After the Great Flood of '93, Chesterfield Valley emerged from Gumbo Flats
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 7, 2013: During the early days of the 1993 disaster that left businesses, homes and farmland awash on 4,000 flooded acres of the Chesterfield Valley, the possibility of rebuilding always seemed not a question of "if" but of "when."
On Aug. 4, 1993 — five days after a section of the 100-year Monarch agricultural levee broke apart, inundating the valley with 6 to 15 feet of Missouri River floodwater — Chesterfield Mayor Jack Leonard urged flood victims to attend an informational meeting at Parkway High School to meet federal emergency management representatives and local, county and state officials.
As Leonard prepared for the meeting, the city was operating under a state of emergency that he had declared the morning after the flood, and the Coast Guard and local police were patrolling the submerged valley by boat. Despite the dire circumstances, Leonard prepared a closing statement that left no doubt about where he stood:
"I would like you all to remember one important thing: Today’s meeting is just the beginning of a long process, which will ultimately lead to full recovery in the valley. The commitment of the city of Chesterfield and every other organization in this room will not waiver until that recovery has been accomplished. I extend to each of you my personal best wishes. During the coming days, weeks and months …. Please …. Please… let all of us in this room know how we can continue to help you. Thank you. This meeting is adjourned.’’
Michael Geisel, Chesterfield’s public services director, still has the mayor’s agenda for the meeting, plus copies of city news releases issued during the flood fight and clips from local newspapers.
Geisel said he kept the material, along with two thick binders filled with pictures he took of the flooded valley, because he recognized that he was witnessing history in the making.
When people look back on the flood of ’93, Geisel believes they often overlook a key fact: Chesterfield had incorporated in 1988 and was a young city, with a population of about 40,000, at the time.
"For a fledgling city, just five years old, to be faced with such an overwhelming disaster -- it’s pretty amazing how the community came together and understood what needed to be done,’’ Geisel said.
Contrary to nationwide calls by engineers and environmentalists to limit floodplain development after the ’93 flood, the city marketed the valley as "Chesterfield of Dreams” and set about rebuilding.
Two decades later, the valley, which is now protected by the fortified 500-year Monarch-Chesterfield Levee, has become a center for commerce that bears little resemblance to its pre-flood days. Farmland that was submerged in 1993 has become the site for office buildings and sprawling retail developments. The number of businesses has quadrupled to more than 900, bringing along an estimated 15,000 jobs.
"Chesterfield Valley is in many ways a bread basket for this region,’’ said Michael Herring, Chesterfield’s city administrator. "It generates a lot of positive things, whether it’s jobs or revenue for the region.’’
Business as usual
This July 31, it was business as usual in the Chesterfield Valley.
There were no ceremonies to mark the anniversary of that Saturday morning 20 years ago that found civic and business leaders getting their first look at what the Great Flood of ’93 had done to their valley the previous night.
It was a typical lunchtime on a Wednesday afternoon, with traffic funneling in from U.S. Highway 40/Interstate 64 at Boone’s Crossing. Many of the vehicles were headed straight for the parking lots of Target and Walmart and the other 130 stores at Chesterfield Commons, constructed after the flood and believed to be the largest strip mall in the nation.
Chick-fil-A, one of a gaggle of fast food restaurants on Chesterfield Airport Road, was in lunchtime power mode: Staff members were stationed outside to take orders and hand out packets of ketchup and mayo to speed up the line of vehicles clogging the drive-through lane.
Farther down Airport Road, workers were completing the new 350,000-square foot St. Louis Premiums outlet mall, while across the highway, crews were stocking and polishing exteriors of the 310,000-square-foot Taubman Prestige Outlets mall that would open in two days. Between them, the two malls will eventually house 120 stores.
Colleen O’Neill, general manager of the Taubman mall -- that represents a $150 million investment -- said her company picked Chesterfield, partly because of the energy surrounding the retail development in the area -- and because of the accessibility to the interstate.
"All the big box retails are across from us,’’ she said. "That’s huge. It turns this whole area into a destination for shopping. The accessibility and the visibility cannot be beat. It’s very accessible. Two right turns and you’re here, right off the highway.’’
The company has embraced its location, right next to the Monarch levee wall, and mentions the walking trail in some of its marketing material.
