EAST CAPE GIRARDEAU — Two and a half years ago, Robert and Tina Rhymer went searching for a new home. The last of their six children had graduated high school and moved out on his own.
Their house in Scott City, Missouri, was more than these empty-nesters needed for themselves. They found a fixer-upper with real potential just over the Mississippi River in the Illinois community of East Cape Girardeau.
The price was right. They figured it could be paid off within five years. They have modest incomes. She works as a phlebotomist at the Southeast Cancer Center in Cape Girardeau, and he’s a Navy and Army National Guard veteran currently employed as a sanitation worker. They are hoping to be able to retire in the next decade or so. Without a house payment, they imagined having the financial freedom to enjoy it.
The home needed a lot of work: new floors, windows, siding, doors, electrical, water and gas lines. They did all of it themselves, as a team, remodeling their home room by room. What they didn’t know how to do, they asked friends who did. Despite saving on labor, it wasn’t cheap. Anyone who has ever gotten knee-deep into a home remodel job knows that costs can escalate quickly. It ate up every bit of their savings.
“We sunk everything we have into this house,” Robert said.
Now it’s sinking, and they have lost everything.
By mid-July, the Mississippi River at Cape Girardeau bested an old record for the longest consecutive days above flood stage. Only a few weeks before that, the Rhymers came home to discover a sinkhole in their yard next to the house. Then, the concrete basement floor blew up, and water started gushing in.
Once the basement floor collapsed, they started noticing the cracks in the walls and ceiling upstairs. The garage floor drooped and split. The pressure caused the pole that holds up the first floor over the basement to snap. “It broke the brace that holds the floor up,” she said. “Just broke it in half.”
The Mississippi River was really only an accomplice in robbing them of their dream home. The real problem was seep water that had backed up after days and days of heavy rains with nowhere to go with the river so swollen.
They assume it’s not safe to walk in the living room, but have little choice but to live here for now. Because the floor busted open, their basement takes water every time it rains. Everything they had down there was ruined. That includes valuables like their couch, television and a bed. But also those items that no amount of money could ever replace: pictures, military records, war documents from Robert’s time serving in Afghanistan in the late 2000s and other personal items.
They are looking for a new home. But it won’t be easy paying two house payments.
Help is not on the way.
On Sept. 20, the Federal Emergency Management Agency denied Illinois’ request for assistance for individuals and business owners affected by historic flooding this year in Illinois. FEMA Associate Administrator Jeff Byard told the state in a letter that the federal government had “determined the impact to individuals and households from the event is not of such severity and magnitude to warrant the designation of Individual Assistance.”
The Rymers learned of the decision Byard made from Washington when a local TV news station posted a story about the denial to its Facebook page.
Robert said he lies awake at night and worries about how they will rebuild their lives. The Rhymers do not have flood insurance, though they were told it wouldn’t have helped anyway since the water entered their home from the ground through their basement floor. When they called their regular home insurer, which they have through Robert’s military service, they were told that sinkhole damage recovery required a special type of insurance coverage — one they didn’t have. It was in the fine print, but the Rhymers had never heard anything about it.
They hoped the federal government could help them recover.
“Let them come and stay the night here and get woken up by the pops and the creeks of the house falling through its foundation,” he said of the FEMA bureaucrats who turned down assistance for people like them. Tina has taken it even harder. She’s been diagnosed with alopecia areata, a condition that causes hair loss and is aggravated by stress. Pulling back her long brown hair, she revealed three quarter-sized bald patches on her scalp that she tries to keep covered. “This is due to the flood,” she said.
But the most heartbreaking thing for her is that her grandson can’t visit them there. There’s mold in the home and it’s at risk of collapsing. The plumbing doesn’t always work, and when it goes out, they have to travel across the bridge to a gas station in Cape Girardeau.
Illinois has appealed FEMA’s decision. But there’s no deadline by which FEMA must respond to the appeal. A spokesman for the federal agency told the newspaper the agency could not provide an estimate of when — or even if — it would do so.
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker told Byard in a letter that he was “disappointed” in the decision as “federal assistance is necessary to provide a meaningful chance at recovery for the individuals, households and communities” affected.
“Although this incident period for this disaster ended over three months ago, the ‘ground truth’ for many individuals and households in the impacted areas is that little or no recovery has occurred since that time,” Pritzker wrote. “In fact, for some, the situation has gotten even worse.”
That applies to many in the village of East Cape Girardeau, home to about 300 people and a handful of small businesses. In many ways, it’s the forgotten little sister to its namesake across the river in Missouri. Situated on the Illinois side of the Mississippi in weather-beaten Alexander County, about 37% of residents — and nearly two in every three children — live below the poverty line.
Months after floodwaters receded, it still seems as though the village is living in the midst of an active crisis. But residents here say it’s as if no one outside of the immediate area notices or even cares.
