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Health, Science, Environment

Cities Drained By 2019 Flood Struggle To Respond To Coronavirus Pandemic

May 29, 2019 Workers shore up a temporary levee across Main Street in Grafton. The river had reached 32 feet, on its way to a projected crest of 36.3 feet, which would be the second highest on record and less than two feet below the record set in 1993.
Brent Jones | St. Louis Public Radio
Mississippi River cities like Grafton, Illinois, that are still recovering from the long flood of 2019 are taking a huge financial hit from the coronavirus pandemic.

Mississippi River communities drained by the long flood of 2019 are facing more financial strain from the coronavirus pandemic. 

Kimmswick, Grafton and other cities along the river are in debt from spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on sandbags, raising levees and other flood-fighting efforts. As businesses close and tourism plummets due to the pandemic, the economies of flood-prone communities are taking a huge blow.

Federal agencies plan to provide financial relief to communities suffering from the coronavirus. But Grafton is still waiting for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to reimburse it for costs from the flood of 2019, Mayor Rick Eberlin said. 

“The effects of last year’s flooding was bad,” Eberlin said. “But COVID-19 and what that’s done to our community ... we were down, and we’ve been stomped and kicked and kicked some more.”

FEMA approved the city’s request for more than $300,000 to help cover flood-fighting expenses but has not yet sent the city those funds, Eberlin said. Grafton also has spent more than $5 million repairing parking lots, raising roads and on other work to address flood damages. FEMA last fall denied financial assistance to Illinois residents and businesses impacted by the 2019 flood. 

Kimmswick, a small city in Jefferson County, suffered major damage last year. It also canceled its Strawberry Festival, which draws about 75,000 people every year. Mayor Phil Stang had requested more than $100,000 from FEMA to reimburse the city’s flood-fighting costs, but the request was denied. 

Now, he worries about having enough masks, gloves and protective equipment for law enforcement. 

“We’ve been squeezing the living daylights out of the money we have,” Stang said. 

The National Weather Service predicts that some areas, like Grafton, are likely to experience moderate flooding in the coming weeks. Moderate flooding can cause some property damage and require evacuations. 

Cities along the Mississippi River don’t have enough personal protective equipment — masks, gloves and other supplies — to respond to flooding and the pandemic, said Colin Wellenkamp, executive director of the Mississippi Rivers and Towns Initiative. There are also not many places for families to go if they need to evacuate. 

Communities will also have to change the way they fight floods to limit exposure to the virus, he said. 

“It’s virtually impossible to build a temporary sandbag wall or diversion and practice social distancing. So in order to do that, you have to have PPE for everybody,” Wellenkamp said. 

Kimmswick and other Mississippi River communities are soliciting donations for protective equipment through Mask Match. 

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