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After Missouri River Flooding, Some Iowans Say They Won't Move Back

Katie Peikes
Iowa communities like Hamburg and Pacific Junction are trying to recover from the 2019 Missouri River flooding. But some people have moved away due to lack of housing options.

A group of volunteers is replacing the ceiling in a flood-damaged home in Pacific Junction. Mayor Andy Young is working with them. This home belongs to his daughter.

“That’ll go. Just screw it up atop there,” Young instructed two volunteers as they used electric drills to put drywall into place.

Young said he wants people to know that there are volunteers and materials here needed to help rebuild their homes. The Mills County Disaster Coalition has free sheets of drywall, he said. Young is worried the damage from last spring’s flooding will keep people from coming back.

Credit Katie Peikes / IPR
Mayor Andy Young helps repair a home in Pacific Junction.

“Because that’s our tax base, for not only our city, but the school district and the county,” Young said. “We’re not the only ones that lose on this. It’s widespread. Everybody will feel it.”

Leaving the state

Every home in the small railroad town of 470 people was heavily damaged from the historic Missouri River flooding last spring. Some people found housing from a limited stock in the county. Others are staying at local campgrounds for now, or they went to live in nearby towns in Nebraska. One couple, Loyd and Brigitte Janssen, moved to Navarre, Florida.

“We’ve already started calling this home,” Loyd Janssen said. “We are not returning. We’re staying in Florida.”

Janssen was born and raised in Pacific Junction, left for a little while, then spent the last nearly 27 years in town. He said it would be too painful to return and see what was lost. He and his wife wanted to start with a “clean slate” after moving into a Florida rental property that Loyd’s brother and sister-in-law own. 

Credit Courtesy of Loyd and Brigitte Janssen
Loyd and Brigitte Janssen pictured in Navarre, Florida.

Like others, the Janssens are holding out for a buyout in Pacific Junction. Buyouts allow properties to be purchased for what they were worth before the flood. These properties are then demolished and the land is turned into green space.

Pacific Junction is not the only town that has – at least for now – lost some of its people. Further downriver in the city of Hamburg, 240 homes were affected by flooding and 73 of those homes are considered unlivable. Some people are waiting to come back, but others have started new lives elsewhere.

About 20 miles away at a small countryside home near Westboro, Missouri, Alesha Buchanan’s three children play a card game. Buchanan said they’ve adapted to their new home.

“I love Hamburg to death, but I don’t think I could pack my kids up and move again,” Buchanan said.

Buchanan said she moved a lot when she was growing up.

“I was never really in a place very long, and I don’t want that for my kids,” Buchanan said.

Her family enjoys the Missouri country life: the landscape is green as far as you can see and her children have plenty of room to play. Buchanan’s fiancé, Steven Gibbons, has family in the area. 

Credit Courtesy of Alesha Buchanan
Alesha Buchanan and her family, pictured in 2018 in her mom's home in Hamburg that flooded.

Buchanan is trying to find a job and a daycare for her kids. The couple said in early August that they only get $36 a month in Missouri food stamps.

"We live paycheck to paycheck. Three kids and two adults, and it's hard enough," Gibbons said. But their motto, he said, is “adapt and overcome.”

“We’ve always found a brighter way to look at everything,” Gibbons said.

A city is bringing in more housing for those displaced

On a drive up and down the streets of Hamburg, it’s clear that some people have left that city that had 1,100 residents before the flood.

In some neighborhoods, the grass looks like it hasn’t been cut in months. Between Main and George St. there is a home that appears to be vacant and is spray-painted with the words, “Danger. Do not enter.”

Hamburg Mayor Cathy Crain is trying to find housing for people who want to come back after two-thirds of the city was submerged last spring.

There aren’t a lot of options. According to realtors in the region, the supply of moderately priced homes, ranging from $100,000 to $200,000, is very tight, and a lot of flood victims were living in homes far cheaper than that.

“People have lost their homes in many cases and won’t be able to find similar replacements,” Mayor Crain said.  

Credit Katie Peikes / IPR
Mayor Cathy Crain of Hamburg pictured in her office.

Crain is working with Rural Housing 360, a rural housing program based in Leon, to bring 10 new affordable homes into the city by the end of the year. The homes would cost between $115 to $125 per square foot, Crain said. She estimated that a typical home in the area costs around $200 per square foot.

But 10 homes aren’t nearly enough to cover what was lost, Crain admitted.

“We are open to anything. We want to look at everything,” Crain said. “We’ve reached out to tiny homes. We’ve reached out to modulars.”

“We’ve got nobody else to play with right now,” she said, with a chuckle.

Hamburg Community Schools, the local school district, is working on its own project, aiming to build one home this fall followed by one home per school year to keep people close to the district.

“That’s wonderful and I want lots of people to do that, and I love it,” Crain said. “But we need quantity. We’ve got 73 homes that we need to replace.”

The city is working to do what Crain calls “spot corrections," buying empty lots and building new housing on them. Once that is complete, Crain said she’d like the city to purchase land in the north end of town and build a subdivision there.

Crain said she wants people to get the housing they want. Her goal is for Hamburg to come back stronger. 

Small communities can face big losses

Small communities are rarely made whole again after a flood or another disaster, said Iowa State University economist Dave Swenson.

“When you have a flood or any other kind of disaster in a small town, you significantly disrupt their commercial base or their commercial activity,” Swenson said.

Fortunately for Hamburg, Blue Moon Bar and Grill, the city’s only restaurant and bar, is aiming to reopen after Labor Day, after it suffered flood damage from at least 3 feet of water. But the owners of Hamburg Inn, the only motel in the city, are not planning to repair it.

Like other rural communities across Iowa, both Hamburg and Pacific Junction were already losing population over time before the flooding.

Data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows Hamburg had close to 1,400 people almost 30 years ago, and has lost more than 20 percent of its population since. Crain attributes this decline to the shift in agriculture from the grain embargo that President Jimmy Carter enacted against the Soviet Union in 1980. Crain said this forced a lot people to move from rural to urban areas.

Pacific Junction has lost about 15 percent of its population since 1990, according to Census data.

Bigger cities fare differently after a flood

When flooding from the Cedar River hit Cedar Rapids in June 2008, about 10,000 people were displaced. But the city continued to grow, and is still growing today. Iowa City, which also flooded that year, shows the same trend.

“As a consequence of the flooding, there was a massive amount of restoration and reconstruction and rebuilding that occurred, and reinvestment in those communities,” Swenson said, “because unlike our small communities, these were growing places.” 

Credit Katie Peikes / IPR
A pile of debris in Hamburg.

Larger communities, Swenson said, have a lot of capital available to rebuild and restore activity. “They can absorb a disaster and actually come out ahead,” he said. These communities tend to have more vibrant, dynamic economies.

“When a flood comes in it doesn’t wipe out their economic base, it just disrupts a part of it,” Swenson said. “Whereas, when a flood hits a small town, it shuts everything down.”

Swenson said population declines are expected in small communities after a disastrous flood, because they often don’t have the resources and resiliency to overcome their losses or a local market that is strong enough to absorb that big of a blow.

The leaders of Pacific Junction and Hamburg may be fighting a losing battle, but they haven’t given up yet. 


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Katie Peikes was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio from 2018 to 2023. She joined IPR as its first-ever Western Iowa reporter, and then served as the agricultural reporter.