Neighborhoods Face Extinction As Floods Increase

Illinois towns paying the price for repeated cleanups consider buying out residents and converting homesteads to wetlands and parks.

Francis Bruce stands on his street where water was chest high in March after a major flood. The city of Freeport wants to buy and demolish homes in his neighborhood to convert a flood zone into green space. (Brett Chase/BGA)

Francis Bruce grew up in a small, segregated neighborhood in the historic town of Freeport on the banks of the Pecatonica River never suspecting that one day it would face oblivion.

Now, the 61-year-old school maintenance worker and almost 100 of his neighbors — some whose families have lived here for generations — are being pushed out in favor of a rising river that has largely defined their lives.

In March, the Pecatonica crested at its highest flood stage since 1933. It was one of seven floods in the past three years, and it’s forcing civic leaders to adapt to the growing climate crisis.

This story is part of a multi-newsroom collaborative project called Unfamiliar Ground: Bracing for Climate Impacts in the Midwest. The effort, led by the nonprofit news organization InsideClimate News, aims to give readers local and regional perspectives on climate change. For more, go to the project page.

While the Pecatonica has always been an occasional nuisance, it has never before flooded so many homes so routinely. Damage to roads and infrastructure alone in this city of nearly 25,000 totaled more than $600,000 this year, part of the more than $1.5 million spent on flood-related clean up since 2017, City Manager Lowell Crow said.

The phenomenon has left him and civic leaders here — as well as many of the city’s poorest residents — to consider giving up the fight and turning the neighborhood to a park and wetlands.

“This place was a little bit of nothing when I first bought it,” Bruce said, referring to the improvements he’s made to his home of 27 years. “They’ve got plans for this part of town and we’re not part of it.

“I don’t think it’s good, but it will get you out of the water.”

Freeport’s dilemma is one shared by communities like it all along the 32-state region known as the Mississippi basin: When to stop baling and rebuilding and when to give up and abandon their homes.

Of the more than 6,000 properties purchaed with state and federal dollars for flood mitigation since the Great Depression, more than half have been acquired in the past decade, according to the head of the state’s flood mitigation program.

The onslaught of requests like Freeport’s — to buy out homeowners, demolish their homes and convert them to open fields — has reached almost $200 million over the past 25 years, records show. In the past two years alone, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources has doled out another $30 million to buy out flood zones. Freeport got $1 million.

Freeport is also applying for another $4 million in so-called pre-disaster mitigation funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, as part of another program set up in 2003 to deal with the increasing disasters. The city council has already approved a resolution saying it would pay the required $1 million in matching funds.

Freeport, IL map
(Jared Rutecki/BGA)

“I planned on staying where I’m at for the rest of my life,” said Freeport Alderman Art Ross, who said his house is on the city’s list to be destroyed. “It’s fifty-fifty. Some want to see a change and some don’t … Some people say they’re tired of fighting floods.”

“Some people don’t have the income to move,” said Ross, who owns an auto glass shop in town. “Some people can get an apartment but when the money runs out, then what do you do?”

The frequency of severe weather events scientists attribute to climate change has left small towns like Freeport –– as well as the governments that serve them — in a financial bind. While buying up neighborhoods and turning them into wetlands may be cost effective in the long run, the price tag up front is overwhelming.

One 2018 study suggests that for every $1 communities like Freeport spend to relocate their residents they will save $6 in future clean ups and other costs after a big flood.

In September, President Donald Trump approved a major disaster declaration for Illinois that should shake loose millions more in aid for 27 counties hit by severe storms and flooding this year.

Paul Osman, in charge of the state flood mitigation program, said the $15 million his agency is doling out this year to purchase land in 16 Illinois flood zones — including Freeport — comes nowhere close to the $50 million in requests from communities across Illinois.

Many residents — especially in Bruce’s neighborhood — are skeptical of the government relocation plan. The values of their homes are depressed by the chronic flooding, and the decades the community was used as a dumping ground for toxic waste. 

“Some people don’t have the income to move,” said Art Ross, an alderman and resident in Freeport’s flood zone.
“Some people don’t have the income to move,” said Art Ross, an alderman and resident in Freeport’s flood zone. (Brett Chase/BGA)

Freeport officials say the value of the almost 100 homes eligible for the program never exceeds $12,000, hardly enough to relocate for most families who live there. About 132 property owners, including those who own businesses and vacant lots, have told officials they would consider selling if the offered price is fair.

Paying someone as little as a few thousand dollars for a home is a tough sell, said Osman, who added that state law precludes him from offering more than market value.

“That doesn’t even buy a mobile home,” he said. “That’s the toughest nut to crack.”

FEMA’s matching funds, however, allow flexibility to offer residents a more fair replacement cost for their depressed homes.

Bruce said he is hoping for an offer of $31,000, which he says would be enough to buy a fixer-upper home in a different neighborhood.

“You’ve got memories over here,” said Vincent McClellan, another neighborhood resident, who doesn’t trust the government will make an offer he considers fair. He wants $65,000.

City Manager Crow acknowledges his plan to convert the east side neighborhood into parks, wetlands and a bird sanctuary, is not popular among some residents.

“There was no desire in Freeport to do this before,” Crow said. “I look at what’s right for the community and not what’s politically right.”

Crow said there have been seven floods since he became city manager in May 2017. The worst one came in March, when the Pecatonica River swelled to more than 17 feet. The highest river crest since 1933, records show. Six month later, in September, the 14.7 inches of rain Freeport endured shattered a record for the month of 9.8 inches set in 1996, he said.

As of November 1, Freeport already marked 33 heavy rainfall days, which is 11 more than the mean of all years dating back to 1949, according to Illinois State Climatologist Trent Ford. He said the number of days Freeport has experienced heavy rainfall has steadily increased every decade since 1949. 

This condemned house sits next door to Francis Bruce’s home in Freeport. It’s one of a number of vacant homes in the area.
This condemned house sits next door to Francis Bruce’s home in Freeport. It’s one of a number of vacant homes in the area. (Brett Chase/BGA)

For residents like Ross, McClellan and Bruce — decades-long residents of the neighborhood — all the talk and the new rules makes their plight more troubling and their future more uncertain.

There’s no guarantee any of them will get an offer they can accept, and in the meantime were initially told by city officials to stop making improvements to their homes.

Bruce — whose living room was warmed by space heaters on a cold October day — said that makes it difficult to live in homes where furnaces and water heaters have been destroyed by flood waters.

“I’m trying to figure out how people sit here with no water and no heat.”

Environmental reporting at the BGA is supported by Joel M. Friedman, President of The Alvin H. Baum Family Fund.