WEST ALTON — The near-record-level floodwater is mostly gone from the small community of West Alton, though stubborn remnants still sprawl across closed roads and fill low-lying areas.
Left behind are mud-caked yards and streets. High-water lines scar the exteriors of homes, while mounds of garbage are heaped outside — piles of ruined insulation, furniture, appliances, empty water jugs and other items hinting at the flood’s toll.
It’s a familiar sight for workers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, going door-to-door to hear about the needs of flood-affected residents, and to let them know about resources for government aid.
Sunday marked the first day that teams from FEMA’s Disaster Survivor Assistance program were on the ground in the St. Louis area, offering help for the high-water episode stretching from April to July. Their mobilization follows President Donald Trump’s approval on July 9 of Missouri’s request for an official emergency declaration. The move made 20 counties across the state eligible for certain government disaster relief resources through FEMA.
North of St. Louis, the designation applied to St. Charles, Lincoln and Pike counties. The team of FEMA personnel in West Alton was one of several dispatched in the region, with about three teams active in each county, according to Steve Zumwalt, a spokesman for the agency.
“Eighty-seven percent of people here (in West Alton) had damage,” said Cindy Shepherd, a FEMA Disaster Survivor Assistance specialist on the scene. “We try to bring them back to some sort of normalcy, where they can start over.”
Both homeowners and renters, insured or uninsured, in eligible areas can apply for aid through FEMA. Those facing severe damage may be able to secure grant money “for temporary rental assistance, basic home repairs and other needs not covered by insurance,” the agency said in an email.
Shepherd said interactions with residents coping with the aftermath of flooding can be heart-wrenching, especially when it’s the first time they have outwardly expressed their losses.
“That’s the first time they’re talking about it and it just hits them,” she said. “The emotions just flow.”
Zumwalt encouraged affected residents to apply for FEMA aid, explaining that it doesn’t hurt to cast a wide net when seeking help. The agency’s goal of risk mitigation, he said, aims to help residents make their homes less vulnerable to future harm.
“We prefer you not to rebuild it the way it was,” he said, pointing out some raised homes in town that sit perched atop cinder-block ground floors, or also small, elevated mounds — modifications that he said were made after past floods. “That’s probably old FEMA money.”
Based on initial conversations around West Alton, it was unclear to what extent local residents would turn to FEMA for help — or even stick around the floodplain community.
“It floods more than it ever did … I’m thinking that most people are going to take what they can get and get out,” said Duane Sinningson, 57, a West Alton resident sitting on the rear gate of a pickup truck. An air mattress and some other belongings occupied the covered truck bed, the space where he said he has slept for about a week and a half.
Before the flood pushed him out, temporarily to a hotel the Salvation Army helped arrange, Sinningson said he lived in a home owned by his cousin, where the water reached “up to the gutters.”
He thinks the house, like others around town, is a total loss and will be torn down. Based on experiences after past floods, Sinningson said it’s tough to anticipate what resources FEMA might provide, but he would not expect a lot.
“I don’t think FEMA’s going to give much,” he said.
Gary Dwiggins, on the other hand, considers his family among the most fortunate in West Alton, following the flood. Water filled the basement of his home on Angert Street and scraped to within three inches of the floor above.
“We got pretty lucky,” said Dwiggins, 35.
“There are probably about 10 houses that are like me. But the rest are probably going to be totaled or red-stickered,” he said. The stickers are posted warnings given to homes that inspectors deem uninhabitable until changes are made.
Even so, he said he is open to hearing ways that FEMA might be able to help, especially with his flood insurance capped at a certain level. He and his wife have two young children, and they face a difficult decision about whether to stay in the area. If they do, Dwiggins said they are likely to consider ways to raise their home.
The decision to stay or go is made tougher, he said, by three generations of family ties to the community.
“It’s hard to walk away from,” Dwiggins said.
Family members living next door might not have a choice, including an 87-year-old relative whose flood-ravaged home is now filled with mold.
“When you have so much water in your house, sometimes you’ve just got to cut your losses, unfortunately,” said Dwiggins.
Individuals seeking to apply for FEMA aid can register online at DisasterAssistance.gov or call the agency at 800-621-3362.