Publication Date May 7, 2019

Midwestern Floods Pit Communities Against One Another as Levees Rise Ever Higher

United States
Grafton, Ill., has no levees to protect against the Mississippi River’s natural sprawl. Photo: Whitney Curtis for The New York Times

The Mississippi River annexed Jerry and Sue Eller’s backyard, invaded their basement and converted their street into a boat ramp.

“It’s life on the river,” Ms. Eller said on Monday as people fished from her back porch, though only one scrawny catfish was biting. “You take the bad with the good.”

As record-breaking floods have torn through the Midwest this spring, towns have looked nervously toward levees and flood walls that protect them from inundation. When some levees were breached, destroying farms and homes in Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri, politicians pledged to build them back taller, stronger, bigger.

Other places, including the town of Grafton, where the Mississippi River crested on Monday, have taken a different approach to riverfront living. There are no levees here, no protection from the river’s natural sprawl, so residents have been left to clean up behind devastating floods.

For generations, people in Grafton have made a bargain with nature. The river gave their town a reason for being, drawing tourists who spend money in the bars and nights in the inns along the river. In exchange, Grafton’s 650 or so residents sacrificed the lower floors of their homes to the river’s whims or moved up onto a bluff.

But Grafton’s bargain has grown more complicated. The water is rising more often, and to heights rarely seen before. Residents feel more exposed to the river than ever as other places bolster their levees and force the water elsewhere. In the race to build barriers along the Mississippi, they say, places like Grafton are drowning.

“Every time they build a levee or raise one, it hurts everybody without a levee,” said Peter Allen, an owner of The Loading Dock restaurant in Grafton, which has been closed for much of this spring because of the floods.


Scientists have attributed the uptick in flooding to increased rainfall in the Midwest, an effect of climate change, and the continuing efforts to constrict the river.