'It's been a pain.' Residents near Meramec River fear levees, development will cause more floods | St. Louis Public Radio

'It's been a pain.' Residents near Meramec River fear levees, development will cause more floods

May 4, 2017

Sharon Wasson, a Eureka resident and retired high school physical education teacher, treats her basement as her sanctuary. It’s where her office is, where she watches the news and where she decompresses after a long day.

But severe flooding this week along the lower Meramec River has transformed her basement into a source of stress. 

The floor, cracked in some places from water damage, has been taken over by sandbags, pumps, cords and blower fans. Laundry machines and furniture perched top of cinder blocks. A shop-vac sucked up water leaking in from the sewers.

“It’s been hell, trying to keep the water at bay,” Wasson said. "It’s been torture."

Experiencing the historic December 2015 flood, which cost her about $25,000 in damages, prepared Wasson for the latest spring storm. But in some ways, she thought this week's flood was worse because the rains have lasted longer, which required her to keep monitoring her basement.

The water levels in Eureka have receded, but Wasson feels strongly that another major flood event will occur again in the near future.

“I think it will happen again for many reasons,” she said. “Well, the levee in Valley Park is one problem. It’s built incorrectly and everyone knows it and forces water this way.”

Sharon Wasson set up a series of pumps in her basement to keep it from flooding.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

Recent floods along the Meramec have drawn attention to Valley Park’s levee, which the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built nearly a decade ago. Levees are designed to protect people in low-lying areas, but they can cause rivers to rise and make flooding worse, according to research published by Washington University geologist Bob Criss. That’s because they block the path that rivers flow in times of heavy rain.

“The more we wall the rivers off and constrict them with levees and river structures, the flood levels themselves get aggravated,” Criss said.

Last fall, an engineering firm concluded that the height of Valley Park’s levee exceeds regulation. The levee was supposed to be built to protect the city from a 100-year flood, which has a one percent chance of happening in any given year. Instead, the engineers’ research suggested that it’s actually able to withstand a 500-year flood, a more severe event that has a two-tenths percent chance of happening in a year.

The Army Corps of Engineers denied the findings of that study. The levee was built properly and height along the levee varies, Corps spokesperson Amanda Kruse said.

“Any points you measure along the levee that are higher are either permitted utility crossings, or they might be concrete pedestrian walkways,” Kruse said.

Employees of O'Dell's Irish Pub & Ale House in Eureka climb over a wall of sandbags to get into the bar Thursday afternoon.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

The Corps began surveying the heights of 50 levees in the St. Louis district last October and expects to release results in March 2018.

Environmentalists argue that the Valley Park levee is just one example of the pervasive issues of flooding in the St. Louis region.

David Stokes is the executive director of the Great Rivers Habitat Alliance. “Whenever you build a levee, you just protect the area right behind the levee," he said. "You send the water [somewhere else], you make it someone else’s problem.

“And we do that over and over [with] our rivers. It’s not necessarily one levee here or there but it’s the whole system of over-channelized rivers, too many levees, too much floodplain development, and then you add in the effects of climate change and there’s your answer as to why we have two 500-year floods in 17, 18 months along the Meramec River,” Stokes said.

Some structures on the Eureka High School campus remained mostly below water even as floodwater began to recede Thursday.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

In Eureka, Wasson is thankful she didn’t have to tackle the flooding in her basement by herself. Family members, neighbors and Eureka High football players have come in pump out of her house.

“I had 20 people working in the basement yesterday doing shop-vaccing and the pumps and I made a million Snapchats because I got so bored," Wasson said. "You know, you lose you mind.”

“I was just about ready to throw in the towel last night,” she continued. “About ready to quit and then I kept thinking about how hard all these people worked to keep my house dry. And I’m like, nope, keep going, keep going.”

Wasson said can’t stand the idea of leaving the town that she loves. She’d lived in her house for 11 years, but taught at Eureka High School for more than a couple decades.

But the idea of going through another major flood is more than she can bear and that’s enough to make her consider moving to higher ground.  

Follow Eli Chen on Twitter: @StoriesByEli