CHEROKEE COUNTY, IA – For generations, families living alongside the Little Sioux River in Cherokee, Iowa have known that heavy rainfall would cause the river to swell its bounds and force some measure of floodwaters into their homes. The landscape in the area changed forever as a result of the Midwest Floods of 1993 that engulfed the area with record floodwaters. With a mission to enhance the safety of citizens and reduce the impact of future property damage, local, state and federal officials embarked on one of the largest property buyout and relocation programs in the state of Iowa.
The year 1993 brought one storm after the other: a snowy winter and then a wet spring, followed by the severe storms in late June and early July. This caused devastating flooding throughout Iowa and the Midwest region.
As heavy rainfall pushed the Little Sioux River over its banks, homes in a nearby low-lying area were flooded with up to 6 feet of water, more than many could recall from earlier storms.
“Since the flood-prone houses were situated along the bend of the river and were located at the lowest point in town, the 1993 flood severely damaged or pretty much wiped out everything down there,” said buyout participant James D. Agnitsch, the Street Department Superintendent for the city of Cherokee.
During major storms, the Street Department is tasked with closing roads, floodwater rescues, erecting safety devices, providing a physical presence, etc. Whenever the area would flood, Agnitsch had the added responsibility of protecting his own home, as he lived near the Little Sioux River, too.
“My family and I fought 24 hours to keep the floodwaters down inside our house with the help of sump pumps. After the flood, I noticed the doors in the house became difficult to open, and cracks began to appear on the walls. I knew that a flood of this magnitude would happen again,” said Agnitsch.
Funding became available as a result of a presidential disaster declaration to help remove people and their homes from the repetitive flood hazard area. Buyouts, sometimes called “acquisitions,” are voluntary. Homeowners agree to participate in the program and are paid pre-flood market value for their properties.
“I was never skeptical of the buyout option,” said Agnitsch. “I lived in the area even after seeing, as a child, my parents experience the wrath of the river. I was tired of fighting the river. I had to do it at work and at home. It became a big problem.”
The city of Cherokee's total acquisition cost was about $7.2 million. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), through their Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP), funded 75 percent of the project. The remaining 25 percent of the project cost was shared between the city of Cherokee and the state of Iowa. The Iowa Homeland Security and Emergency Management Division administered the funds.
“All but a handful of homeowners agreed to participate in the buyout program. Those remaining in the flood hazard area were mostly the elderly who found it the hardest to let go and move out, even though their property had major flood damage,” said Debra Taylor, the city clerk and treasurer.
“We are happy about the home we moved into. City officials treated us fantastic. We received a fair price for our home that would have been considerably less if we tried to sell the flood-prone home on our own. It could not have worked out any better,” said Agnitsch. “We are now high and dry.”
In all, the city of Cherokee’s acquisition program in the low-lying Little Sioux River flood area included 187 residential properties of which 156 were purchased and demolished, and 31 homes were relocated to higher ground. The total buyout area along the floodplain spanned 67 acres.
The cleared land is deed restricted to open space uses, thus reducing future federal disaster-related expenditures.
“Cherokee city officials held numerous mitigation fairs and community meetings to educate its citizens of their options and the buyout process. Even local students got involved as the National Park Service provided training on conserving open space and natural floodplains. As a result, students formulated recommendations on how to best use the remaining open space and presented their ideas to the community,” said Sandra Cox, a FEMA HMGP Grant Specialist at the time of the Cherokee buyout.
Today, the property is the home of a community horse arena that is used on weekends during the summer and is maintained by local volunteers. The bulk of the land remains green space.
“The city purchased property on higher grounds, within the Cherokee city limits, known as Colony Addition and established it specifically to provide an improved site for 22 of the 31 relocated homes. The houses were upgraded with better basements and foundations. As a result, most homeowners remained in the city, and the flood-prone, rundown properties are gone. Colony Addition looks as if the homes have always been there,” Taylor said.
Major flooding in late June 2010 again walloped the city. This time, about 8 inches of rain fell within a few hours. The Little Sioux River crested at 27.3 feet, more than 10 feet above the flood stage. By some accounts, flooding was worse than in 1993. But, thanks to the property buyouts, damage was much less severe along the Little Sioux River. A few of the homes remaining in the flood hazard zone were flooded again, as were some streets and part of the city’s infrastructure system still located in the area. However, most of the homes were already gone and the street crew did not have to worry about hauling enough sandbags to protect homes or rescuing numerous people from dangerous floodwaters.
“The flood buyout program eliminated a lot of problems,” said Agnitsch. “It was probably one of the best things that ever happened to us.”