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St. Louis County, Missouri

Overview


St. Louis sits in a precarious place, nestled between two big rivers and crisscrossed with tributaries. The French trappers who founded the city in 1763 chose a spot high on a limestone bluff, close enough to the Mississippi River to get their goods to market but far enough away to avoid floods. But the city has long outgrown that origin story, if not the romance of the riverine location. Today, flooding is part of life in St. Louis, with six major floods since 2008 and two record-setting floods in the last three years alone. What’s more, with no surrounding mountains to run interference, the city is wide open to cold weather sweeping in from the north and hot, humid weather rising up from the south, and is prone to tornadoes. And when all else fails, there still can be extreme wind or monster hail. For all these reasons, St. Louis County and City landed on our top ten list for disaster-prone areas.

One of the worst floods in St. Louis history occurred during the holiday season in December 2015. Heavy rains poured seven to ten inches across St. Louis County on December 26th and 27th, causing multiple creeks and rivers to overflow. The rain fell so quickly that Deer Creek rose 11 feet in three hours, and the Meramec River crested at record levels. As a result, flooding was widespread and damaged nearly 900 buildings, including two wastewater treatment plants, the latter alone estimated to cost $16 million. The rains eventually subsided on December 28th, but the Meramec, Missouri, and Mississippi rivers all remained at high flood levels into January. Eighteen months later, the flood records set in 2015 were broken by another flood in April and May 2017. The floods hit many of the same areas, especially towns along the Meramec River, and shut down two major highways for multiple days.

St. Louis, Mo. Severe Weather Timeline

Floods were not exactly unknown in St. Louis before 2015, and in fact the area had a similar incident as recently as 2008, when remnants of Hurricane Ike dumped rain over the region. There have also been near misses, such as the snowmelt in the summer of 2011 from record snowfall in the Rocky Mountains. States all along the Missouri River faced severe flooding as major dams had to release an unprecedented amount of water downriver. Fortunately, by the time the flood waters reached the confluence of the Mississippi River, most had subsided. Still St. Louis had a series of flash floods from saturated soils, but compared to their upstream neighbors, this was a lucky break.

Snow has also been a significant problem for St. Louis. In fact, the metropolitan area has suffered through a whole variety of winter weather in recent history, from heavy snowfall in 2014, to a blizzard in 2011, to a major ice storm in 2006, all of which caused significant damage. The 2014 snowstorm was estimated to cost the city at least $1 million just for snow removal, for example. The National Guard had to deploy to rescue people across the county in 2011 and delivered emergency services door-to-door to the hundreds of thousands who lost power in 2006.

A history of major snowstorms in St. Louis has not precluded extreme heat days in the summer. Two of the worst heatwaves struck consecutively in 2006 and 2007. First in 2006, heat indexes ranged from 100 to 115 from mid-July to mid-August. To make matters worse, severe thunderstorms caused the worst power outage in St. Louis history, leaving 700,000 buildings without power—some for over a week—in the middle of the heatwave. In total, 794 people had heat-related injuries and eight died across the St. Louis area. Then in August 2007, another heatwave caused the third warmest August on record in St. Louis. In just over a week, 519 people in St. Louis County and 422 people in the city had heat-related injuries, and eight people died. Nearly 500 of the heat injuries were due to attendance at outdoor concerts during the heatwave.

Tornadoes also strike a constant fear in the hearts of the people of St. Louis, especially lately: There have been four significant tornadoes within a three year span in recent history. The first of the tornado events happened in April 2011 when an EF4 tornado touched down in St. Louis County and traveled 21.3 miles. Homes were leveled, the international airport had windows blown out and roof peeled back on the main terminal, but fortunately only five people were injured, and there were no deaths. Nearly 2,500 buildings sustained damage. Two years later in April 2013, two tornadoes hit the St. Louis area and damaged almost 400 homes. This event was followed one month later in May 2013 by another two tornadoes that damaged an additional 600 homes and 100 businesses. Another tornado appeared in April 2014, damaging another 100 buildings.

