One year later, communities still recovering from record flooding
Walter Wolfner was not prepared for the impact that last year's heavy rains would have on his business, the Riverside Golf Club in Fenton.
"The velocity of the water was so great that it picked up sand from the Meramec River and deposited it on the golf course," Wolfner said "I mean, we'd never seen things like that before."
While he managed to clear off all the debris from the golf course, which is adjacent to the river, it took three months to rebuild the clubhouse, which had to be completely gutted and rewired.
The state of Missouri estimated that more than 7,000 structures were damaged by last winter's heavy rains. Like Wolfner, cities and many residents along the Meramec, Missouri and Mississippi rivers have been trying to recover and rebuild.
In Fenton, some buildings remain shifted from their foundations. The city government spent close to $1 million on repairing public property damaged by the floods, and more than half were out-of-pocket expenses.
"I don't think we're totally normal yet," said Alderman Joe Maurath, 2nd Ward. "It seems like every time you turn around, there's something that you may have overlooked pops up."
The city also had trouble communicating with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. For example, Maurath said FEMA officials promised to help clear debris from residences, but no one showed up to do so. That forced the city to spend more money on staff and efforts to clean up the streets.
The flooding also knocked offline two Metropolitan Sewer District wastewater treatment plants. The Grand Glaize plant in Valley Park was returned online after just a couple of weeks, but the Fenton plant took several months to rebuild. The plant's primary functions weren't restored until April and another few months were needed to repair the backup systems. Even now, MSD is still making minor, flood-related repairs to the plant.
Lance LeComb, spokesperson for MSD, said the utility is evaluating how it protects its plants from major floods. But considering that the Fenton plant was supposed to be protected by a 500-year levee — meaning that it's built for severe floods that have less than 1 percent chance happening in a year — it's tough to consider the next steps.
"If the 500-year-flood protection was defeated, what more should we do?" LeComb said. "And now, folks will say we should do more automatically. Well, that does come with a price and that price is paid by the public, our customers, and we need to be sensitive to the financial considerations as well."
The MSD has to build its plants in low-lying areas near where people live, so it can use gravity to collect
wastewater from properties. LeComb said people in the St. Louis region need to develop a better strategy when it comes to floodplain development, as the area continues to see heavy rains.
"We can't continue to do development in the same way and expect to be able to handle the impacts of what we're seeing with those higher intensity rains we're experiencing," LeComb said.
The town of Fenton has already taken steps to buy up properties in areas near the river and add them to its park system.
"We've got to quit developing in flood plains," Maurath said. "We've got to quit building levees. And I think we'll help ourselves in the long run."
Some environmental experts and residents who live along the Meramec River have blamed the Valley Park Levee for the flood's extensive damage to communities adjacent to Valley Park. Last fall, a study suggested that the levee may have been overbuilt, by as much as 8 feet. The Army Corps of Engineers did not uphold those findings.
Communities hardest hit by the floods have also been recovering in another way. In the spring, FEMA funded programs that sent crisis counselors into St. Louis, Jefferson and Franklin counties.
Scott Bayliff, a clinician and a counselor with Places for People, visited many residents in Eureka, Pacific, Valley Park and other flood damaged communities. He and a small team of counselors provided emotional support to as many as 130 people in those first few months and conducted regular check-ins on their well-being.
"Are they looking like they're getting enough rest? Are they showing any signs of depression?" Bayliff described.
Now, the team is serving fewer than 50 residents and the program is preparing to phase down by the end of January. Nonetheless, Bayliff and the other counselors received special training from FEMA this month, because the winter holidays and the flood's anniversary could potentially re-traumatize people He said that there were some people who experienced this as early as Halloween.
"People who lost a lot of their personal effects, when they went to go decorate for the holidays, they were like, 'Oh shoot. I don't have those decorations anymore. What do I do now?'" Bayliff said. "There are a lot of people who have not been able to move back into their homes. Or they are, but they're still in disarray."
Bayliff said he was impressed by the strong sense of community in some places, such as Eureka, which he thinks really helped the recovery process.
"When we first went down into the Eureka area, the amount of amazing volunteers and the community at large and how they pulled together ... that made a huge difference for a lot of people," he said. "I think things could have been much worse if they weren't so organized."
Beyond the end of January, those still needing assistance will be referred to a disaster relief program offered by Lutheran Family and Children's Services.
Meanwhile, in Fenton, Walter Wolfner is making plans to prepare the Riverside Golf Club against another catastrophic flood. He's applied for permits to raise the clubhouse by 11 feet. The work will cost him $200,000.
"We're going to have to bite the bullet and get this clubhouse up and out of the flood [plain]," he said. "We can't have this happen to us and we know it's going to."
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