DE SOTO, Missouri — When the rain falls in De Soto, Missouri, the town’s hundreds of households brace for a potential flood. “It's fast enough that it has swept a car away, and a person has drowned,” De Soto resident and flood advocate Paula Arbuthnot said.
What’s surprising about the town’s predicament isn’t the flooding. Missouri has had quite a bit of flooding. It’s that De Soto isn’t located next to a large body of water. Instead, the flooding is caused by the Joachim creek that runs through downtown, which can overflow in minutes. In the last four years, the town has experienced five flash floods.
Many De Soto residents would rather move to higher ground — but selling these properties is rarely an option. Buyers don’t get excited when they see homes surrounded by sandbags.
Instead, residents of De Soto have been clamoring for help from the U.S. government, which they hope will come in the form of federal buyouts — a program in which FEMA essentially offers to cover 75% of the cost of buying a flood-prone home to give owners a chance to move to higher ground. The rest is covered by state or local governments.
“People have lived here 40, 50 years — never floods,” said Nadine Sebastian, a 73-year-old widow and retired special-ed teacher. “Now, it floods all the time.”
But first, De Soto needs to prove that its residents really need the help. That’s where a study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers comes in. A draft of the study was released in June, which recommended that the U.S. government should buy 70 out of the 229 structures located in the floodplain.
But the U.S. Army Corps study is just the first in a series of steps that could lead to a federal buyout; the process could take months or years. And some have decided they can’t wait that long.
VICE News went to De Soto to see how one Missouri town is coping with repeated flooding and disaster bureaucracy.
This segment originally aired August 8, 2019, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.