Conditions Improve for Iowa Town After 2008 Flood

August 17, 2010

The awarding of a $10 million federal grant to build a new bridge isn’t the only good news coming out of Oakville, Iowa, these days.

Mayor Benita Grooms is happy to tell outsiders that conditions have improved a lot in her small town about 55 miles southeast of the Quad-Cities since it was devastated by Iowa River flooding in June 2008.

“I get so upset when I see that coverage on TV of debris on the curb,” she said, referring to file footage of how things looked not long after the flood receded.

“It has progressed so wonderfully well.”

Of approximately 175 homes that existed before the flood, about 90 _ including mobile homes _ have been demolished. An additional 60-65 have been rehabbed by their owners and are reoccupied, and 21 are expected to be bought out using federal Community Development Block Grant, or CDBG, funds, turned over to the Oakville Volunteer Foundation for rehabbing and then resold, Grooms said.

The foundation is a tax-exempt, 501(c)(3) group that can accept donations of money, materials and labor, said Tonya Lanz, a driving force behind the foundation.

“What we’re doing now is trying to rebuild the community and keep our town,” she said. “All is going to hinge on donated money and volunteer labor” to get the homes rehabbed.

Also critical will be the ability to sell the homes after they are rehabbed.

“I really want the community to survive,” Lanz said. “The fight to survive is long.”

Volunteers from around the country have quietly continued to report for service; recently, a group of 40 came from Ohio, and 24 arrived from Bellevue, Iowa, Grooms said. They sleep in bunk beds and shower in facilities constructed in the United Methodist Church by a group from Pennsylvania that arrived early in the rebuilding process.

They are fed by volunteer Debbie Masson who has _ incredibly, Grooms says _ been making meals every weekday since the flood. That’s more than two years. At first, Masson served townspeople as well as volunteers; now it is mostly volunteers because the townspeople are back on their feet.

As for the town’s commercial properties, those are looking better, too.

The post office, the TriOak Foods grain elevator and feed mill, and the community center that houses City Hall, the fire station and provides community meeting space _ including Masson’s meal site _ all reopened within a year.

Since then, Lanz Construction and L&L Towing have reopened as well, Grooms said.

A former restaurant that was an eyesore was demolished in the past few months, and residents who live next to properties that are unoccupied have been mowing those lawns all summer.

“Neighbors are mowing neighbors’ yards,” Grooms added.

The foundation also bought a lawn mower, and volunteers are working to improve the outside appearance of homes that have yet to be rehabbed. Only two still look really bad, she said.

Overall, “when you drive into town, you are not going to see anything that looks dumpy,” she said.

Some other pieces of the puzzle: Masson expects to open a restaurant on the ground floor of an old bank, and volunteers are working on a city park, said Paula Buckman of Morning Sun, a member of the Louisa County Board of Supervisors.

“Once all that happens, Oakville is going to feel like a town that has come back,” she added.

People who rehabbed their own homes generally got some assistance, including donations from individuals and groups, as well as money _ at least in the beginning _ from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, and the Jump Start program that was offered through the State of Iowa, Lanz said.

People who did not want to rehab were not eligible for FEMA buyouts, but they do qualify for buyouts using CDBG funding, Lanz explained. That is good because CDBG buyouts allow for rehabbing; a FEMA buyout would have required demolition with no rebuilding, she added.

Owners received, or will receive, 110 percent of their home’s pre-flood assessed value, minus the amount of any financial assistance they already have received. The buyouts are administered through the Iowa Department of Economic Development, she said.

Lanz credits Bob McCulley, one of the owners of TriOak Foods, with putting together the idea of using CDBG money. “He has really pulled us through,” she said. “He has been a source of strength.”

Lanz was thrilled that the first rehabbed home was recently sold to a family who previously lived in town but had moved to Wapello after the flooding.

Meanwhile, levees that protect the town and surrounding farmland were rebuilt this past fall by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The area is now, in the words of County Engineer Larry Roehl, “kind of back to withstanding our high-water issues.”

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