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Granite City, still waitin' on the levee. . .

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 7, 2010 - Since his election in 2005, Granite City Mayor Ed Hagnauer has helped steer his community of about 30,000 through some trying times.

In July 2006, severe storms battered Granite City, downing trees and power lines and leaving hundreds of residents without electricity for a week. An ice storm the following November again left many in the community in the dark. But no one was injured or killed, and the city worked with Granite City Township officials to set up emergency generators in cooling and heating shelters.

"We spent $1.3 million cleaning up,'' Hagnauer said. "We became aggressive.''

In late 2008 and early 2009, the nation's economic meltdown reached into Granite City, and the layoffs of several thousand steelworkers from the landmark U.S. Steel plant garnered national headlines.

And as 2010 turns to autumn, the cash-strapped state of Illinois -- which seems to owe everyone money these days -- owes Granite City more than $1 million, the mayor said.

The city has responded with cost-cutting measures, including not replacing retired employees, and passing a deficit budget, Hagnauer said.

"Right now, we're about nine people short,'' he said. "The last nine retirees have not been replaced. We passed a deficit budget of $700,000 -- we had the money. But we can't do that every year. The thing that affects us the most is we have a lot of bigger businesses appealing their tax assessments and those are critical for us.''

Like other municipalities, the city is also faced with state-mandated pension fund obligations, and Hagnauer is unsure what health-care reform will mean to the city's insurance costs down the road.

"But we're stable. We're not going to have major layoffs right now,'' he said. "Our biggest problems are legacy costs: unfunded mandates handed down from the state as far as pension funding. If you took them out of the picture, and health insurance, the city would be OK.''

In fact, Hagnauer says, his deepest concern for his city these days isn't the current economy, at all. Instead, he fears that the federal government's new flood risk maps will have a devastating financial impact on Granite City and 24 other Metro-East communities if they are designated as a Special Flood Hazard Area.

The designation, he says, would force current residents and businesses to pay hundreds to thousands of dollars a month for flood insurance they can't afford. And it would hamper future economic growth by putting in place new regulations on future construction.

A new levee alliance forms

Hagnauer has plenty of company to share his concerns over the revised flood maps, including a new group called the St. Louis Metro East Levee Issues Alliance introduced at a press conference today in Collinsville.

The geographic area in question -- located in the American Bottoms -- encompasses 25 communities in Madison, St. Clair and Monroe counties and would affect an estimated 150,000 residents, 4,000 employers and 56,000 jobs.

The levee alliance is a coalition of business and civic organizations, community leaders and concerned citizens that will work toward gaining sufficient time and funding to bring the Metro East levees up to new federal standards, said Patrick McKeehan, executive director of Leadership Council Southwestern Illinois, which promotes economic development in St. Clair and Madison counties.

The alliance, which will be administered by the Leadership Council, has a new website and will work to keep residents and businesses informed about the often-confusing remapping process that has been going on for three years, McKeehan said.

"This is a way to get the average citizen and small business owner, the affected public institutions, schools and hospitals, firehouses and city halls all working together,'' he said.

In August 2007 the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), announced that a significant portion of the American Bottoms would be designated as a Special Flood Hazard Area. The rating was based on a determination by the Army Corps of Engineers that the levees are inadequate to prevent under-seepage and that they would no longer be certified as providing 100-year flood protection (severe flooding that has a 1 percent chance of occurring in any year).

FEMA released its preliminary flood maps in June 2008, but agreed to delay release of the final maps until remapping was completed for the entire St. Louis region. That bought some time for Metro East officials who had begun to pursue their own levee restoration efforts, including passage of a quarter-cent sales tax that took effect in Madison, St. Clair and Monroe counties in 2009 to fund levee repairs. The tax, which raised more than $10 million for levee repairs in 2009, would be used to back the sale of bonds to cover the project's preliminary costs, estimated at about $130 million.

The Southwestern Illinois Flood Prevention District Council was formed in June 2009 to coordinate efforts of the three county districts, and an engineering firm was selected to design and manage the levee restoration.

"Despite these ongoing efforts, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is pushing forward with a remapping project that disregards the presence of our levees and shows significant portions of the American Bottoms as a Special Flood Hazard Area,'' McKeehan said. "That designation will bring major and dire economic consequences to our region because it limits construction. It drives up business costs and resident costs. By saying that our levees, in a sense, don't exist, it drives away new business opportunities.''

FEMA could implement the new maps in early 2011, said McKeehan.

The goal of the Flood Prevention District Council is to complete the levee restoration within three to five years with local funding -- as opposed to the Corps of Engineers plan, which would totally redesign the levee over a period of 30 years at a cost of $500 million, McKeehan said.

"That's an unacceptable solution,'' he said. "We can't sit here for 30 years under these new burdens of flood insurance and restrictions on construction and expect the federal government to get these levees done. The alliance is a way to get greater public awareness and participation behind the idea that we have to get our levees in a very cost-efficient way and in a very timely fashion.''

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'The levees are our main concern'

Although FEMA officials have said that the National Flood Insurance Program would offer discounted premiums for the first two years on property affected by the remapping, McKeehan believes the efforts are focused on residents and won't go far enough to help struggling small business owners.

In July, the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation written by Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Belleville, that would prevent the mandatory purchase requirements for flood insurance from taking effect for five years. The bill also phases in flood insurance rates over an additional five years.

Hagnauer said the legislation is a hopeful sign, but he notes that it is not a done deal: The bill must be approved by the Senate and signed into law by President Barack Obama.

"We think we're going to be OK, but we need this extension because we could have mass departures from our area if they start implementing $1,500 or $2,000 flood insurance policies on us,'' Hagnauer said. "You would have a mass exodus; people can't afford that.''

"The economy is cyclical. It's going to be up and down, and we think there will be a comeback there,'' he said. "The levees are our main concern.''

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.