DOWNTOWN – While this year’s record flood is steadily receding, life’s not yet back to normal along the St. Louis riverfront.
“This gate went up about 100 days ago and it’s coming down Tuesday morning,” St. Louis Commissioner of Streets Kent Flake said this weekend at the Chouteau Avenue flood gate, half a mile south of the Arch. “Then we can finally start normal operations and get to the work we usually start on in spring. We’re way behind on paving.”
According to Flake, the first gate went up about 125 days ago, and since April half of his 120 workers have been sandbagging, tending flood gates and, most recently, cleaning up post-flood mud – often working 12-hour days at the height of the flood. Flake is ready for calmer waters.
With 12 miles of levees and flood walls protecting downtown, the city depends on 38 flood gates to hold back the Mississippi River. While most are permanent, with giant swinging doors, five of the gates – such as the one at the end of Chouteau – must be manually assembled.
“It’s like a giant erector set,” Flake said. “They’re built to withstand a 50-foot flood, and this year’s was 46, which is pretty close.”
Floodwater crested on June 8th but has been slow to recede. Although this year’s flood was the second highest ever – shy of 1993’s high water mark by three and a half feet – 2019 was the longest on record, beating the 1993 flood by three weeks and finally falling below flood stage after 125 consecutive days on July 19th.
Two weeks ago, National Park staff were able to wash away the mud on the Gateway Arch steps and sidewalk with firehoses, but despite closed streets and parking garages, the national attraction never closed.
“When I worked the north perimeter, visitors would ask whether they could even get to the Arch,” said Lisa Boulicault, a National Park gardening and grounds crew member, as she coiled up the last of the firehoses.
“We stayed open the whole time,” she added, “but visitation was affected. People did not get to roam the streets, and some wanted to touch the river. It is highly polluted, and there have been port-a-potties [floating by]. Not just that, but the current is a lot swifter than people realize.
“They think that they can just dip their feet or jump right in. Not recommended.”
Logs, debris and whirlpools still plague the waterfront, and the persistent flooding has also affected riverboat companies, both commercial and tourism-based.
Under the best of circumstances, the St. Louis waterfront is among the most dangerous stretches of river to navigate in the United States. Levees narrow the river and increase the current, and skippers must thread their way through five bridges whose supports are staggered and unaligned. The main limiting factor is the Eads Bridge, which has the lowest clearance of all five bridges.
Add near-record river depth during this past flood, and you have dangerous waters, fast and full of wild currents. Commercial operations were at a virtual standstill during much of the flood.
Although the Tom Sawyer excursion boat was finally able to launch last Monday, the Becky Thatcher may not get underway until early August due to its lower horsepower. Besides taking a revenue hit from the greatly reduced cruise season, both boats lost their entire kitchen staff due to the long-delayed start.
The much larger excursion boats that have been unable to get upriver throughout the flood have also left area entertainers, who regularly appear on them, high
Flood costs along the city’s extended riverfront have yet to be tallied, but Flake estimated at least $1 million just for sandbags, rock and damages.
As an officially declared Disaster Area, St. Louis is eligible for federal relief funds.
“The good thing about my stuff, as far as the prep and cleanup, it’s mostly all labor,” Flake said. “It gets real expensive on the MSD end. They’ve still got to wait for the water to get down a little farther before they can start doing inspections, but if they’ve got issues at one pump station, that could be $10 million right there.”
Inspecting cleanup efforts this weekend, Flake discovered that a private parking company had emptied its mud-filled basement directly onto Leonor K. Sullivan Boulevard where street crews had just finished cleaning up last week.
“They’re supposed to dump it into the river like the rest of us,” he said, gazing across 200 yards of four-inch-deep mud. “This all will have to be cleaned up.”
Though floodwater is receding, official worries have not washed away.
“Over the last five years or so, we’ve had four of the top 10 floods in history, so this is becoming a common occurrence.”