As floodwaters recede, towns count terrible toll Disaster eases

questions remain

August 08, 1993|By Los Angeles Times

ST. LOUIS -- The last crest is passing, and the rivers are falling. The driving rains are giving way to the humid dog days that are the hallmark of summer in the upper Midwest.

As the water recedes, the toll is starting to emerge. By the time the final feeble crest rolls past Cairo, Ill., on Monday, the rivers will have flooded 23,500 square miles of land, an area that, if combined, would exceed that of Lake Michigan.

Yet it is a catastrophe that left its deepest scars on the smallest of scales. The floods' sweep can be measured in miniature -- in lives lost, backwater towns that may be wiped off the map, subsections of commerce ruined, slivers of public policy altered.

In the flood zones -- in the Gumbo Flats of Chesterfield, Mo., where dank Mississippi River water has overtaken the Spirit of St. Louis Airport and risen to the wingtips of small planes, and in Wever, Iowa, where egrets glide where cornstalks once waved -- the story is not over, and will not be for months.

Damage estimates range as high as $15 billion.

"The personal losses associated with the floods are tremendous," said Diane Swonk, an economist with First Chicago Bank. "But on a macro-economic level, it's a different story," mitigated by middling flood damage to infrastructure, lush crop yields for farmers on high ground and expectations of windfall gains for construction firms and other industries angling for a role in the recovery.

Major population centers like Des Moines and St. Louis, shaken by their close calls with chaos, are reassessing their reliance on rivers that have provided transportation, recreation and solace all these years.

"The two rivers will go back to their old beds by the end of August," said Corps of Engineers hydrologist Gary Dyhouse. "The Missouri has been dropping one foot a day since Monday." He expects another 10 days should take it below flood stage.

The flood has both bolstered and sapped the sense of community in the Mississippi's river towns. Even as residents in such places as Niota, Ill., and Alexandria, Mo., vow to rebuild their water- and mud-choked towns, politicians and activist groups have begun earnest discussions about whether some towns have a future.

As they grope to rebuild, public officials and townspeople alike are confronting unsettling questions: Should the levees be built higher? Should they be replaced at all? Should lowland areas be reverted to wetlands, the better to absorb the river's overreaches?

"The discussions are incredibly intense," said Dave Baker of the Missouri Extension Service. "The future of dozens of small towns are tied up in these questions, and the fact that people are talking about it makes a lot of other people uncomfortable."

More than 800 levees were breached, overtopped or damaged by the flood, Mr. Baker said.

Of those levees, only 140 are likely to be covered by federal aid.

Thousands of farms have vanished under the floodwaters; 127 small towns were evacuated and some were left completely submerged; 46 lives were lost; and more than 46,000 people suffered damage to their homes.

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