By Peter H. Green. AIA, AICP
St. Louis County & City Before & During the Great Flood. Earth Observatory Photo
Will we ever learn? Even though the Corps of Engineers now steps back and examines each new flood protection project with much greater care to understand its environmental impacts, the land hungry island of St. Louis, trapped between rivers, persists in its habit of building in floodplains. In view of past disasters, you would think we’d stop and consider the impacts of what we’re doing a lot more carefully.
Twenty years ago last week, reported the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Opinion, July 30, 2013), Gumbo Flats ceased to exist. A large expanse of river floodplain, protected only by the equivalent of a farm levee, had been allowed to develop with a general aviation airport, restaurants, shops, stores and industrial buildings over many years. When the big “Rain Machine,” as the press dubbed it, settled in for the summer of 1993, storm after storm traveled up a virtual train track, trapped between low pressure in the upper Midwest and a persistent high in the southeastern states. One Saturday morning, I watched the television news in disbelief as the engorged Missouri River broke the levee and poured into the breach. The result was instant Venice, with rescue boats the only means of transportation up and down the streets among flooded shops, businesses and aircraft tossed around like so much flotsam and jetsam after a high tide. Today, the levee has been improved to Corps of Engineers 500-year-frequency flood standards, and the area has been rechristened “The Valley,” with hopeful thoughts of emulating the fertile and fashionable San Fernando Valley in Southern California. I shook my head at the time of the flood, as I do now, saying, “I knew that could happen.”
I haven’t said much about all this folly since the seventies and eighties, when these projects were created. because my living depended on helping developers plan and build their projects, many of them in floodplains. Was this against my architectural ethics to protect the public at all costs? Possibly so, although the evidence is not black and white: these projects have so far yielded great economic benefits for the communities where they are located. We tried at the time to justify our actions by planning such developments with the highest quality possible. For example, we made one such project “a city with in the city,” hoping, by diversifying land uses, not only to speed up land sales, but also to cut down on transportation loads for surrounding highways by making it convenient to live, shop and work, all within the same site. We made the sites nature-friendly, with handsome buildings set among trees, lakes and walking trails. In recent years even the practice of diversifying land uses has become more common, and has even earned a respectable new name, “Mixed Use Development.”
Patrick MacKenna, my fictional architect-planner hero, is in a similar bind. He knows it’s probably not in the public’s best interest to create large development projects behind levees in river floodplains, but his best client requires him to do it. He reluctantly obeys, with great misgivings when he discovers that not only can nature overrun man’s plans, but such construction is also more vulnerable than any other site to disruptive environmental objectors. He muses. “We can stay ahead of nature most of the time. But when one of our own decides to oppose us, he can undo all our work.” While urban existence is frail—subject to wind, weather, ice and climatic extremes—flooding seems to be such an avoidable calamity. The Post-Dispatch editorial also concludes: “Here’s what we’ve learned 20 years after the Great Flood of ’93: Not one damned thing.”
Crimes of Design, a Patrick MacKenna mystery, has been characterized by author Rick Skwiot as “a ‘flood-plain noir’ mystery,’ which“weaves a complex tale of murder, eco-terrorism, love, lust and betrayal.” Due to the untimely death of my independent publisher and the closure of the firm, this work is again on submission. You can contact me at the tab above. But copies of the book are still available. To read about Patrick’s struggles to control the natural environment, the built world and man, you can get your own copy at Pete’s Bookshop or at Amazon.com .
Till next time, good words to you,
You are welcome to comment on Lessons unlearned from the Great Flood of ’93 by clicking the “Leave a reply” button below.