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Flood Plain Developers Dare Nature

October 12, 2005

By Tim Jones, Chicago Tribune

Oct. 11–CHESTERFIELD, Mo. — The longest outdoor strip mall in America starts with Target and, more than a mile later, finishes with Home Depot and a 14-theater multiplex, all on farmland that in 1993 was under 15 feet of brown Missouri River water.

On the strength of a new levee and a fervent belief that disaster will not strike again, the retail franchise nirvana known as Chesterfield Commons lies in the flood plain, practically daring the Missouri to give the reinforced levee its best shot.

This mall is the most conspicuous wager in a more-than $2 billion regional development gamble by St. Louis-area suburbs that were clobbered by flooding 12 years ago. As memories of waterlogged misery fade and faith grows in stronger, higher, nature-taming levees, land that has always absorbed the tantrums of temperamental rivers is being slated for small factories, office complexes and shopping malls.

While New Orleans struggles to recover from hurricane disaster and urban planners warn against putting portions of the below-sea-level city in harm’s way again, economic development pressures have sparked aggressive flood-plain development west of St. Louis–and a big debate over the wisdom of building on flat, open land that, through the ages, has been a dependable sponge when rivers go wild.

This is a faith-based fight. Armed with engineering studies and hydrologic projections, development supporters argue that levees can keep the rivers at bay. Opponents, pointing to the violent history of floods, say that is dangerously delusional. The only common ground the combatants share is the certitude of their arguments.

“There are only two types of levees–the ones that have been broken and those that will,” said Adolphus Busch IV, scion of the famous St. Louis brewery family and leader of a group that lost an effort in federal court last week to block construction of a new levee on the Mississippi River flood plain in St. Peters.

“Everyone said after ’93, ‘OK, we’ve learned our lesson.’ Now look,” Busch said. “This could be another New Orleans, on a smaller scale.”

Hogwash, say defenders of flood plain development, such as Lee McKinney, former district commander and chief engineer for the Army Corps of Engineers in St. Louis. McKinney dismisses Busch and other opponents as “a bunch of very wealthy duck hunters” who “have an ax to grind against development.”

In the marshy middle, though, is recognition from those not directly involved in court fights that development in the booming suburbs west of St. Louis cannot be halted, and that the volatile movements of powerful rivers cannot be denied. The issue in the St. Louis area, vulnerable to the disastrous trifecta of floods, tornadoes and earthquakes, is managing the risk of being safe.

“It’s hard for people to look at high-risk land and say that should be left for open space,” said Larry Larson, executive director of the Association of State Floodplain Managers, in Madison, Wis. “History has shown that about three years after a big flood, someone will say, ‘Gee, there’s some empty land. We ought to develop it.’”

The fight in the St. Louis area is linked to the city’s long slide from its 19th Century, river-born transportation and commercial prominence.

As railroads gained the economic upper hand over riverboats, St. Louis faded. The city’s population dropped by 60 percent, to 348,000, in the past half-century. Meanwhile, populations of St. Louis and St. Charles Counties soared, fueling suburb-versus-suburb competition for jobs and a development binge that, increasingly, encroaches on the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers flood plain.

Dennis Stephens, chief of hydrologic engineering with the Corps of Engineers in St. Louis, said, “People like the west end, and they’re going to push the limits.”

Whatever the limits are, the potential consequences of exceeding them have gained new visibility since Hurricane Katrina swamped the Gulf Coast and Congress began writing enormous–and unprecedented–checks for reconstruction in a vulnerable area.

The hunger to develop west of St. Louis, in an area encircled by the Mississippi, Missouri and Meramec Rivers–what some call “the devil’s triangle”–has spawned what are known as levee wars, with communities constructing higher and stronger earthen barriers to protect themselves against floods.

In the wake of the 1993 Mississippi River flood, which turned much of the river valley from Minnesota to Missouri into a water park, states such as Illinois and Wisconsin enacted limits on flood plain development. Missouri, a state rooted in Jeffersonian property rights, did not. It is up to individual localities to decide whether and how they develop on flood lands.

“We need to be careful here,” said George Riedel, who heads the flood plain management section for the Missouri State Emergency Management Agency. “I don’t see us never developing in the flood plain . . . but I do worry about areas like Chesterfield Commons being flooded again.

“If Mother Nature wants you, you’re going to lose. It’s happened too many times before,” Riedel said.

Higher levees can have the effect of raising flood levels upstream and increasing river velocity downstream. That’s one reason the city of O’Fallon, a suburban neighbor of St. Peters, is trying to block the construction of a higher levee in that city. Riedel is among those arguing for regional planning of levees so there is consistency in flood protection as well as flood plain development. Nothing suggests regional planning is coming soon.

“It’s like, ‘If you build it they will come,’” said J. Wayne Oldroyd, director of community development for Maryland Heights, a city that recently lost about 1,600 jobs when a major credit card company moved its call center across the Missouri River to St. Charles. “We’re put into the position of having to respond to [economic] improvement in other communities.”

After strengthening its levee, Maryland Heights is preparing 1,500 to 2,000 acres for commercial development–warehouses, offices, hotels–on flood plain along the Missouri. This ground was under water 12 years ago.

Oldroyd believes the city’s investment will be safe, but he quickly points out there is no “totally safe place to build.”

If there is any change in thinking as a result of Katrina, it weighs against housing developments in flood plains.

“It will dampen any thought of residential [building] in the flood plain. It’s just not worth the risk,” said Dan Human, attorney for the Howard Bend Levee District.

“At the end of the day, Mother Nature always wins,” Oldroyd said. “It’s just a question of when.”

The gamble over “when” is one that suburban officials are willing to take. Libby Simpson, Chesterfield’s assistant city administrator for economic and community development, said she is convinced that her city’s new strip mall is safe.

If there are problems, Simpson said, she is “confident the Army Corps [of Engineers] will take care of it.”

Safety is a state of mind, said Barry Drazkowski, director of GeoSpatial Services at St. Mary’s University, in Winona, Minn.

“The public assumes that if the government says it’s OK, then I’m safe,” Drazkowski said. “There’s this perception of implied safety or that someone is going to take care of me.”

In Chesterfield, at Annie Gunn’s restaurant, which was flooded up to the wood rafters in 1993 and reopened in the flood plain the following year, general manager Dan O’Connor does not believe he’ll see a repeat of that flood.

“Not in my lifetime,” O’Connor said.

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