JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Standing in the front yard of her former childhood home, Claudia Boyce looks across the street to the site of the wooden-framed Methodist church where people had gathered along the banks of the Missouri River since 1878. There's no trace of it now. Gone, too, is her family's yellow, two-story home, the Baptist church to her right, the row of neighbors' homes to her left, even most of the trees.
In their place is mere grass and dirt. The community of Cedar City has vanished — a victim of the great flood of 1993 and a government buyout program that scattered its 400 close-knit residents to higher ground in other towns.
"It's heartbreaking — it just really is," said Boyce, whose memories of the town now are preserved only in a photo album and old newspaper clippings.
Since floodwaters ravaged Cedar City and other river towns in 1993, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has spent more than $2 billion to buy 36,707 properties nationwide, according to figures provided to The Associated press under an open-records request. Millions more has flowed to those buyouts through the federal Community Development Block Grant program. The money brought an end to more than 3,000 towns and neighborhoods.
With floodwaters again reaching historic highs this year throughout the Missouri and Mississippi river valleys, Cedar City stands as a symbol of the river's past might and a foreteller of what could become for other small communities from North Dakota all the way south to Louisiana. Although it's too soon to know how many communities may seek new government buyouts, dozens have experienced substantial flooding, including some that until now had escaped disaster.
Another round of buyouts could cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars. And for the residents relocated, it could cause emotional pains that last a lifetime. In city halls and homes across the country, residents will face the same choice that those in Cedar City did: rebuild or relocate?
The greatest number of buyouts came in the immediate aftermath of the devastating 1993 floods that caused $15 billion in damage and killed 32 people. No state has had more buyouts than Missouri, though the value of its typically modest homes along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers pales in comparison to the hundreds of millions of dollars spent to buy out properties in hurricane-prone states along Atlantic and Gulf coasts.
Many believe it is money well-spent. The buyouts can save government money in a variety of ways, from reduced flood insurance claims to fewer emergency calls and less spent on sandbagging and other flood-fighting efforts, said Sheila Huddleston, mitigation manager for the Missouri State Emergency Management Agency.
"I personally think it's a very valuable program as far as removing people from harm's way," Huddleston said.
Yet for the people who are moved, it can be a life-changing event — and not necessarily in positive way.
The flood and subsequent buyout forced Claudia Boyce's then 68-year-old mother, Lottie Corley, to move into a duplex in a nearby town with her sister whose home also was destroyed. Lottie Corley eventually ended up in a low-income apartment complex before passing away in 2006.
"They were never happy — ever — after that" flood, Boyce said. "My mom, she lost her home, she lost her church and she lost her job. They just never were happy after they had to leave there."
The residents of Cedar City, a former steamboat-stop town located just across the river from the Missouri Capitol, were well-accustomed to floods. When the river soaked the town in the 1950s, 1970s and 1980s, they simply cleared the mud off the floors and repaired their homes, sometimes with federal aid.
But in July 1993, the Missouri River rose higher than ever, with a current so strong it swept the Cedar City fire station off its foundation. At least one house floated away, smashed into a bridge and disintegrated. A 20,000 gallon propane tank, leaking as waters tore it from its base, forced the closure of a highway.