“I was shocked. I couldn’t believe it,” Village President Joe Aden said of FEMA’s denial. The village’s government building was also taken out during the flood, forcing monthly meetings to be held at a local pizza joint. Aden said he was relieved to hear that FEMA did approve the state’s designation for public assistance. That will reimburse communities for flood-fighting activities as well as damage to roads and public infrastructure. For instance, it can be used to repair or replace the flood-damaged village hall. But that designation can’t do anything to help displaced residents, Aden said.
“This flood has really hurt us.”
In its 37-page appeal to the federal government, Illinois officials have attempted to stress the extent of that hurt to individuals spread across the 22 counties for which the designation was sought. In addition to Alexander County, other Southern Illinois counties included are Union, Jackson and Randolph. In total, the state estimated $8.2 million in qualified individual assistance damages; more than 1,400 homes were affected across Illinois.
The appeal notes that in Alexander County, homes impacted by flooding are still stained by floodwaters and sandbags haven’t been picked up. Five sinkholes were documented on private property due to the voids left from sand boils within the village. In McClure, damage to residents’ foundations and basements from the floodwaters is starting to worsen as the ground around their residences dries out, Illinois officials noted to FEMA.
Several dozen residents left the area altogether after floodwaters forced them from a trailer court and nearby row of A-frame single-family homes this summer in East Cape Girardeau. It's unclear where most are living. “It is suspected that most of those displaced residents moved across the Mississippi River to Missouri,” says the report, which the state provided to The Southern in response to a records request.
Two of those residents can be found just up the road living in a camper.
It’s parked in a gravel lot next door to Babe’s Fish Wagon, an under-the-radar spot that draws people from miles away for its fried river buffalo and catfish.
Gregory Gabelman and his son have been living there since June when rising waters forced them out of their respective trailer homes. Gabelman owned two on the lot. He lived in one and rented the one next door to his son. He was frustrated that the village voted to condemn the trailer court. He said that since no one has stepped in to help them find a new home, he assumes the decision was designed to run them out of town.
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But they don’t want to leave.
Gabelman said a family member let him borrow the camper, and the restaurant owner has been kind enough to let him use the lot.
He said he throws the business a few bucks when he has it in exchange for using its outside electricity hookup. But it’s not an ideal living situation, or a permanent option. Two adults and their two dogs — Foo-foo and Booger — make for a cramped camper. They have no running water. He buys bottled water for drinking and cooking, and to give to the dogs. They shower and use the restroom at a next-door neighbor’s home. They have a space heater, but “this thing ain’t built for winter,” he said.
Gabelman’s younger son, a high school senior, has had to move in with a friend’s family to finish out his senior year. Gabelman said that when he learned of FEMA’s decision, “it was a gut punch.”
“I’m living in a parking lot, ya know?”
He’s hoping to find a home he can buy contract-for-deed. But Gabelman said that with everything he lost in the flood, he can’t afford a down payment and utility deposits on his disability income.
The Southern asked FEMA for a detailed explanation as to why it denied Illinois’ request for individual assistance. The agency did not provide an answer. Instead, spokesman Mark Peterson directed the newspaper to a link on its website with general information, final rule language and agency guidance about how FEMA makes major disaster declaration decisions.
The rule was newly revised on June 1, as Congress directed FEMA to do with passage of the Sandy Recovery Improvement Act of 2013, he noted.
The agency’s guidance on the new rules states that the two principal factors FEMA considers in making these decisions is the estimated cost of assistance, and the fiscal capacity of a given state to meet that need. But when the data input results in a toss up — as it did for Illinois’ application — then FEMA is to consider a list of secondary factors such as job losses, infrastructure damage and the degree to which affected people live in areas with high poverty and unemployment rates.
FEMA is also to consider lives lost. This year’s prolonged flood event claimed seven lives; three died in Alexander County.
Illinois writes in its appeal that its request is “one of the very first” — and certainly the largest request to date — to be evaluated using these newer factors. Given that, Pritzker told FEMA that “it is imperative that FEMA strike the proper balance when evaluating these factors.”
The governor said it provided FEMA page after page of supporting evidence. Yet with its denial, FEMA did not indicate how it considered these additional factors, if it did at all, Pritzker claimed. Instead, the state received only a broad explanation that the event was not of such severity or magnitude to warrant it.
“If this is truly FEMA’s position, then I can only conclude that FEMA simply has not gained the proper appreciation for the ‘severity and magnitude’ of this problem as Illinois’ residents face it,” he wrote. The state also noted that the federal government has denied three requests for individual assistance stemming from disasters in the state in less than six years. He said that Illinois’ ability to respond has been stretched beyond its capacity.
