"Something Needs To Be Done"
Two 500-year floods since 2015 have residents, business owners calling for answers
Volunteers turned out in large numbers this spring to help sandbag around businesses in Olde Towne Fenton. Ursula Ruhl. (click for larger version)
August 10, 2017
Dave Stokes, the director of Great Rivers Habitat Alliance, said we're in a lull before the next "water bomb" hits the region. Stokes said local leaders must address flood concerns after two major rain events since 2015 caused millions in damages to the area.
"Residents and businesses want some answers," said Stokes. "They want some solutions. They built in areas that are not supposed to be in a floodplain, and yet they had several feet of Meramec River in their homes and businesses.
"When the first water bomb hit in late 2015, their reaction was, 'Okay, we had a freak storm, we'll deal with it,'" said Stokes. "Then another 500-year flood event happens this year and they are saying, 'Something needs to be done. This is not normal.'"
Stokes' organization has been well-represented at several Fenton meetings where businesses and residents complained that flooding issues need to be addressed. At a July 19 meeting, long-time Fenton resident Scott Miller blamed landfills and a new levee in the area for recent flooding.
"I have never seen anything like this, ever," said Miller. Other meeting participants said Corps of Engineers' data and floodplain maps need to reflect a new reality, but maps have not been updated since 1982.
Stokes of Great Rivers Habitat Alliance said recent meetings show the public is concerned, but responsible parties and political leaders are doing little to nothing to address concerns. He pointed out that:
• Floodplain maps are not changing, even after record flooding was observed this year at locations all over Missouri. On the Meramec, records were set at numerous sites, I-44 was once again shut down, and in Valley Park, the river crested on May 3 just below the record set in the December 2015.
• Development continues in floodplain areas all over the region. One proposed development in the Missouri River floodplain would bring a large hockey sports complex to Creve Coeur Lake Memorial Park.
• Once again in 2017, millions of dollars of public money are going to flood relief. Gov. Eric Greitens reported last week that FEMA has made almost $88 million in payments through the National Flood Insurance Program.
According to the governor's office, more than 1,874 state households are receiving assistance, and "the numbers demonstrate the extent of Missouri's historic spring flooding and the importance of seeking federal assistance for Missouri families, public entities and nonprofits."
Taxpayers On The Hook
Stokes said Great Rivers Habitat Alliance isn't just about preserving nature and the environment, but it's also about protecting the interests of taxpayers when it comes to the costs of development and flooding events in floodplain areas.
"The taxpayers are on the hook for a lot of what's happened," said Stokes. "Flood insurance should be a self-sustaining program, but the taxpayers are having to subsidize it because of these unprecedented flood events.
"We've got to change the national flood insurance program so that it stops floodplain development and it moves out people who make repeated claims in flood areas, which are expanding. A policy needs to be in place: 'You stay in a floodplain, you are on your own.'"
According to Stokes, environmentalism would make more headway with the public, if more emphasis was put on how it can save taxpayer money, can promote good public policy, and can promote jobs and the economy.
"On jobs and the economy, look how many businesses had to shutter for weeks with the Meramec flooding," said Stokes. "Besides all the losses of business owners, look at how many employees went without paychecks for weeks."
Stokes said Great Rivers Habitat Alliance has a three-pronged message on how public policy makers should address public concern on flooding.
• Climate change is here now. A warmer atmosphere holds more water resulting in more "water bomb" rain events (Kansas City has two such occurrences in the past month). We have to react to that.
• Floodplain development is not foolproof just because some levees are built or expanded. Two new mall outlets and the largest U.S. strip mall in a flood-prone Chesterfield Valley may not be the wisest public policy in the St. Louis region.
• Levee impact on flooding deserves much more study. Also, ways must be found to reconnect flood-prone real estate to floodplains for relief from "water bomb" events.
Future Levee Wars?
Dave Stokes, director of Great Rivers Habitat Alliance, just outside the flood gate on Marshall Road in Valley Park. Diana Linsley. (click for larger version)
"There is talk that Eureka and Pacific want levee protection now," said Stokes. "That would be more bad news for Kirkwood, Fenton, Sunset Hills and Arnold. Great Rivers will fight tooth and nail against any more levees on the Meramec River.
"Levee wars and more structures in the Meramec floodplain are the last thing that we need now," said Stokes. 'We are the ones who funded the independent engineering study that found the Valley Park levee to be too high and built beyond authorized levels."
The Corps disputes the results of that study. Stokes noted that the Corps has excused overbuilt parts of the levee as entirely necessary to compensate for inevitable settling.
Bob Criss, a member of Great Rivers and an earth and planetary science professor at Washington University, said it's about time area political leaders learn the lesson of levees.
"You can't have a high levee and not be sending your problems elsewhere," said Criss. "When you put these big levees up, there are always going to be bigger problems on the other side."
Criss wants Corps' responsibility for flood damages to be analyzed. Stokes said no one really expects that the Corps will lower the Valley Park levee by several feet, but some things could be done to lessen the way the levee constricts water and increases its velocity heading on to Kirkwood and to Fenton.
Great Rivers Habitat Alliance was founded in 2000 and has a diverse group of supporters, including Purina, The Boeing Company, Luby Equipment, Adolphus A. Bush IV, and the National Rifle Association.
"Our supporters are wide-ranging," said Stokes. "We have sportsmen who are upset about the loss of river habitat, as well as environmentalists and ecologists who are upset about what is happening to our floodplains."