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U. City businesses frustrated by floods, storm drains

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 18, 2009 - On Tuesday, from 3:30-5:30 p.m., the County Council will hold a public hearing on the flash floods in University City. Jeff Theerman, the executive director of the Metropolitan Sewer District, will give a presentation. The meeting will be held in the County Council chamber on the first floor at 41 S. Central Ave. in Clayton. 

Frustration is mounting among some University City business owners after the latest round of flash floods hit the St. Louis area Monday and Tuesday.

Not only are they upset about the floods, but they are also placing some of the blame on the Metropolitan Sewer District's storm drains, which they say aren't holding up to the task.

MSD, meanwhile, is saying that its drains aren't responsible for the flooding; rather, it says, development and floodplains are to blame, and managing the floods will require a collaborative, community-wide effort.

Rainstorms dumped 1.86 inches of rain at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport on Monday and nearly 1.6 inches on Tuesday, according to the National Weather Service.

Reports emerged Monday and Tuesday of waterways, including the River Des Peres, overflowing their banks and flooding buildings and streets, at times making entire routes impassable and forcing some businesses to shut their doors. David Wrone, a spokesman for the St. Louis County Department of Highways and Traffic, said the flooding has happened in all corners of the county.

Already, University City has been hit by flooding numerous times in the past year, especially in recent months, but the most recent floods are driving some to frustration.

Ellicia Qualls, director of UrbanSprouts Child Development Center, a day-care center near the intersection of Midland and Balson avenues, said the storm drain just outside her building on the street hasn't been able to hold all of the water that comes through her area.

Qualls' day-care center has been flooded repeatedly in the past few weeks, including on Monday and early Tuesday morning, when the water level at UrbanSprouts' outside wall reached nearly two feet. The flooding has damaged her day-care center and forced it to close multiple times this spring.

"MSD just needs a new sewer system," Qualls said. "It's not just us; it's homes. U. City has been hit hard over the past few weeks."

The drains, MSD spokesman Lance LeComb said, are only designed to handle day-to-day rainstorms -- not the heavy rain that has fallen lately.

But MSD says the storm drains aren't responsible for the flooding. "The flooding in the past has nothing to do with storm-water system," LeComb said.

Experts say the flooding has happened when rivers and creeks receive too much runoff water in a short time period. The excess runoff has resulted from too many impervious surfaces, which prevent water from being absorbed by the ground below. That leaves no place for the water to go except nearby waterways.

Development is largely to blame, experts say, because it creates a lot of impervious surfaces, such as buildings, parking lots and sidewalks. Bob Criss, a professor at Washington University who specializes in hydrogeology, said local development in recent decades has been "poorly designed" and has likely exacerbated recent flooding problems.

The fact that many areas victimized by flooding recently are in floodplains, including parts of University City, compounds the problem, according to LeComb.

Qualls said she has lodged several complaints with MSD's customer service department asking for someone to come out to assist her. But to this point, she has yet to receive a response.

MSD isn't responsible for development or flood management, LeComb said, nor does it own any of the creeks or streams responsible for the flooding. Flood management and flood plain management, he said, are municipal issues.

"This is a municipal issue that needs to be addressed, it's a development issue that needs to be addressed by the community as a whole," he said.

MSD does clean debris from storm drains, however. People needing help can call 314-768-6260.

There is likely no project that can prevent or lessen the floods, LeComb said. The long-term solution, he said, is for municipalities to buy out buildings in vulnerable areas and to come up with better development strategies to reduce runoff.

University City has set aside $1 million to match $4 million in state Emergency Management Agency funds for buying 26 homes around Wilson Avenue, which has long been victimized by flooding from the River Des Peres. More buyouts, perhaps hundreds, LeComb said, could come down the road.

LeComb recommends that homeowners and renters get flood insurance, either through a private insurance agency or through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

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