Summer of Flooding Leaves Stark Choices For Midwest States

New rains delay damage assessment, land-use decisions

IN small Ste. Genevieve, Mo., the flood waters of the Mississippi have receded 10 feet. "We kept the water from coming downtown," says Mayor Bill Anderson of the tenacious sandbagging effort over a four-mile-long emergency levee that held back the flood of the century.

Heavy rains in Iowa over the weekend may send the river level here back up a few feet, but the mayor says, "We're tired, but we're ready for it."

While the historic French architecture downtown was saved, at least 75 homes, several streets, 20 miles of the sewer system, and three bridges were inundated.

Last week, as the flood waters slowly subsided in Illinois and Missouri, what rose out of the mud was a vastly altered landscape. More rain prolongs the complex political and infrastructure problems for the nine states and 354 counties flooded.

According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the immediate priority in the flooded areas is damage assessment. This is difficult to do because flood waters still slosh over hundreds of roads, railroads tracks, small airports, municipal buildings, and bridges. In Missouri alone, officials estimate that 10,000 damaged homes will have to be torn down.

Although one environmentalist called the nutrient-rich flood "a feast" for the ecosystem, Scott Faber, director of the flood-plains program at American Rivers in Washington, D.C., says that 27 Superfund hazardous-waste sites "were either inundated or temporarily flooded," leaving unknown levels of toxic pollutants in the flooded river. "It's not a matter of this stuff simply getting flushed out," he says. "We know these compounds tend to accumulate either in sediments or in the tissues of fish and organi sms."

Estimates of flooding losses range from $10 billion to $15 billion. In a preliminary assessment, Ste. Genevieve city administrator David Angerer said since July 1, the town had "spent between $50,000 and $100,000 per day" to pay for materials and trucks under contract as the town fought the flood. Last year, the total operating budget of St. Genevieve, a town of 4,400, was only $1.7 million.

"Last week, we submitted our first claim of $600,000 to FEMA," said Mayor Anderson, "to help pay off the truck contracts."

While flooded states and towns begin to seek their portions of the $5.7 billion that Congress authorized for flood relief, environmentalists, engineers, and other professionals explore answers for the future.

"I think the country as a whole has come to realize from the flood that we can't control the environment," says David Lanegran, a geologist at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn. "People have to understand we have to plan in harmony with this physical system that unites us.'

Mr. Faber agrees, and says, "The reason the flood was so intense is that the river channel was constricted by the levees. Nearly all of the flood plains were converted to agriculture or developed. We relied ... on structural solutions. Now, where possible, we need now to reunite the river with its natural flood plain."

Gary Dyhouse, a hydrologist for the United States Army Corps of Engineers in St. Louis, disagrees. "The federal government has had structural as well as nonstructural solutions for over 25 years," he says. "Federal law requires these massive expenditures for flood-protection projects to be cost-justified, that is, you have to show the flood damages will be reduced by more than the cost of the project."

However, because of the levees, farm land, and development, vast amounts of flood plains have disappeared in the Midwest. In Missouri, over the last 60 years or so, 80 percent of the state's wetlands have been lost. The river lost the ability to diffuse itself during heavy rains and spread enriching sediment over wetlands. Hundreds of miles of levees kept the river flowing faster and higher.

US Department of Agriculture secretary Mike Espy has said the federal government might buy small, flooded towns and convert the land to wetlands instead of rebuilding levees.

"Some communities have been here since the 1700s," Mr. Dyhouse says, "and many are close to the river. In some cases, you're locked into building a levee there which narrows the river more than you would like if you could start from scratch."

What seems likely, with the federal government's endorsement, is more diligence in preserving existing wetlands. "There will be pressure to get some of these people off the flood plain," Mr. Lanegran says.

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