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After The Flood

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Defining home and community has become a game of connect the dots for the citizens of Valmeyer, Ill. Built 90 years ago in a fertile valley along the Mississippi River, the tiny farm town was uprooted last year by the Midwest floods that left nearly 70,000 people homeless. Now, the entire town is packing up and moving to higher ground as part of a federal disaster-relief experiment.

Ground was broken on a new site in June, but the town's churches, stores, and other landmarks exist only as numbered dots on a map of what will become Valmeyer. The school will be built on dot number 25, in the center of the new town.

The location is symbolic. In the aftermath of the flood, the school, which serves all grades, was the only antidote to the uncertainty and isolation that troubled many of the town's 900 residents. Now, as the town faces a new beginning, the school may become the place where Valmeyer's past fuses with its future.

In early September, as Harold Baum drove through the 20-mile Mississippi River flood plain known as "The Bottom,'' combines were making their first pass of the season through the cornfields. A little more than a year ago, in August 1993, Baum, the Valmeyer schools superintendent, had traveled over these same roads in a Coast Guard boat. Flood waters were so high, he says, that "you had to duck the tree branches and the electrical wires.''

Baum had taken a similar ride many years ago. At age 13, he was on the town's levee when flood waters topped its walls one night in 1943. The river eventually rose enough to strand him there until a Coast Guard crew could fetch him the next morning. That flood and another in 1947 lasted only a few days. But the "great flood'' of 1993 covered much of Valmeyer for the better part of three months.

A few days after the waters began to rise, the town's residents met to weigh three options for their children: split them up and send them to schools in other districts, hold classes in the afternoon and evening at nearby schools, or build a temporary site for the school. By an overwhelming majority, the town voted to move the school to a temporary site on the county fairgrounds. "The people did not want to give up the school,'' Baum says. "They felt that they had already given up more than they could stand to lose.''
The town rallied around the notion that they had to keep their children together, and volunteers came out by the dozens to erect portable classrooms. On Sept. 8 of last year, a little more than a month after the flood, the school opened. "That's what held everybody together--school starting,'' said Mary Niebruegge, director of the school's Chapter 1 compensatory education program. The fairgrounds--home to the county's tractor-pulls, demolition derbies, and cattle shows--were far from a conventional educational setting. But the staff and faculty worked hard to re-create the old school's atmosphere and sense of community. Small props, such as flagpoles and bells, were added to make the fairgrounds look and feel more like a school.

With so many of the tightly knit community's families scattered, a county map was hung that marked where each student lived. The sports teams patched together seasons, even if it meant going to extraordinary lengths. The boys' basketball team, for example, practiced before school each day at 6:30 a.m. in a gym miles away. Perhaps the strongest signal of normalcy was the continued dominance of the school's Future Farmers of America club in state competitions. Last year, the club hung on the wall its 10th straight first-place plaque in the soil-judging category.

As the children went back to school, the adults tried to plot the future but found themselves powerless to set a new course. For the first few months, waters were so high that many families could only inspect their damaged homes from afar and speculate about when they might return. "My husband and I stood on the bluff and tried to see how high the water was around the house,'' says Jane McCarthy, a teacher at the school. "But there are so many trees around it that we couldn't tell.'' The decision to build a new town settled some anxieties, but many families were left living in limbo. Some moved in with relatives. Others moved into "FEMAville,'' the nickname for the trailer park set up by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Over the course of the year, however, the stability that the school offered students began to touch their parents' lives, as well. Setting up the temporary school "was probably the best decision that we have made,'' says Valmeyer Mayor Dennis Knobloch. "The school has been the only thing that we've had as a constant through all of this.''

The school also kept many families in the area who had every reason to move. "It's a very good school,'' says Shirley Stafford, whose daughter attends 1st grade. "I went there, and my husband went there.'' If the school had dissolved, Baum says, "there never would have been a new town. I'm convinced of that. The people who stayed here stayed because they wanted their kids in a small school with its own identity.''

This fall, school reopened for a second year at the fairgrounds. The town, meanwhile, continues to struggle to find its bearings. What was left of Valmeyer when the waters receded and the mud dried has been abandoned. For months, houses and businesses along Main Street have stood empty, their doors hanging open to reveal gutted interiors. The families who lived and worked there remain in FEMAville or other temporary arrangements. This winter, families will begin to move into their new homes on higher ground. But whether they can turn a cluster of dots on a map into a town remains a question. "Valmeyer is a brave and bold experiment--and I stress experiment,'' says Larry Zensinger, FEMA coordinator of Midwest relocation programs.

When Congress passed $6.2 billion in relief for the Midwestern flood victims, it included more than $100 million for relocation costs. Most families and businesses took the money and moved to other towns. Three towns--Valmeyer; Chelsea, Iowa; and Pattonsburg, Mo.--took the offer of help to relocate their entire communities.

The federal government will spend a total of $20 million to move Valmeyer. The new community school, which is slated to open by January 1996, will be much different from its predecessor. Preliminary designs for the $9 million project suggest that it will be a showcase school, covering 100,000 square feet, 20,000 more than the old school. The library will be a technology wonderland, with classroom computers tapped into a central server and the Internet. But the school's past will not be forgotten. Walking the grounds of the old school, Baum points out the terra-cotta tiles that ring its exterior. Each tile depicts an Egyptian pyramid. Southern Illinois is sometimes called "Little Egypt'' because life here and in the North African country are so closely tied to big rivers. When the school was built back in 1938, designers chose an Egyptian theme. Baum is thinking about transferring the tiles to the new school.

"I don't see why you can't take a good tile cutter and cut them out,'' he said. "We might just do that.''

--Drew Lindsay

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