As supporting evidence, he cited the state’s crushing debt burden, backlog of unpaid bills, employment loss and severely underfunded pension liability. In the letter, Pritzker said these fiscal challenges mounted in the wake of recessions in 2003 and 2017, though events leading to Illinois’ financial mess are more complicated than that.
Hubert Rudluff said he’s not surprised by FEMA’s decision. “We just ain’t big enough down here,” he said. “It’s a big lot of talk, I think.”
The 86-year-old retiree said he was thrilled when he found a home for sale about three years ago at the corner of Illinois 3 and Carolyn Drive.
For decades, he had lived about 6 miles up the road in a trailer. When the roof started showing signs of giving out, he decided it was time to look around for something else.
“I thought I was in a mansion on the hill until the water hit me,” he said. When the water came into his home, it took out his washer and dryer, refrigerator and heating and air system. “The biggest thing is my floors is all buckled up and a hell of a mess here,” he said.
Rudluff said he had hoped to be able to enjoy his days here after retiring from his longtime job selling used cars at a lot across the river in Cape Girardeau. Now, he’s not sure what to do. “I thought about a payday loan to get a little money to fix up the house, but we’re liable to have another flood next spring.” But he doesn’t have the money to walk away and start over, either.
Though he’s without his heating system, Rudluff said he doesn’t like to complain too much — and he doesn't expect anything from the government. He has a space heater, and said he knows others have it worse.
“I can make it, unless it gets below zero. I’m a pretty tough old buzzard,” he said. “I can make it by myself on a flat rock in a rainstorm. I just don’t like to live like that.”
Given that FEMA has no deadline by which it must let Illinois know of its decision, Peterson, the agency spokesman, said that “the state of Illinois may choose to work directly with other federal agencies through their own authorities to identify other sources of assistance for Illinois residents.”
But that assistance would be far more limited than what would be provided with a disaster declaration for individual assistance, which typically includes financial help for affected homeowners and renters. As to residents’ specific concerns detailed in this story, Peterson said FEMA cannot offer renters and homeowners help outside of a disaster declaration. “FEMA, while part of the nation’s disaster response effort, is not the sole provider of assistance,” he said in the emailed response. “Other sources of assistance can include state and local agencies, nonprofit and voluntary organizations, the private sector and the general public.”
In a small village, most people know each other, and those who can come together to help those with less, said Ashley Sturm, a U.S. mail worker and longtime resident of East Cape Girardeau. During the flood, when people couldn’t leave town, she organized grocery drives to make sure everyone had at least something to eat.
She and her fiance have helped elderly people clean up their homes that took in floodwater. She’s been trying to raise funds to buy one man with late-stage cancer a very modest trailer to replace the unsafe one he’s living in. Others have stepped up to help their neighbors, too. But few have the means to give a lot, she said. Sturm’s home has also suffered expensive structural damage.
“I have a huge heart,” she said, “but my pocket book isn’t.”
Sturm said that if she could tell President Donald Trump one thing about the decision by his leadership team at FEMA, it would be this: “Why don’t we matter? Why do we matter when it comes to election time, but we don’t matter when we need help. And we need help right now. Our elderly, especially.”
With all of these heart-wrenching problems facing area residents — for which he has few answers to offer — Aden, the village president, said it would be nice if they could just figure out how to get the sandbags picked up. “That would be a morale boost,” he said. “It’s just demoralizing to look at it everyday.” Indeed, the fact that the sandbags that held the town together during the height of flooding remain months later was something that numerous residents pointed to in support of their claim that it seemed like they’d been forgotten here.
A week ago, Aden and Mike Turner, Alexander County’s emergency management director, both said they were under the impression that the Illinois Emergency Management Agency had denied their request for state assistance picking them up.
The village has no money to pay a contractor to do it either, Aden said. If the sandbags are taken to a landfill full, the cost would be hundreds of thousands of dollars. If the bags are emptied first, the cost is far less, but the job requires more manpower. Turner estimated there are about 1 million of them strewn about town. Aden said the village had been trying to find a contractor willing to take on the job for an IOU, with a commitment that payment would be made as soon as the village received its FEMA public assistance recovery dollars.
But when The Southern asked the Illinois Emergency Management agency why it couldn’t help, spokeswoman Rebecca Clark said that wasn’t the case. Clark said the agency asked for additional documentation and that one piece, showing that all local resources had been exhausted, was still outstanding.
“It can be a simple email that says, ‘We don’t have the resources, please help us,’” she said. “It’s as simple as that.” Aden and Turner were surprised to learn that this was all the state was waiting on. The local and state officials connected Friday morning and talked it over.
“Just wanted to let you know, Alexander County submitted a resource request with the State within the last hour,” Clark emailed to The Southern after the parties talked. “This means sandbag removal should begin next week in East Cape Girardeau.”
That may be the only breakthrough coming East Cape Girardeau’s way in the near term.
Editor's note: This story was updated to clarify a section about flood insurance and seepage.