ST. LOUIS — Weeks of flooding have hit tourism and recreation businesses in the central U.S., whether they’re directly dependent on nearby rivers or not. For some river towns, the perception of the flood is almost as bad as the high water itself.
Tiny Kimmswick, with just 170 residents, draws hundreds of thousands of visitors annually to small restaurants, quaint shops and two huge festivals. One of them, the Strawberry Festival scheduled for last week, had to be canceled due to the flooding.
The Jefferson County town itself is dry, thanks to a levee reinforced with sandbags. But two of the three roads leading to Kimmswick are under water and town leaders feared it would be unsafe to have the expected 50,000 festivalgoers coming and going traveling via one road.
Mayor Phil Stang said business this spring “is a little off,” even though every shop in town is open, due to the perception of the flood. The fact is, he said, people in Kimmswick are experienced in fighting back the river.
“The good news is we’re very, very good at it,” Stang said. “And the bad news is we’re very, very good at it, because we have to be.”
The perception of the flood is very much reality in Grafton, where the Mississippi topped 35 feet Friday, about 17 feet above flood stage, according to the National Weather Service.
In downtown St. Louis, the Mississippi was expected to crest Saturday at 45.9 feet — nearly 16 feet above flood stage. Also on Saturday, the Missouri River in St. Charles will crest at 35.7 feet — nearly 11 feet above flood stage — in St. Charles.
Grafton has no levee and businesses along the main highway through town, Illinois Route 100, are inundated. Stephanie Tate, communications director for the Great Rivers and Routes Tourism Bureau, called the situation “pretty awful.”
“April through November, they’re usually hopping in Grafton,” Tate said. “People in Grafton make their living in those months. So it’s tough.
“You live and die by the river and this year, the river is flexing its muscles,” Tate said.
Nearly 400 miles south of the St. Louis area, Samuel Ellis had to make the tough, but prudent, decision to indefinitely shutter kayak rentals from his tour company as he watched the water of the swollen Arkansas River rise in Little Rock.
Three years ago, Ellis’ new kayak and bike rental and tour company had three kayaks for rental; now he says he often has 25 people at a time paddling down the usually gentle river.
Ellis says waters tend to be higher in June anyway, but around Memorial Day this year, Ellis had to temporarily close down both his downtown riverfront boathouse and his typically more protected location slightly further upstream in anticipation of historic flooding. His company, Rock Town River Outfitters, also rents bikes, but the river has spilled over onto trails along its banks so tours have been restricted to dry areas downtown.
“It has hit me pretty hard this month. I’m hoping the water will go down fast so that we can at least have our bike trail back,” Ellis said.
Record flooding has hit much of the south and central U.S. this spring, as higher than average rains have strained dams and aging levees.
About a quarter of the businesses surveyed by the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism reported an impact by the flood, said deputy director Kristine Puckett.
The department has been working to combat fears that the entire state is under water and is reminding tourists and residents alike that the Natural State has 50 state parks, as well as dozens of towns and cities, unaffected by flooding.
In Little Rock, Ellis hopes to get back out on the river in a couple of weeks in what he expects will be a rush from cooped-up kayakers. One other unexpected but happy consequence of the flooding has been an uptick in questions from people who know that Ellis understands the river.
“We’ve been answering phone calls since we started hearing about these floods about river safety, places you can go,” Ellis said, noting that people trust him.
“On the financial side, yes we’ve taken a bit of a hit. But it’s nothing we won’t be able to come back from.”
Hannah Grabenstein reported from Little Rock. The Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.