Two years after this May 2004 flood, Elkport, Iowa, was visited by bulldozers and other demolition equipment that took the town apart building by building. Photo: Iowa National Guard
At the end of September, bulldozers razed the entire town of Elkport, Iowa, erasing homes, businesses, churches, and 150 years of history. The demolition came two years after the town's 86 former residents endured severe flood damage and dawdling by federal agencies that were slow to open their relief checkbooks.
In May 2004 heavy rains flooded Elk Creek, broke through a dike, and overwhelmed the town. Many buildings were washed away; water rose as high as 15 feet inside those that remained standing.
The Federal Emergency ManagementAgency(FEMA) agreed to buy out the affected properties—totaling $1.6 million for Elkport and seven homes in neighboring Garber—but took its time delivering. The agency rubber-stamped the buyout plan in June 2005—one year after the flood—and the money took yet another year to reach property owners. During the long wait, residents griped about having to pay taxes on their worthless properties.
While the FEMA buy-out was optional, property owners felt they had no other viable option. Most had no insurance. The extent of water damage to buildings and roads put restoration estimates in the astronomical range. Elevating the buildings was out of the question, thanks to high cost and logistical issues. In addition, Elkport sat inside the floodplain of three different waterways, increasing the chance that another flood would repeat the devastation.
In fact, Elkport had flooded five years before, in 1999, when the Turkey and Volga Rivers overfilled; that incident marked the first severe flood since the dike was constructed in 1949. Damage was less severe than it would be six years later, and the town bounced back.
While it's rare for an Iowa town to be completely erased, it's not unprecedented. Littleport ceased to exist after a post-flood federal buyout in 1999. In addition, portions of Chelsea were redrawn in the early 1990s when the Iowa River overflowed.
But while the town of Elkhart is gone from the map, former residents haven't given up the ghost. The community center is still standing, as is a small convenience store on the edge of town and a handful of houses on the fringes that were lucky enough to be above the floodline. Also, the city council still meets monthly to discuss Elkport's future—confident that it has one.
“We're looking ahead,” says former mayor Roger Bolsinger. “We haven't got much choice.”