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City leaders reflect on choice to protect downtown Clarksville

Posted on Tuesday, April 23, 2019 at 3:04 pm

A view of the streets of downtown Clarksville lined with sandbags. Photo by Adam Thorp.

A sudden reversal by Clarksville’s Board of Alderman in its approach to flood defense has prompted complaints from city residents and the resignation of an alderman.

South Ward Alderman Don Mirick left the board after the board walked back its decision to protect only city property from rising flood waters, according to Mayor Jo Anne Smiley. Mirick did not respond to a request for comment Friday, saying he “knew what this was about” but did not want to speak to the media.

When the waters began to rise at Clarksville, city leaders faced a question: what parts of the city would they spend public resources to protect?

Though parts of the city are still flooded, current forecasts suggest it shouldn’t escalate in the immediate future. This reprieve has given the city a chance to look back on their choice.

The Board of Alderman initially voted to protect only city property, voting on a motion made by Mirick, Smiley said — but that decision was quickly reversed.

Later that same day, attendees at the inaugural meeting of the city’s emergency committee voted to recommend that the city protect the two blocks at the core of Clarksville’s historic downtown. The Board voted that afternoon to accept the recommendation and reverse the decision. Mirick was not at that afternoon’s meeting, and another alderman that had not been able to attend the morning meeting showed up.

The stretch of buildings facing the Mississippi River that Clarksville opted to spend city resources protecting. Photo by Adam Thorp.

Sue Lindemann, a council member and Clarksville’s flood plain administrator, headed the city’s emergency management efforts. She said the committee’s decision reflected the area traditionally defended by the city, and the historic character of those two blocks.

“There was a rather boisterous discussion of what should be done [at the emergency management meeting],” Smiley said. “One of the loudest expressions was the Clarksville is this two-block downtown area. That’s what Clarksville is. So we need to defend it, because it is the first place the water comes.”

Their reversal meant the city defended some private property within the city limits while leaving others to fend themselves with the help of volunteers — a decision Smiley asked the Board to reflect on at its meeting Thursday.

Jo Anne Smiley and Sue Lindemann at Thursday’s meeting. Photo by Adam Thorp.

Smiley opened her remarks by thanking Lindemann, city employees and volunteers for “another successful defense of Clarksville in a flooding situation.”

The Board’s change of direction, however, hurt the public’s perception of the city’s efforts, Smiley believes.

“Scattered results, misunderstanding, misinterpretation, negativity, all had ground in which to grow and work and spread its tentacles. And it did,” Smiley said.

The city’s efforts could have been better planned out, according to Smiley.

“Functioning without planning and focus tends to produce scattered results and, in this instance, I think there was some of that,” Smiley said. “There wasn’t a plan up on the wall with divisions and assignments and so on and so forth, which left if frayed on the edges. It left some people feeling that the city didn’t care. It left some people feeling the city didn’t know what it was doing.”

Smiley pointed to the Clarksville Antique Center, toward the southern end of town, as an example of a business outside of the zone the city chose to protect. It was, Smiley added, one of the largest businesses and largest taxpayers in town.

Angi Grossnickle, the owner and manager of the antique center, said she was unhappy with the decision.

“I was not thrilled about the choice and was pretty vocal about what they decided to defend and what they didn’t,” Grossnickle said.

Through her own efforts, and with the help of donors and volunteers, Grossnickle has built up a formidable array of flood defenses around her facility.

“We’ll be prepared. I’m very confident,” Grossnickle said. But the efforts were “extremely expensive,” she added, and came at a time when road closures caused by flooding made it more difficult for customers to reach her.

“I understand [the city] didn’t have the resources. Their first thought was to do city buildings only. I was okay with that,” Grossnickle said. “If they can’t afford to do everyone, they should have done the city buildings only. That would be fair.”

Caron Quick was appointed to replace Mirick at Thursday’s meeting.

Smiley encouraged the Board to think about how to move forward in a way that would inspire confidence and encourage the efforts of private citizens who the city needed to help in its defense.

“A positive attitude is a hallmark in Clarksville for the most part. There are times when I know we all think it’s not always there,” Smiley said. “We’re a small town and we’ve been through a lot of things, and resilience is the name of the game.

“The negativity that creeps in in almost everything, somewhere along the line, is dangerous, in my mind, and contagious, and I think it can become chronic if we’re not careful. We’re part of the team that can help control that. If we don’t control it, if we allow it to burn like a grass fire, it can get away from us before we recognize it,” Smiley added.

STATE AND FEDERAL SUPPORT

Possible financial help for the parts of Pike County affected by flooding will be delayed until waters recede.

Gov. Mike Parson said Thursday that he plans to request a federal disaster declaration this week for a series of counties inundated by flooding along the Mississippi and Missouri River. The necessary evaluations of the damage done in Pike County and Cape Girardeau County were being prevented by ongoing flooding according to Parson.

“We’ll have to wait for the water to get down enough [to perform the assessments],” said Steve Besemer, the regional coordinator for the State Emergency Management Agency (SEMA) responsible for Pike County.

Lindemann said Friday that all of the flooding damage in Louisiana and rural Pike County, and most of the damage in Clarksville, was still under water, hampering efforts to cost the damage. Clarksville sent information about the money it spent so far to SEMA Thursday.

The cost of flood-fighting would have been difficult for the Clarksville’s modest budget to bear, whatever it chose to defend. According to figures presented Thursday to the Board of Alderman by Clerk Jennifer Calvin, the city has spent more than $50,000 on its defenses so far.

In the past, Smiley said, the state’s attention has been directed to Clarksville and other towns along the Mississippi River during the flooding season, but the eye-catching damage caused by Missouri River flooding makes the situation more uncertain.

“Previously the governor’s have been here as much as anywhere, and usually that’s because the devastation along the Missouri River has not been so great. When they’re here, sitting at the table, you know what to believe. I mean, they’re telling you. But we haven’t had that this time, so I wouldn’t even venture a guess,” Smiley said.

If an emergency declaration is not forthcoming, Smiley said, the city will spend down its reserves. “It’s not going to bankrupt us,” Smiley said. “It’s just going to put us in a very [difficult] position, and one that we’ll have to work our way out of.”

OTHER BUSINESS
The city-owned medical center in Clarksville has been rented to Barbara Chapuis of Bee Naturals for $600 a month.

Lindemann put forward a list of the members of the emergency management committee, which she said she had not had a chance to run by the board in the commotion of flooding. These are Rick Merritt, Jeff Stahlschmidt, Art Moore, Pat O’Brien, Bud Garrison, Kathy Smith, Herb Everett and Bill Sterne.

“They all worked their butts off in the last month,” Lindemann said.

The Board approved Joanna Brock as mayor pro tem, Robert Guinness as City Attorney, and Tax and Accounting Solutions of Louisiana as the city’s accountant.