By Adam Thorp
As Clarksville mounted yet another defense against Mississippi River flooding last week, the Missouri legislature was set to consider a more permanent solution.
House Bill 19 would allocate $2 million for a portable flood wall the city could erect whenever the water threatens the town. It’s been a long-term goal of Clarksville’s city leaders, including Mayor Jo Anne Smiley.
“We would like to be independent, and we think this would bring us independence,” Smiley said.
Their pitch: the regular burden imposed on the city, the state and private volunteers in defense of the town could be relieved by a single long-term investment.
This tradeoff impressed the area’s legislators, State Rep. Jim Hansen and State Sen. Cindy O’Laughlin, who both cited the continuing costs to the state of flood relief in Clarksville.
Hansen visited Clarksville Friday as the river approached its crest. He thanked the city’s volunteers but said he felt the periodic crises that drew them to the city could be avoided.
“My impression was, it’s a disaster. It’s just terrible,” Hansen said. “This is preventable. It’s costing the state money.”
Beyond the savings to the state, O’Laughlin said better security from flooding could promote tourism and economic development.
“Everybody understands that Clarksville floods almost every single year. It’s about destroyed the tourism that they had built up, and if they can just find a way to protect the town, it’s a really only a picturesque location,” O’Laughlin said.
“It seems to make sense for us. We just have to make it make sense to the state,” Smiley added.
A conference call featuring State Sen. Cindy O’Laughlin, Hansen, Smiley and representatives of state, federal, and regional agencies about their request took place Friday morning. One difficulty supporters of the appropriation face, Smiley said, was the size of their request in relation to Clarkville’s population.
“When you say $4 million to anybody for a town of less than 450, and you divide that into there, that doesn’t make sense to anybody. It kind of doesn’t even make sense to me, except I know how important it is to those 450 people. I know how important it is to this area,” Smiley said.
H.B. 19 is a grab-bag of different budget items, including $3 million for a secure fence at Western Missouri Correctional Center in Cameron, $750,000 for a new pavilion at the State Fair and $500,000 for a STEM lab at Harris-Stowe University in St. Louis. It passed the house by a wide margin Thursday.
It now must make its way through the Senate in the last two weeks of the legislative session and across the governor’s desk.
O’Laughlin, who was elected to represent much of northeast Missouri in 2018, is a new enlistee in the push to secure funding for the flood wall. Hansen, who represents Pike County and lives in Frankford, is a veteran of years of efforts in the Missouri House. Both had spoken with Senate Appropriations Chairman Dan Hegeman and were optimistic about its prospects.
For one thing, Hansen noted, revenue projections for the state had been healthy, leaving more room for the state to fill additional requests.
Smiley complimented the efforts of Hansen and O’Laughlin on the behalf of the bill, but added that years of disappointment had made her cautious about the chances of progress on the issue.
“[Legislators] look at me as you are looking at me and say ‘yes ma’am’ and vote the other way,” Smiley said.
The rest of the cost for the $4 million wall would have to be pieced together from a variety of sources, including federal grants designed to help communities prepare for disasters.
Smiley said Friday she hopes the serious flooding the city experienced this week encourages authorities to act.
“I’ve done this nine times now and I, like the people who come down here [to help the town], wish it didn’t have to happen again. I’m sad for this community that it has to keep happening. But maybe this is what calls the attention to what has to happen to the river for the future of the country,” Smiley said.