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As floodwaters recede, St. Louisans dive into much-needed repairs

Chris Greenhagen of the Central Baptist Church helped organize a massive relief effort for Eureka.
Chris Greenhagen of the Central Baptist Church helped organize a massive relief effort for Eureka.

It wasn’t that long ago that South Central Avenue in Eureka was swamped by historic flooding. Businesses along the commercial thoroughfare had to fight off several feet of water, which several damaged some longtime establishments.

But as the rivers around St. Louis receded, residents of affected towns were focused squarely on tearing down soggy drywall and banging out ruined floorboards. Scores of volunteers were on hand Sunday afternoon to spruce up Charles Gillick’s real estate office, a gesture that the longtime businessowner says speaks volumes about Eureka’s character. 

Volunteers help repair Charles Gillick's office in Eureka.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
Volunteers help repair Charles Gillick's office in Eureka.

“We know an awful lot of the people in Eureka,” Gillick said. “But until something like this happens, you don’t realize how great the community is. We always knew it was great, because our children all went to school here. But we had no idea how truly great it was until you have a disaster.”

Eureka Mayor Kevin Coffey said volunteer efforts in his city haven’t abated since flooding ravaged scores of homes and businesses.

“We have teams going into homes and they’re helping them rip up drywall, rip up rugs,” Coffey said. “We’ve probably filled over 20 wheeled-off dumpsters. We have thousands of yards of debris that we’ve already removed from places. It’s incredible.”

At the Eureka Pacific Elks Lodge, some volunteers are chomping down on lunch amid their repair work. Elks Exalted Leader Lisa Cushing says she was heartened by how people were willing to help even when flooding was at its worst last week.

We weren’t sure it was going to hit as hard as it was,” Cushing said. “And all of sudden, they’re telling them that morning – you guys are going to be hit hard. They had people down there bagging sand and getting people taken care of. … People were stepping up to the plate – you know, coming out of the woodwork.

Long road ahead

Still, it could be weeks or even months until businessowners and homeowners are back to square one. And that’s part of what’s driving the Central Baptist Church to help out. 

Residents of Pacific looked out at their flooded-out town in early January.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo I St. Louis Public Radio
Residents of Pacific look out at their flooded-out town last week. It could be weeks or even months before homes and businesses are restored.

The downstairs portion of the church is stuffed to the gills with cleaning supplies, shoes and clothing for people affected by the flood. Associate Pastor Chris Greenhagen said they’re expecting to get an 18-wheeler full of cleaning supplies and bottled water over the next few days.

“We’re here to help with the healing process, to help with the restoration process,” Greenhagen said. “But I’m hearing things from some of our local businesses --- they’re talking it could be three to four weeks at the minimum to get their business restored.”

Pacific resident Jessica Flannery was picking up donated supplies to help clean up her home. She says the past few days have been difficult.

“We haven’t been home in a week and … it’s just hard,” Flannery said. “Because nobody expected this. Nobody really thought that this was as high as it was going to get. And they kept changing it. And it was 29 feet. And then 32 feet. And 33 feet. And 35 feet. And we just weren’t able to prepare.”

With waters now receding, some want this flood to shift how local policymakers think. Bob Criss is a professor of earth and planetary sciences at Washington University. He has been harshly critical of how levees were erected around St. Louis to protect developments within flood plains.(Coffey noted that didn’t occur in Eureka – adding many flood plains in his town have been turned into parks over the years.)

“The first thing that we need to do is recognize that we have a problem – and we haven’t done that in the St. Louis area,” Criss said. “We’re amplifying flooding and amplifying flood damages by what we’re doing. And we need to cease building in low-lying areas.

“It’s like Alcoholic’s Anonymous – step one is recognizing you have a problem,” he added. “We haven’t done that yet.”

Whether St. Louis’ developmental patterns change is an open question, especially since some towns close to rivers have grown in population over the past few decades. For now, Eureka businessowner Brad Beebe says many people in his town are focused on the cleanup task in front of them.

“Hopefully, the guys who are a lot smarter and understand the various engineering needs of the area will explore any solutions that are possible or reasonable for us,” Bebee said. “But the reality is … it’s a different occurrence. It hasn’t happened in [decades]. It may happen again, I’m sure, because of weather cycles that happen. But I think we’re going to recover, no problem.”  

And even though it’s going to be a long time before residents return to normalcy, Coffey said his town should be proud.

“We can definitely bounce back,” Coffey said. “After seeing the strength of some of the homeowners and businessowners, their attitude is just incredible. They love Eureka. They love being here. People love living here. And we’ll be back – we’ll be back strong.”

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.