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U. City residents, leaders appeal to Sen. McCaskill for help with flooding

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 30, 2009 - University City flood victims and leaders said Monday that Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., has appointed a liaison to work with city and St. Louis County officials on speeding up federal and state assistance.

University City Councilman Byron Price said that the liaison will help speed up the application for state and Federal Emergency Management Agency funds for buying out 26 homes on Wilson Avenue along the River Des Peres. Price wants to cut the time needed for SEMA and FEMA assistance from a year to five months.

The Army Corps of Engineers' buyout plan includes 140 homes over five years, but Price hopes to reduce that to two years. Price said he hoped the new liaison would also work to expand the affected boundary for the Army Corps' plan; he and others say numerous homes not on Wilson are in danger.

U. City Councilman Arthur Sharpe, County Councilwoman Hazel Erby, D-1st District, Price and several residents asked McCaskill for help when she was in town Monday morning for an unrelated event.

Sharpe and Price both described McCaskill as being "receptive" to the group's request. University City flood victim Bobette Luckett said she and other residents told McCaskill what they said at a special County Council hearing on May 23. Many residents gave vivid and emotional testimony about the floods at that hearing.

"There was a lot of information she did not have," Sharpe said. "And based upon that, she has assigned, she told us, a staff member."

Price's proposals are part of a larger flood recovery plan he presented at the county hearing, which was convened to address residents' concerns and come up with solutions to the flooding. His plan also calls for repairs to the creek and sewer system and tours of flooding sites for staffers of several lawmakers.

The continued push for swift federal help reflects concerns raised by residents and council members at the hearing that the process is taking too long, and they don't want to wait until another flood happens.

"We try to be patient, and we know it takes time, but it shouldn't be taking this long to buy 26 homes on Wilson," said Willie Burns, a resident of Wilson Avenue.

Erby acknowledged last week it would be difficult to get help from Congress, which has been debating health-care reform and is taking up climate change legislation. Still, residents are hopeful McCaskill will follow up on the flooding assistance.

"I'm keeping the faith that she's going to act," said Nazaree Burns, Willie Burns' wife. "I have to believe she's our representative, that she's going to do what she said."

An earlier Beacon article: 

Tensions flared, emotions ran high and residents railed against the Metropolitan Sewer District at a public County Council hearing Tuesday regarding the recent flash floods in University City.

The County Council called the hearing to facilitate dialogue, drum up solutions and expedite action at the state and federal levels. University City Councilman Byron Price, MSD Executive Director Jeff Theerman and staffers for Reps. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis, and William Lacy Clay Jr., D-St. Louis, all spoke and addressed the need for swift federal and congressional help to speed up the buyout process. But it wasn't clear how or when that would happen.

"This outstrips the capability of any local entity," MSD spokesman Lance LeComb said in an interview.

About a dozen University City residents gave impassioned speeches about their flood experiences, emotional trauma and what they saw as a lack of public awareness. Some wanted MSD to admit responsibility for neglecting residents, faulty repairs and not keeping waterways clean.

At times, the discussion got emotional.

Bobette Luckett of the 7900 block of Glenside Place fought back tears as she spoke. Her house was severely damaged by the Sept. 14, 2008, flood. She had new cabinets waiting to be installed, but those too were damaged by floods in the last month.

"As a homeowner and a taxpayer, I cannot sit by every two weeks and watch everything I worked for gone," a teary-eyed Luckett said. "I just want you all to understand, you can walk this creek, but until you watch everything you've worked for gone, you don't know what we're going through."

Residents spoke of thousands of dollars in repairs and replacement vehicles being repeatedly destroyed, rodents and snakes infesting their yards and basements after each flood, two feet of sewage-laden water flooding their houses.

The floods have had long-lasting emotional impacts. One resident said she couldn't bear to leave town to visit her 94-year-old mother because rain was in the forecast. Others said they don't go to sleep when it rains at night for fear of drowning while asleep.

Resident Richard Dockett called Theerman and MSD "the main culprit," adding after the hearing that the recent flooding happened after MSD started repairs on waterways and its sewage system to meet federal Clean Water Act standards. As a result, he said MSD should have footed the $1 million University City is paying to buy out 26 homes.

MSD officials say the agency is doing all it can to help flood victims.

"This sort of flooding situation tries everyone's patience," Theerman said in an interview. "We're doing the best we can for the community, but we're not criminals. We're trying to do what's right."

Flood victim Samuel Lee of the 1200 block of Waldron Avenue, along with others, criticized MSD's insurance program, which he said should not have denied people when damages were not in the basement. "I could not get the $2,400 the other people got when their washer and dryer was in the basement," he said.

MSD officials say their insurance program doesn't cover overland flooding; instead, people should get private or federal flood insurance.

Another resident said some repairs MSD made actually worsened her flooding problems.

The criticisms echoed those made after the September flood at a public meeting, where residents and University City council members put the heat on Theerman for many of the same issues.

Agency officials maintain MSD doesn't own the creeks and rivers in the area and doesn't have the money or statutory power to maintain them. Flood management, officials said, is a responsibility of municipalities. MSD is trying to foster a multi-jurisdictional dialogue on the subject.

"There needs to be a community conversation about how to solve floodplain management issues," Theerman said. "It's certainly broader than the district; it's municipal in nature, it's federal and state in nature."

Short- and long-term solutions

Speeding up the buyout process and getting congressional and Federal Emergency Management Agency help were the primary solutions proposed.

In his presentation, Theerman said residential buyouts remain the most important viable short-term solution, and no engineering project can solve the flash flooding. The Army Corps of Engineers has called for buying out 140 homes on a range of streets over the next five years.

But most residents and local leaders at the meeting wanted quicker action because the floods have become regular affairs.

"The five-year plan disturbed me because that says it's not an emergency. If it's an emergency, it shouldn't take five years," 1st District County Councilwoman Hazel Erby, who presided over the hearing, said in an interview.

As part of a larger solution he outlined, U. City Councilman Price proposed cutting the implementation of the Army Corps' plan to no less than two years. He also wanted to expedite a FEMA application.

Sandy Houston, special projects coordinator for Clay, said the congressman had written a letter to FEMA with an "urgent request to expedite the proposed buyout."

To speed up congressional action, Price said members of Congress and their staffers should tour the flooding sites and push for funding. "I don't think you can understand what's going on unless you actually go to the site and see what's taking place," Price said.

Erby said such a visit from staffers for Sens. Claire McCaskill and Christopher S. Bond, Clay, Carnahan and state lawmakers was in the works. Theerman said MSD was working with Clay and Bond to get them to support buyouts in Washington.

Price also wanted to get federal funding to clean the creeks and rivers of debris. He also said MSD should do a full repair of the creek and sewer system.

Other short-term efforts Theerman recommended were public awareness, flood insurance and flood proofing.

Longer-term solutions should focus, he said, on floodplain management. MSD is working on that issue with East-West Gateway, the Army Corps and other area agencies.

Most officials and residents wanted to make sure that the conversation didn't end at Wilson Avenue because other streets in University City have been flooded too. University City Councilwoman Lynn Ricci said the conversation should stretch even beyond University City.

"I'm not hearing play about the other municipalities being impacted as much as my community has been impacted," Ricci said.

Puneet Kollipara, an intern at the Beacon, is a student at Washington University.