THE highest water levels ever recorded on the Mississippi River, 49.4 feet, flowed by this city earlier this week, leaving behind hundreds of millions of dollars in damage to homes and businesses, a monumental cleanup task, and lots of unanswered questions.
Until July 30, it appeared the immediate St. Louis area might weather the biggest flood in its history fairly well. A neighborhood in the southern part of the city had been swamped when a levee broke on the River Des Peres, a normally dry drainage channel. And there had been a scare when one spot on the city's 11-mile flood wall was undermined by the Mississippi's powerful current.
In contrast, neighboring St. Charles County, nearly half of which is submerged, suffered extensive loss of homes and livelihoods. Across the Mississippi, shoreline towns and bottom-land farming communities in southern Illinois were sharply hit.
Downriver, major levees collapsed at Columbia, Ill., and Harrisonville, Ill. These breaks sent the Mississippi into 60,000 additional acres of farmland. Ironically, they also spared St. Louis the 50-foot river crest some experts had anticipated - only two feet short of the flood wall's design limit. The newly flooded fields relieved the pressure upriver.
But the 2.4 million residents of the St. Louis metropolitan region took heavy blows from the flood nonetheless. A levee failure on the Missouri River at Chesterfield, about 20 miles west of the city, knocked out 500 local businesses, an airport, and a commuting route. St. Louis County's chief executive, Buzz Westfall, estimated dam-age from that flooding alone at $150 million.
St. Louis proper experienced what Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr. called its biggest scare when 51 large storage tanks for propane came loose from their moorings in the flooded River Des Peres area and posed a threat of explosion. Nearly 12,000 people within a half-mile radius had to be evacuated from southern St. Louis and neighboring St. Louis County.
St. Louis Fire Chief Neil Svetanics credited thousands of volunteers with saving the city's southern neighborhoods from even worse flooding. Last weekend St. Louisans swarmed along the River Des Peres, spontaneously organizing themselves to fill and tie sandbags and hoist them into city trucks, which unloaded the bags near endangered levees. Chief Svetanics estimated 1 million sandbags were used in the city.
That same spirit of volunteerism will be crucial to helping flood victims salvage their homes once the waters recede.
That ebbing won't happen quickly, warns Army Corps of Engineers spokesman Ken Koller. Vigilance along levees and the concrete flood wall will be needed for weeks, since many of those barriers and the ground beneath them will remain saturated and vulnerable to shifting and giving way.
Up to a couple of weeks ago, the Corps of Engineers, which has leveed and channeled the Mississippi and its tributaries for most of a century, could say that the barriers it had constructed were holding. But even the "federal" levees gave way at places like Columbia and Harrisonville. "It's a wonder they lasted as long as they did," says Mr. Koller, since the river threw much more at them than they were designed to withstand.
Koller says the pattern has always been for the corps to replace the washed-out flood defenses, but acknowledges that this flood has generated persistent questions about levee construction on flood plains.
Some observers of the situation want to see radical change. David Mandelker, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis, favors much stricter regulation of land use in the flood plains. "It would be much cheaper than rebuilding the levee system just to get everybody out of there," he says. Short of that, he recommends a major overhaul of the federal flood insurance program, making it mandatory for flood-plain dwellers and tying it to new building methods, like raising homes higher.
Jim Farrell, director of environment and technology for the St. Louis Regional Commerce and Growth Association, sees little need to strengthen land-use codes, at least in the St. Louis area. They are already very strict, in his view. "You can't plan for everything," he says, noting that the flood went beyond anything the builders of levees could anticipate. He says the height of flood barriers will probably be raised in some places, such as around low-lying towns of historical value, but "I don't think i t [this flood] calls for a total reevaluation of the whole system."