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'It was beyond comprehension:' Devastation and economic rebound in St. Charles County

Susan Berthold bought Remington's on North Main Street in St. Charles in 1995.
Carolina Hidalgo
Susan Berthold bought Remington's on North Main Street in St. Charles in 1995.

The memories of the 1993 flood are still vivid for St. Charles business owner Susan Berthold. Even though most businesses in the city’s historic downtown were spared from the worst of it, low-lying areas like Boschertown Road were hit hard.

Berthold managed a go-kart track in that area, which took on roughly 13 feet of water.

“It was a monumental project to get cleaned up because of all the acreage required for the track,” Berthold said.

MORE: Read the full-feature version of this story and the rest of the '25 years later: Remembering the Great Flood of '93'

Around the time she was trying to bring the track back to life, Berthold lent a hand as her friends and business owners brought out pumps and filled sandbags for days. She grabbed her video camera and described the scenes in St. Charles and other sections of the St. Louis region.

“There was so much devastation everywhere,” she said.

“People were going all over, it just wasn’t like they were rushing to a certain area. It went forever. It just seemed like it was beyond comprehension.”

Eventually, the water receded and the track reopened. A couple of years later Berthold bought a downtown business, Remington’s, a specialty balloon shop in the St. Charles historic district. She also watched many business owners bounce back.

“If you are here, then you want to be here and you have good reason to be here,” she said about the resolve of residents and the business community.

“I think everybody who was here had no intention of leaving,” added Berthold, who is the president of the downtown special business district.

Even though the damage in downtown St. Charles was not the most severe in the region, officials say at one point in 1993, roughly 40 percent of St. Charles County was flooded. The Federal Emergency Management Agency says more than 2,100 homes were condemned.

The rebound received a boost from the Missouri Buyout Program. The county used more than $5.75 million over a two-year period, along with nearly $9 million in Community Development Block Grant funding, in order to buy more than 1,100 properties from homeowners.

Much of that land has been converted to park areas or recreational and garden space.

Yet the recovery also has been followed by a population increase. St. Charles has been one of the fastest growing counties in the state. U.S. Census Bureau numbers show its population grew at the most rapid rate among all counties in the St. Louis region from 2016 to 2017.

And more people means more development.

One of the most notable projects in St. Charles since 1993 is the suburb called New Town. Construction started in 2004 and the first residents moved in the next year. Developers describe it as a new urbanist community, which has a big focus on walkable areas so residents don’t have to hop in their cars to go shopping, eat at restaurants or take their children to school.

“We really love living out here,” said Jeff Haynes, a New Town Board member whose family moved to the community roughly four years ago.

Despite St. Charles’ history with floods, especially the high water of 1993, Haynes isn’t worried. He said developers have told him the chances of a massive washout are slim.

“Really, a zero-point-2 chance of a flood,” he said.

“None of this land was under water in ’93,” he said he’s heard. “It was never in the 100-year floodplain. It was always in the 500-year floodplain.”

Even so Haynes said New Town developers took precautions.

“Part of the rationale behind building the lakes and the canals was to raise New Town up an additional, probably an average of six or seven feet,” he said.

The dirt from digging out those waterways was used to build up the ground the subdivision sits upon. While Haynes isn’t worried, he’s admits there’s always a chance.

“Never say never,” he said.

The United States Geological Survey is one federal agency that conducts research to help developers decide if they should build in a certain area and whether people should consider moving there.

“Our goal is to make people risk aware,”said Bob Holmes, the USGS’ National Flood Service Coordinator based in Rolla. “We’re kind of a consortium of a number of agencies that are doing these flood inundation maps across the country.

The USGS’ data is used in several ways to help developers and potential homeowners make location decisions, including flood trends and mapping.

Holmes said the USGS doesn’t make recommendations on whether to build or not, but over the years he’s come to realize he wouldn’t be comfortable living in a floodplain.

“For me personally, there’s no way I would have my house there,” Holmes said, “because I don’t want the inconvenience and the stress of possibly being dislocated because of — not a failure of the levee system — it’s basically the design was exceeded. That to me is not good practice.”

Follow Wayne on Twitter: @wayneradio

Wayne Pratt is the Broadcast Operations Manager and former morning newscaster at St. Louis Public Radio.