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Deluge Forces Virginia Town to Move to Higher, Dryer Land

It's raining again in Grundy, Virginia. No one here gets too excited anymore, they simply know that when the heavens open up, the floods aren't far behind. A group of men move a few boxes to higher ground. An older woman paces back and forth as the downpour soaks the earth.

Twelve centimeters of rain is a great deal anywhere, but in Grundy, that amount turns Main Street into a river. With the town flooding at least five times a year, even small children recognize and respect the signs of rising water. But Police Chief Barney Stiltner, who was stranded at his home by the latest round of flooding, says that sometimes even knowing the signs doesn't help.

"It's really unpredictable. I was playing basketball with my daughter and [suddenly] there's a huge wall of water coming down Slate Creek and the sky was clear. And, buddy, all of a sudden it was three feet deep, just like that. It happened that quickly. You could hear it at quite a distance but you may not have time to get out," he said.

As the rain turns the creek outside his home a muddy brown, Chief Stiltner sits back in his chair and observes that the reason the town floods so easily is because of its location.

"The problem is, in this area - from that mountainside to this - if you get two or three inches of rain that falls in this valley, then you get it all. It's not like a flatland where water can spread out more equally. [Here,] you got just a big rushing water like a ditch," he said.

When Grundy was founded over 130 years ago, things were very different. The logging industry was booming, the Livisa River was a lot wider, and the town was a lot smaller. Because the community is wedged between two mountains, a creek and railroad tracks, the only way it could grow was to fill in the river until it too was little more than a creek. The town's business district expanded into the flood plain. The rain continues its gentle rhythm as Town Manager Chuck Crabtree explains that after years of bouncing back from repeating flooding, the community realized it needed to do something more in order to survive. In 1997, it was decided that the town of Grundy would move.

"These pieces of property have taken a lot of damage over the years, so Grundy had no choice. If you could revamp these buildings, it would be another story, but it wouldn't be fair to the public to continue to dump money into a building that's going to continue to get flooding. It's time for us to change and better ourselves," Mr. Crabtree said.

While the decision to move was easy, figuring out how to do it was not. Financially, Grundy couldn't afford the $300 million move on its own so the town took on some partners, which lowered the cost for everyone. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was willing to help because its mission is to protect and develop the nation's water resources the Virginia Department of Transportation came on board because it wanted to build a highway.

Mr. Crabtree's office window looks out on the mountain across the river Grundy's future home, which is now veined by little streams of rainwater. Through it all, the Corps of Engineers continues moving huge mounds of earth to create an area large enough for 40 to 50 businesses, the town hall and a new Main Street. At a restaurant along the 'old' Main Street, water leaks through the roof and splashes into a tin pan. Manager Pat Breeding says she can't wait to move to drier ground. "Water's contaminated. We have to go buy [soda] pop. We have to go buy ice. We have a hard time. We're struggling. Our service times go down because we can't keep up," she said.

Ms. Breeding says her new restaurant will be bigger and bring in twice the business. But Shirley Silcocks who owns the local floral shop isn't interested in moving. The flood of '77 took out three walls of her store, but she feels it's a smarter business decision to keep paying the astronomical flood insurance in order to stay put.

"Thirty-two years ago I moved here. I lost lots of business by moving and if I move again I will lose it again. The downing of the business isn't worth it to me," she said.

Once the other businesses have moved, the Virginia Department of Transportation will divert traffic into the new part of town, demolish the old buildings and build the highway. The road will act as a levee, which will protect the town's residential area and some historic buildings. Nevertheless, some residents are moving to higher ground across the river the Corps of Engineers will flood-proof the homes of those who decide to stay where they are.

Grundy Town Manager Chuck Crabtree says the reason this project is working is that engineers from the Army and the state Transportation Department are cooperating, and coordinating. "It shows what government can do when agencies do work together. That you can reduce cost, and that government is for the betterment of the people, not the other way around. I hope what we're doing here can be used across the nation," he said.

It will take at least eight years to complete Grundy's move. Though the town still has a lot of hard work ahead of it, Police Chief Barney Stiltner says it's well worth the effort. "I wouldn't live anywhere else. You get in the flatlands, and tornadoes take you out so you got to put up with something," the police chief said.

As if to respond the sun breaks through the clouds and a rainbow arcs over the town.