For many Nebraskans, 2019 will probably be remembered as the year the floods came. Many towns, small and large, across the state have suffered and endured unforgiving floods, which left a wake of devastation in their paths. Among the towns severely impacted by flooding this year was the small village of Winslow, Nebraska.
On March 14, 2019, a levee protecting Winslow was compromised, and floodwaters from the Elkhorn River quickly inundated the town with over five feet of water. The entire town was impacted, and all residents were evacuated. In the aftermath, Dodge County Emergency Management inspected virtually all buildings in the village. Of the 51 buildings inspected, 44 were yellow-tagged, marking the structures as uninhabitable, and six were red-tagged, indicating the foundations were collapsed.
An Advance Evaluation Team from the Federal Emergency Planning Agency (FEMA) conducted a Community Conditions Assessment in Nebraska that identified the high-impact/low capacity communities affected by the mid-March flooding. In this assessment process, Winslow was identified as the number one highest-impact and lowest-capacity community in the state.
At the time of the flood, Winslow’s approximately 100 residents were living in 38 single-family structures and five commercial and public buildings were in use. Now, several months after the flooding, only nine residential structures are re-occupied, and two commercial businesses are back in operation. With the vast majority of Winslow’s residents left homeless and the town’s few commercial buildings damaged, the entire community has been reeling and looking for answers.
Village leaders approached UNL’s Community and Regional Planning (CRP) Program and Nebraska Extension for assistance. Also, the village has enlisted help from JEO Consulting Group to help in the recovery process. All three of these entities are collaborating in their efforts to assist the village in its recovery from the flood.
Students and faculty from two courses in the Master of Community and Regional Planning (MCRP) Program this semester are focusing on the challenges facing this community. In early September three faculty members and 20 students from both courses traveled to Winslow to conduct a reconnaissance study of existing conditions—photographing the structures and noting damage on each structure. CRP Program Director Gordon Scholz, who is also teaching one of the courses, explains that this is a typical first step in the planning process.
Several Winslow property owners are considering the possibility of moving the community to a nearby location on higher ground. The idea to relocate the village is not an unprecedented response to an environmental disaster. In fact, communities such as Silex, Missouri; Rhineland, Missouri; and Niobrara, Nebraska, have all relocated for reasons similar to the flooding in Winslow. Students are currently studying the circumstances and planning processes employed in these case study communities.
In addition to pursuing the case studies, UNL planning students in the two courses will collaborate with professional planners and engineers from JEO to conduct a community input meeting during fall semester.
Once the inventory analysis and case studies have been completed and the community input data collected, the students will provide a report with recommendations and useful planning data for the village’s future planning efforts. Scholz says this project is an invaluable practical and challenging exercise, giving students the opportunity to work with real-life planning and mitigation issues that they will likely face in their careers.
“Working on this project gives me a taste of how I’d feel doing this as a career,” said CRP student RaeAnna Hartsgrove. “I feel great giving back to a community that has been devastated by a disaster. It’s not easy for a community to get back on their feet right away. It takes time, strength, money and hope to rebuild something that has been lost. I love knowing that what I and others are doing, can aid in decision-making for the village.”
However, one might ask: “Why move?” “Why not rebuild in Winslow?” Zachary Klein, Winslow village board treasurer and leader of the relocation initiative, explains that many of the homeowners are in favor of moving because the water and sewer utilities in Winslow are projected to be economically infeasible to reopen for safe operation. “So, most residents agreed: If we cannot guarantee the water and sewer will be here, then we don’t want to rebuild in this location,” said Klein, who is among those currently displaced because of the flood.
As Klein reflects on his life in Winslow, “This site is very prone to flooding, as flood maps will indicate. Every year, in one way or another, we have endured flooding. Every June, and more specifically on Father’s Day, we are out there as a community sandbagging to keep the waters out of Winslow.”
Villagers have the option to stay in their current location, but they would not have access to municipal utilities. The property in the village will be transitioned to become an unincorporated area without a local municipal government or services. Any residents who choose to stay in their existing homes would need to install their own water wells and septic tanks. Currently, there are three residential property owners who are in favor of this option, and they plan to stay.
For those who are in favor of moving, there are options available to them. Property owners can apply for a federal buyout program called the FEMA Voluntary Flood Buyout Program, which pays the owner 75% of the property’s pre-flood market value minus any federal liens. That money can be used to rebuild. However, any homeowners who have defaulted on their home mortgage due to financial hardships related to the flood would not be eligible for the buyout program.
“I had to let my house go back to the bank,” said one Winslow resident whose home was red-tagged with a collapsed foundation.
The second option locals are considering is the FEMA’s Mitigation Program, which provides funding for relocation of flood-prone structures in cases where owners want to move their existing houses.
The Winslow community leaders are currently participating in training sessions to help them properly apply for these two programs.
With the majority of residents in favor of moving the whole village to higher ground, Klein says the Winslow village board is exploring four possible relocation sites near Winslow, each having its own pros and cons. However, because state and federal funds cannot be used for land acquisition in these circumstances, finding funding for purchasing a relocation site is a major challenge for the organizers. Community leaders are currently working with the United Way in Fremont, Nebraska, to handle funds donated for land acquisition. For those wishing to help, Klein asks that donations be directed to the Fremont United Way office with a specification that they be earmarked for the village of Winslow.
Ideally, Klein says, if everything goes according to plan, they hope to have land acquired by February 2020, site studies completed by March or April, initial site preparation under way in summer of 2020 and houses being moved from their existing locations in Winslow to the new site in the fall. “We realize this might be overly optimistic, but that’s the goal we’ve set, and we are going to work hard to make it happen,” said Klein. In addition to cost factors as a motivator for residents to relocate, Klein explains, for many, they are just plain tired of the flooding.
Another villager in favor of relocation says conditions are only going to get worse. “Winslow has been here for years and years, and every year we have a little bit of flooding. However, this year was a much bigger flood, and with climate change that I see coming, it’s only going to get worse, not better,” said Bill Whitney, a Winslow displaced resident. “If they move the town up on top of the hill and they get some nice houses up there, it’s probably going to attract more residents, increase the tax base and be a much better place to live.”
This effort is truly a labor of love and community survival for these villagers. Klein said he’s been asked, “‘Why not just take the money and build elsewhere and forget about this whole moving Winslow idea?’ To be honest, my motivations are very personal. This is my hometown, the place where I grew up, the place where my wife and I decided to raise a family. And then I look beyond myself, and I look at my community and my neighbors. I picked them to be my neighbors for a reason. I also know some of my neighbors don’t have the means to start over again by themselves, whether it be because they are elderly, low-income or unable for other reasons. And many of these same people have similar ties to this community as I do. So I am going to do what I can to help. I chose this community. A community isn’t the buildings or the location, but the people, and that’s why we are going to do everything we can to keep it together.”