New Mayor of St. Louis Gets His Feet Wet

THIS city has already withstood a succession of record crests on the Mississippi River and faces another next Tuesday. The prediction: 48 feet, just four feet below the concrete flood wall that protects low-lying parts of the downtown.

As the crests flow by, so do the crisis points for the man ultimately in charge of St. Louis's defenses against the swollen waters, Mayor Freeman R. Bosley Jr. The mayor, a man who exudes energy and congeniality, took office only three months ago.

He was elected on the strength of his promise to revitalize city neighborhoods and a strong door-to-door campaign. But for almost a month now, the economic and social programs of the city's first black mayor have literally been submerged.

"My priority was to prepare for the first hundred days," says Mr. Bosley, "but my first hundred days have consisted of fighting a hundred-year flood."

That fight began in earnest just after July 4, the mayor recalls. That's when aides told him that water in the River Des Peres, a large drainage channel on the southern edge of the city, was rising ominously. Bosley says he had seen the devastating effects of levee breaks elsewhere and realized that the same scene could be repeated in the southern sections of his own community.

Daily early-morning emergency-planning meetings began, and when the water in River Des Peres reached 43 feet, two feet from the levee's designed maximum, the mayor declared an emergency. He gave orders to cut electricity and gas service in the affected neighborhoods - a move that sparked criticism. "Our rule was safety first," Bosley says. "We wanted to err on that side."

When the levee finally did give way last week, flooding 400 homes and businesses, the mayor felt the city's precautions prevented injury or death from electrocution or fire.

Another shock came a few days later, Bosley says. City workers monitoring the flood wall noticed water seeping under the barrier. They gathered at the spot north of the city's famous arch about 1 a.m., and as they discussed pouring rocks into an expanding hole at the base of the river-side of the wall, Bosley relates, "The ground started rumbling and water came gushing." Quick action with rocks and concrete stopped the erosion under the wall.

The mayor, who has had a crash course in hydrology over recent weeks, speaks with awe about the water's power. "Who'd have thought it would try to go under the wall? But that's what it did," he says.

The flood wall, built for $86 million in the 1950s, would cost $200 million today, Bosley says.

Its construction was "a classic case of someone not being asleep at the switch," he adds. Even though debate is mounting over the value of such flood-control measures, St. Louis's mayor has little doubt that other communities in the region will look at his city's wall after this is over and want something similar.

What's the political cost to a new mayor of having to face so quickly a crisis of historic proportions?

"It would be a test for anyone," says Lana Stein, a political scientist at the St. Louis campus of the University of Missouri. But she predicts that the skills that helped him forge support across racial lines during his campaign will see Bosley through the flood and on to his priorities, like rehabilitating the city's decrepit housing stock.

Another observer of the city's politics, Robert Salisbury at Washington University, comments that the mayor has kept a fairly low profile during the crisis - while past mayors would probably have been all over the news. Mr. Salisbury suspects this may help Bosley escape some of the "heat" from the emergency.

But the mayor clearly has felt some heat. He describes meeting with residents of the areas affected by the River Des Peres levee break, where people assailed him with the question: "Who's in charge?"

His answer: "The water's in charge. All we can do is respond."

That probably didn't satisfy his critics, but it's a statement that doubtless would bring knowing nods from mayors all over this sodden region.

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