The final weather threat facing St. Louis is the most common, and perhaps the most bizarre. Severe weather in this area comes with extreme winds and monster hail, and though it is typically not fatal, it can be costly. St. Louis hail reached 4.5 inches in diameter in May 2011. Imagine grapefruit size blocks of ice being blown down by severe thunderstorm winds onto your roof, car, and windows, breaking or harming everything it its path. In April 2012, two to three inch hail resulted in 150,000 hail damage claims—estimated to cost $995 million—across the state, including St. Louis. In May 2004, 1 inch hail piled up a foot deep and clogged storm drains causing floods on the interstate highways. It also rained hail on a dealership lot full of brand new BMWs and Mercedes Benz. And in 2001, St. Louis had one of its most expensive hail events, estimated to cost several hundred million dollars, after hail 2.75 inches in diameter hit ten thousands of homes and vehicles, damaged every single vehicle at the Ford Motor assembly plant, and harmed 22 jetliners at the international airport and 10 fighter aircrafts at the Missouri National Guard.

Floods

St. Louis has frequent and severe floods. For anyone who lives in or visits the area (or looks at a map), this will come as no surprise. After all, the city was built below the confluence of two of the largest rivers in the country, the Mississippi and the Missouri, and is criss-crossed with tributaries. Indeed, St. Louis just had had two record breaking floods within 18 months, in December 2015 and April 2017.

Given that history, we were surprised, however, that the emergency experts we spoke to in St. Louis seemed less concerned about floods than they were about other disasters. Mark Diedrich, the director of emergency management for St. Louis County, for example, told us that “earthquakes are our highest [concern], then tornadoes are probably right under that. They are a little less frequent, but they're damaging and like earthquakes there is very little warning. And then we probably get into severe storms—ice or heat—and then floods.” Other experts concurred: earthquakes at the top of the list and flooding at the bottom. In fact, Nicole Hawkins, the director of regional preparedness for the St. Louis branch of the Red Cross, politely pushed back on our assumptions about her priorities. “You know, I worry about floods the least,” she corrected.

Based on our reading of the area’s history of severe weather, that was not what we expected. Why does flooding, a chronic severe weather event, rank so low? And why haven’t recent record-breaking floods raised the sense of urgency?

According to the people we met, it’s because flooding is as familiar as an old shoe for St. Louis, and they feel ready for it.

St. Louisans certainly have a great deal of practice in flood preparedness and response. The rains pour, the rivers swell, and people know what they have to do because the same thing may have happened last year and the year before that, too. “One thing I like about floods,” Diedrich explained, “with the exception of flash floods, is that you know they are coming, you have time to prepare, and you can put things in place. And usually, the people who are affected have been affected before, so they probably have more preparedness.”

This individual preparedness is certainly helpful, but may not be sufficient for every severe storm. The December 2015 flood, for example, was particularly damaging because it caught area residents off guard. December is an uncommon time of year for floods and the flooding occurred between Christmas and New Year’s Day, when many people were not really paying attention to the fact that a record amount of rainfall was falling. The unusual volume of water meant some areas flooded that had not flooded for years, and in other areas, flooding was worse than usual. Individual residents were not prepared for that, but fortunately, the emergency management community was.

Footage of the Christmas day flooding outside Ulysses S. Grant Historic Site in downtown St. Louis

In fact, one of the main reasons why St. Louis is so ready for floods is because they have a strong network of emergency experts who communicate amicably and frequently. Together, they are ready to respond to any situation and to help their community recover quickly. These are connections that are tough to make for the first time in the heat of a crisis.

“Really, relationships is what it comes down to,” Deidrich said. “It's that we know each other, we talk in blue skies, and then when something does happen we are able to work through it.” Years ago, St. Louis did suffer from a lack of strong relationships, so the experts know to appreciate what they have now. Hawkins commented, “It was really amazing to see how we have learned over time to work together and to not just say this is our thing, that's your thing, this is your thing, because it really was like that years and years ago. It was really hard and it was reflected in the recovery of people. Now we have this ability to move faster."

One of the most impactful results of the collaboration among disaster relief organizations is the Multi-Agency Resource Center (MARC)—a one-stop shop for disaster recovery. Before the creation of the MARC, disaster victims would have to call each organization (the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, etc.) and recount their story over and over again to ask for various kinds of help. Hawkins explained, “You can imagine if it were you and you are going through the most traumatic thing to ever happen to you, how frustrating that could be.” MARCs were the solution to this dilemma. Now, the relief organizations set up booths in a single location—such as a local high school or community library—accessible to individuals affected by the disaster, where they come and recount their story once to all the various partner organizations. “They can get a lot of help in one day versus lots and lots of days," Nicole emphasized. This was particularly necessary for the recent floods, which involved 14 days of rolling MARCs around the region. As the floods crept from west to east across the state, the MARCs were picked up and moved to best serve the affected people. Without strong relationships, this proactive response would have been unlikely.