"It’s an amenity for us,’’ she said. "We have bike racks located at the east and west ends of the property. I could see people stopping off and grabbing something to eat here and continuing on their way. It amazes me to see how many people are running or walking on the trail.’’
O’Neill said that the 500-year levee has helped all of the businesses in the valley – and her company has no concerns over the location.
"We are confident in the property,’’ she said.
Twenty years ago, there were just 240 businesses here -- most of them small and mid-sized mom-and-pop enterprises – and they were up to their rooftops in dirty Missouri River floodwater that had filled the floodplain like a bathtub.
About 160 of the original businesses returned after the flood. Among them, the landmark Smokehouse Market and Annie Gunn’s restaurant that reopened seven months afterward and were doing a bustling lunchtime business on this steamy anniversary afternoon.
A few doors down, at Petropolis -- another pre-flood business -- puppies were being trained and shaggy dogs were getting summer haircuts.
Joe Schifano, 25, vice president of operations, was a little boy in 1993 and recalls little about the flood, which is commemorated by a framed picture hung near the front door. The business appears to be an island in what some at the time dubbed “Chesterfield Lake.” Outside the building, a plaque above the entrance, marks the level the water reached here: 12 feet, 4 inches.
Schifano has heard the tales from his father veterinarian Paul Schifano, who founded the pet-care business, about how the city sent dump trucks to rescue the remaining dogs at the facility, as the freed river filled the valley.
Joe Schifano said that in the years after the flood, many businesses in the valley have prospered.
"It caused them to come in and figure out the levees and develop down here. Because of that, everything has exploded,’’ he said.
Schifano, a generation removed from the flooding, recalls watching Chesterfield Commons being built and other businesses constructed on empty farmland surrounding his family’s business. He says he gives little thought to the levees protecting the valley, even when the spring rains come.
"I hear people talk and worry about it,’’ he said. "It’s never concerned me. I just trust that if they were going to spend that much money developing this area they would be confident enough that it wouldn’t happen. I hear clients say, ‘What happens if it floods again?’ But it just doesn’t worry me.’’
Gumbo Flats no more
Ten years ago, Chesterfield produced a video that’s available on the city website, detailing the rebirth of the valley.
Amid the historical footage are interesting facts, detailing the scope of the 1993 disaster. Few thought a flood like ’93 could ever happen because the valley -- once known as Gumbo Flats -- hadn’t flooded since 1935.
The Missouri River was more than 19 feet above flood stage when the levee gave way at about 10:15 p.m. that July 30.
The good news -- if there was any -- was that the levee broke on a Friday night, and most businesses had taken precautions heading into the weekend, moving records and furnishings out or storing them on second floors. Though Spirit of St. Louis Airport remained open, St. Louis County officials had requested a voluntary relocation of aircraft. Highway 40 was under water -- and closed from the Chesterfield Parkway to the Daniel Boone Bridge -- but the roadway wasn’t damaged from the high water and was reopened quickly, once the water receded.
The video credits the public-private partnership that put the valley on a fast track to rebuild -- one that included city and levee officials, residents and businesses -- and funded through public dollars, including a tax-increment financing district, and millions of dollars of private investment.
But Herring believes there was one more piece of the puzzle – and it had to do with a new image that the city had been relentlessly promoting, even before the flood.
"Before the flood, we changed the name of the valley from Gumbo Flats to Chesterfield Valley, and we worked hard to brand it,’’ he said. "Every time we had a chance, we used those words. People laughed at us, at first. 'That’s Gumbo Flats,’ they said. You call it whatever you want, but it’s Gumbo Flats.' ’’
On July 30, 1993, the Missouri River washed over Gumbo Flats – and the Chesterfield Valley emerged.
Next: That’s quite a levee you’ve got there.
A watershed moment
This summer marks the 20th anniversary of the Great Flood of 1993. While the flooding began in May and stretched into September, the Mississippi River crested in St. Louis at a record-breaking 49.6 feet on Aug. 1. St. Louis wasn't alone; many communities along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers experienced record crests and devastation. In a series of stories from reporters Robert Koenig and Mary Delach Leonard, the Beacon looks at the impact of the flood on floodplain management as well as two communities that suffered extraordinary damage.