For many Nebraskans, 2019 will be remembered as the year the floods came. Among the towns severely impacted by the unforgiving floods was the small village of Winslow.
On March 14, a levee protecting Winslow was compromised, and floodwaters from the Elkhorn River quickly inundated the town with more than 5 feet of water. All residents were evacuated. The Federal Emergency Management Agency identified Winslow as the most-impacted and lowest-capacity community in the state.
Looking to rebuild, village leaders approached the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s Community and Regional Planning Program, Nebraska Extension and JEO Consulting Group to assist the recovery process and explore the bold option of relocating their entire village to higher ground. Albeit a monumental task, all three of these entities have committed their assistance and expertise to the recovery and planning efforts.
At the time of the flood, the roughly 100 residents of Winslow were living in 38 single-family structures. In the aftermath, Dodge County Emergency Management inspected 51 buildings. Of those, 44 were yellow-tagged, marking the structures as uninhabitable, and six were red-tagged, indicating the foundations were collapsed.
To date, only nine residential structures are reoccupied, and two 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.
In early September, representatives from Nebraska Extension and JEO Consulting, along with students from two community and regional planning courses, traveled to Winslow. Students in the program’s Planning Studio and Hazard Mitigation Planning courses started a reconnaissance study of existing Winslow conditions — photographing structures, noting damage and making relevant observations.
Hazard Mitigation Planning students will conduct a comprehensive assessment of proposed relocation sites after analyzing flood-related emergency and disaster declarations in Nebraska. The students will evaluate the multi-hazard risks of the suggested locations: floods, tornadoes, winter storms, extreme heat, hail, drought and other possible threats. That assessment will help the community make an informed decision as it evaluates development options, said Gordon Scholz, director and professor of community and regional planning.
Nebraska Extension is helping match student and faculty skills with local needs in Winslow. Possible serviceship opportunities for community and regional planning students are being explored to help assist Winslow with forms and paperwork as residents apply for federal assistance.
‘We are helping a small rural community that really needs it’
Relocating a village is not an unprecedented response to an environmental disaster. Communities such as Silex and Rhineland in Missouri and Niobrara, Nebraska, have relocated for similar reasons. Students are currently researching the circumstances and planning processes employed by these communities, with a special focus on possible funding sources, recovery procedures, relocation costs and creative development strategies. In addition to pursuing the case studies, students collaborated with professional planners and engineers from JEO Consulting to solicit community input during a meeting in late October.
Once the inventory analysis and case studies have been completed and the community input collected, the students will provide Winslow with a report containing recommendations and planning data. Scholz said the project is a practical and challenging exercise, giving students the opportunity to address 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 RaeAnna Hartsgrove, graduate student in community and regional planning. “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.”
Graduate student Mariah Tobin echoed the desire to help fellow Nebraskans in a time of need.
“I love this project because we are helping a small rural community that really needs it,” Tobin said. “They may not have gotten the help had the university not gotten involved.”
‘This is my hometown, the place where I grew up’
Zachary Klein, Winslow village board treasurer and leader of the relocation initiative, said many 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. “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, 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 would not have access to municipal utilities, as the village will transition into an unincorporated area without a local municipal government or services. Any residents who choose to stay would need to install their own water wells and septic tanks. Currently, three residential property owners are in favor of this option.
Those in favor of moving have options available to them. Property owners can apply for 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 flood-related financial hardships would not be eligible for the buyout program. Some locals are also considering FEMA’s Mitigation Program, which funds relocation of flood-prone structures in cases where owners want to move their existing houses. Community leaders are participating in training sessions to help them properly apply for the two programs.
With the majority of residents in favor of moving the whole village to higher ground, Klein said the board is exploring four possible relocation sites near Winslow. However, because state and federal funds cannot be used for land acquisition in those circumstances, finding funding for a relocation site is a major challenge. Community leaders are currently working with the United Way in Fremont to handle funds donated for land acquisition.
Ideally, Klein said, residents hope to have land acquired by February 2020, site studies completed by March or April, initial site preparation underway in the summer, and houses moved from their existing locations 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,” Klein said.
Bill Whitney, another villager in favor of relocation, said he believes Winslow’s climate challenges are worsening.
“Winslow has been here for years and years, and every year we have a little bit of flooding,” Whitney said. “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. 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.”
Klein said he’s been asked why he doesn’t simply take the money and build elsewhere rather than pursue the idea of moving Winslow.
“To be honest, my motivations are very personal,” he said. “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.”