So, how did St. Louis become so well connected?

At the end of the day, it’s hard to say. Some experts pointed to a specific disaster as the catalyst. Others thought it was a result of strong leaders, such as Mark Diedrich, who understand the merit of relationships. Whatever the impetus, the local and regional Community Organizations Active in Disaster (COAD), a volunteer-based association that convenes local organizations and government agencies, is critical. COADs are not unique to St. Louis, or Missouri for that matter, but in many areas the COADs are much less active or are strapped for funding, sometimes causing them to be temporarily or permanently suspended.  

In St. Louis, that has not been an issue. The COAD has been in steady operation since 2003. Warren Robinson, the chair of the regional coalition of COADs, credits chronic severe weather as the glue that holds the COADs together. “You have to have some way to keep them engaged,” he said in regard to the many partner organizations affiliated with the COAD, “and by golly, we have kept them engaged the past few years.”

For Robinson, who is double-hatted as the director of emergency management of Jefferson County, the COAD is an opportunity to help communities in a way that complements his day job. As a county official, Robinson humbly acknowledged the limitations of leading a government agency: “Our hands are tied in a lot of ways. We need to make sure [victims] were impacted by certain [kinds of] disasters and certain criteria are met.” The COAD, on the other hand, has a long-term recovery fund that is not bound by the same exclusions and deadlines and can reach people government assistance doesn’t always reach. A weather event has to hit certain damage thresholds, for example, in order to qualify as a Federal disaster and unlock Federal assistance dollars. Even when a disaster doesn’t meet those broader thresholds, it can be just as devastating for the affected individuals.  In other cases, people may not know much about the government services available to them or how to get those services.

“It’s great to call 211, but if [people] don’t know they are supposed to call 211 or even that anybody is there to help them, it’s a problem.”

In particular, the experts we spoke to expressed concerns about low-income, at-risk, and minority communities in the region. According to them, people in these communities don’t communicate well with government and volunteer aid organizations, and the organizations don’t communicate well with vulnerable populations, either. “It’s great to call 211 [a fast track helpline for community services], but if [people] don’t know they are supposed to call 211 or even that anybody is there to help them, it’s a problem,” commented Ben Perrin, a disaster services manager and St. Louis COAD chair. A number of the people we interviewed noted that there’s a shortage of educational outreach programs in these areas and little representation in the COADs, which is doubly problematic. First, individuals and families in these communities often lack the personal resources to prepare for or bounce back from a disaster—to repair a damaged home, for example. In that sense, these populations are least likely to be resilient and most likely to need help. Second, low-income populations tend to have a higher vulnerability to weather disasters because of where they are located—land and property costs are often lower in a floodplain, for example. Lance Lecomb, manager of public information for the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District (MSD), observed that “the reason a lot of [these] homes have basement backups and flood issues is because of where [these] homes were placed. They should have never been placed there in the first place.” Renters and transient populations may not even be aware that they are in vulnerable locations, which points back to the need for better, more targeted education and outreach. Everyone we spoke to in St. Louis acknowledged this gap.

For over a decade, the St. Louis COAD has been a way to connect the many different pieces of disaster preparedness and response to make the process fit together better. The cross-agency communication that this model fosters then allows the emergency actors to expand their reach to help a greater number of people, and hopefully to improve the collective ability to find those who are falling through the cracks. For emergency actors, they’ve seen the proof that this model works, and expressed that efficacy justifies their investment of time and effort.

The COAD model that works so well in St. Louis could be applied anywhere. The same goes for the MARCs and other powerful emergency networks that St. Louis has sustained. However, to do so in a sustained way requires leaders who understand the value of relationships and who are willing to put in the time to maintain them in “blue sky” times (i.e., when there’s no active disaster situation). In St. Louis, recent record-breaking floods strained the system and highlighted resilience gaps in underserved communities, but also proved St. Louis is ready, thanks to the network of relationships.