MONETT, Mo. — Monett and the railroad have a long history together.
Founded in 1887, the town was named after Henry Monett, a passenger agent for the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad Co.
It was laid out at the junction of what was then the St. Louis-San Francisco Railway Co. and a southbound branch, but apparently without much concern about Kelly Creek, which flows just north of the present railroad tracks.
That creek has been an ongoing source of trouble for Monett.
"It has been flooding 50 years — as long as I can remember," Bernice Morris, owner of Fashion Crossroads, said last week after Kelly Creek broke its banks and roared through the downtown, flooding as many as 50 businesses and causing millions in damage. Water rose 3 feet in 45 minutes, and at one point the water on Broadway was 6 feet deep.
"Hardly anything has been done about it," Morris said of the regular flooding. "We have a few good years, and it floods again."
In the fall of 2009, dozens of businesses flooded after a similar heavy rain. That one, according to one study, was a "100-year" event. The area also had flooded a year earlier.
But as Mayor Mike Brownsberger said last week, while cleaning up in front of his own downtown store: "This was one of the worst ones."
After the 2009 rain, City Administrator Dennis Pyle also said flash flooding in downtown Monett is “normal."
But after that flood, city leaders also commissioned a study by Olsson Associates, which has a branch in Springfield, to see what could be done about it. The study found that the city could lessen flooding if it built a channel to divert some of the floodwater away from the downtown and if a BNSF railroad bridge that backs up floodwater was rebuilt or altered.
What happened next is in dispute.
City leaders say they met with railroad officials to ask about the bridge as well as buying railroad land for the diversion channel, but they never heard back.
"Until there is an option to remove that bridge, we are at a standstill," said Pyle, who is still the city administrator.
BNSF spokesman Andy Williams said in an email last week that the railroad has tried to work with the city.
"BNSF Railway is aware of the study commissioned by the city of Monett, which identified several bridges contributing to the issue, and has met with city officials and its consultant on multiple occasions to discuss it," Williams wrote. "BNSF has offered to sell the city a portion of its right of way and to work with the city on a cost-sharing basis to expand the bridge. BNSF has also offered alternative solutions including the expansion of existing drainage and the construction of a holding pond, which was the recommendation of an earlier study."
Pyle said he doesn't know of any response from BNSF in the last four years stemming from the recommendations in the Olsson study.
"I don't recall seeing anything," he said.
On Monday, he said that he spoke to the mayor and other council members "and none of us are aware of BNSF’s offer to sell right of way to the city or cost-share in the reconstruction of bridges."
He also said they met with BNSF officials on Jan. 31, 2012, regarding improvements to the railroad bridge and were told that project would need to be included in the railroad's five-year plan and the project was not part of the plan at that time.
"We had contacted BNSF with an actual offer to purchase railroad (right of way) to construct a diversion channel," he said. "We followed that up with a meeting in Springfield at BNSF offices and were told at that time that any decision to sell right of way would need to be reviewed in Springfield, then Kansas City, Minneapolis and then their headquarters in Dallas for final approval and that it wasn’t likely to be approved because the railroad rarely sold (right of way)."
10 to 12 inches
Although city leaders and the railroad seem stalled, rain doesn't wait. According to the National Weather Service, 10 to 12 inches of rain fell in southern Lawrence and northern Barry counties last week, more than most other parts of the region. That's nearly twice the rain of the "100-year event" in 2009, which was estimated at 6.65 inches.
Mayor Brownsberger, who owns a downtown clothing store founded by his father in 1962, said store owners typically use sandbags to try to limit flood damage before a big rain is predicted. Some downtown merchants also have installed specially built flood barriers.
"Most everyone in the downtown area knows what to expect," he said.
Monett, population 8,873, is one of many Missouri cities founded because of the St. Louis-San Francisco Railway, commonly called the Frisco. In 1980, the Frisco became part of Burlington Northern Railroad Co., which later became part of BNSF.
Historic photos show that Broadway, a main downtown street that parallels Kelly Creek, has flooded at least since 1908. The Olsson study listed "substantial flooding" 10 times since 1916. A flood in 1927 rose so fast that waitresses in the Frisco Hotel at Front and Fifth streets stood on tables until they were rescued by firefighters, according to The Monett Times.
The Works Progress Administration, the federal effort to put people to work during the Great Depression in the 1930s, spent $60,000 on flood relief efforts on Kelly Creek that included building masonry walls along the creek. In 1948, flood control in Monett was the subject of a subcommittee hearing at the U.S. House of Representatives. Col. Herbert Gee, of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, briefly discussed a proposal at the hearing to divert Kelly Creek around Monett.
That never happened. Monett flooded again in 1981, 1990 and 1993. City leaders looked at building dams in the 1990s to try to prevent floods. Storm sewers were improved as part of downtown work in 2000.
Still, the floods have continued, and damage to buildings hasn't been the only danger.
In March 2008, 19-year-old Mark Speir, a senior at Monett High School, drowned in Kelly Creek after apparently going to look at the flooding that spring, according to news accounts.
"He was going down the creek screaming and hollering," Mike Rowe, the Lawrence County emergency management chief, said shortly after Speir's death.
In response, The Monett Times turned to the Monett Area YMCA for help and got a lane marker rope that was no longer being used at the city swimming pool.
"When the water in the creek rises, this rope will be tied on both sides of the stream and draped across the water, providing one last place to hang on, which Mark Speir did not have," wrote Murray Bishoff, a longtime editor at the Times.
Pyle, the city administrator, said this week that he didn't have an estimate for how much damage the most recent flood has caused.
The 2011 study estimated the 2009 flood caused $12 million in damage.
The Natural Resources Conservation Service has estimated annual flooding damages from Kelly Creek are $827,000.
Morris, the owner of Fashion Crossroads, said she has no plans to move from the historic building that she and her husband own although they have no flood insurance. She is hoping to reopen soon.
"We've been through several of these," Morris said. "We'll just pick up the pieces and start all over again. Little by little we'll get it done."