lundberg, 46, put it, "I now think that battling the flood was easy compared with the frustrations of dealing with agencies as we try to recover."

The tall, lean Mr. Lundberg, who lost 20 pounds while fighting the flood, farms about 2,000 acres in the Sny, much of it rented. He figures the flood damage set his farming operation back about 10 years. He has received a crop disaster payment for the corn and soybeans that were destroyed, but "that was just about enough to pay my fertilizer and chemical bill."

The immediate issue farmers face is a Pike County flood insurance ordinance that follows federal guidelines. It can be amended, but changes have to be approved by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

To qualify for federal flood insurance, structures that sustained more than 50 percent damage cannot be repaired. New buildings would have to be elevated to a height that could withstand a 100-year flood.

"As an example, suppose you have a 2-acre farmstead, which has to be elevated by 6 feet," said Bruce McKinzie, an agricultural engineer with Purdue University who is helping assess damages to farm buildings, particularly grain bins.

"It's a question of hauling dirt or digging a hole big enough to get enough dirt, in which case you're going to have a 2-acre hole 6 feet deep and at a not insignificant cost."

More realistically, he said, the farmer would face a big security problem if he couldn't rebuild his home but had to leave his machinery close to the fields.

Mr. Roderick said obstacles can be overcome: "We go around them. We go over them. Or we go through them."

It is hoped the ordinance can be modified so farmers will have confidence that it is workable, said architect Robert Diefenbach, who has been heading the damage assessment and rebuilding permit program in Hull for the Quincy firm of Poepping, Stone, Bach & Associates Inc., the town's consulting engineers.

"When we talk with FEMA, hopefully we've red-flagged the stuff in the ordinance that stinks, (for which) we've shown some alternative possibilities," he said. "If they don't sign off on it, they need to take it through channels right to the top. The farmers can't wait."

For the longer term, those in town and farmers agree that the major goal is to raise the levee on the Mississippi that protects the Sny Basin. But the mayor concedes it will be "a political and congressional dogfight."

"It is FEMA's idea that the people should be taken away from the water, and the Army Corps of Engineers' idea that the water should be kept away from the people," he said.