The flood fight inspires.
Volunteers turn out by the hundreds and thousands to fill sandbags in a battle to beat the clock as the water trickles over levees or bubbles up in sand boils. They place them around strangers’ homes and businesses, on waterlogged levees, and in walls intended to keep rising water out.
Cops, firefighters, members of the National Guard, kids, even prison inmates get in on the duty.
Entire towns like Clarksville and Louisiana and Kimmswick turn out to protect their vulnerable downtowns from the coming crest of the Mississippi River.
On weekends like the one that just passed, we wait and watch the skies, hoping the predicted thunderstorms fail to materialize.
Every year the water rises — and these days it seems like that is every year — the story is the same, though it shifts depending on the whims of Mother Nature, from Portage des Sioux, to West Alton, to low-lying areas near the Meramec, to south city neighborhoods near the River Des Peres.
This year, in the flood that has been most compared to the Flood of 1993 of the numerous floods that have afflicted the St. Louis region in recent decades, there is something different.
It’s a dry patch of ground adjacent to the Mississippi River just north of the Chain of Rocks Bridge.
The flat expanse of about 75 acres has risen up out of its former flood plain status. It’s flat and brown, the earth scraped and prepared for development, rising above the swollen river that for hundreds of years had swamped it during the spring rise.
In 1993, it was a golf course, and it was underwater. It was always underwater — parts of it, at least — every time the river rose.
Then big money came calling. First the Las Vegas casinos eyed the property for the one Missouri gaming license that had yet to be given out. Over the years they paid the owners millions of dollars just for the right to buy the property should it ever be approved for a license.
The license went elsewhere. New owners came along, and they had a dream. First, a steamboat, but a flood ruined that idea. Then a lighthouse, a marina, a hotel, a gas station. It would be huge.
The business partners — Tony Daniele and Mark Repking — each had a checkered financial past, having been convicted of federal felonies, but never mind that. They had connections.
So the city of St. Louis started partnering with them to raise the land out of the flood plain.
Over the past decade — with the support of the Corps of Engineers — the city and Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District have used the land as a dump, paying the owners of what is now called Pier St. Louis hundreds of thousands of dollars to dump “clean fill” on the property and raise it higher and higher.
Today it is dry.
For the owners, I suppose, that’s a good thing. Some day, with the help of taxpayers, they will have a commercially viable property, perhaps.
But at what cost?
This is what amounts to flood policy at the confluence of America’s two great rivers.
Developers promise future riches to cash-starved cities in the form of sales and property taxes on land that now produces none of those things.
So elected officials give away current tax revenue — money that could go to police, to roads, to libraries and schools, to flood control — to bet on an iffy future.
And when the water comes, areas that used to flood — that should flood — rise in walls of earth and concrete and push the angry water elsewhere, where flood fighters find themselves bagging sand at a frantic pace, never quite remembering the water’s rising that high before.
Across the river from Pier St. Louis, just to the north, is the infamous Sny Island Levee Drainage District. Last year, the Corps discovered that the levees in that district have been raised significantly higher than federal limits. So as the Mississippi reaches historic heights, the farmers who fund that district are dry. And water that for hundreds of years would have spread out into flood plain instead is pushed to Pike County or down river, blocked also by Pier St. Louis.
Thousands of acre-feet of water instead head elsewhere, because the water has to go somewhere.
The lessons of the Flood of 2019 are the same as all of the floods that came before it.
A patch of dry ground at the northern tip of St. Louis is a monument to how little we have learned.