After the Deluge

Since the Flood of 93, Chesterfield boosters have used millions in public money to raise a levee and turn the bottomlands into a boomtown. But betting against the river is risky business.

Old-timers still call it Gumbo. It's a place where water and land mingle. The mingling yields the thick, dark muck that gave the place its name. After a hard rain, ponds form out on the flats, and even when the sun is beating down on the parched earth, groundwater can be found not far below the surface. Silt from the Missouri River runs deep here, up to 95 feet. It was the rich alluvial deposits that first drew German settlers to the area in the late 19th century. They cleared the bottoms of cottonwoods and sycamores and planted their crops. After World War II, farmers organized a levee district to protect their fields from the constant threat of floods.

The village of Gumbo, at the crossroads of what are now Chesterfield Airport and Long roads, never consisted of much more than a roadhouse and a general store. By the early 1960s, a few small businesses had sprouted up in the vicinity. The state widened Highway 40 to four lanes, and St. Louis County built a jail and bought the nearby airport. Even with subsequent improvements to the levee, however, much of the valley remained rural because it was vulnerable to periodic flooding.

In contrast, thousands of acres on top of the hill to the east have been devoured by subdivisions, shopping centers and office parks over the last 30 years. In 1988, Gumbo itself became part of the sprawling new city of Chesterfield, a municipality that viewed the area as fertile ground for commercial growth. But in the summer of 1993, before the town's civic and business leaders could exploit their newly acquired holdings, disaster struck.

"We need to use the free-market system down there rather than government subsidies," says former Chesterfield Councilman Allan Sheppard.
Jennifer Silverberg
"We need to use the free-market system down there rather than government subsidies," says former Chesterfield Councilman Allan Sheppard.

Floodwaters from the Missouri River punched an 1,800-foot hole in the Monarch-Chesterfield Levee. Within hours, 4,400 acres had been swallowed up. When the river finally crested, days later, water had spread across the floodplain, up to 10 feet deep, engulfing Highway 40 and Spirit of St. Louis Airport. Damage estimates ranged from $250 million to more than $500 million.

The roiling waters have long since receded into memory, and traces of the devastation have disappeared, replaced by a surreal landscape.

Nowadays, traffic on the highway can back up for almost five miles, from the Missouri River to the foot of the hill below Chesterfield Mall. The slow pace allows drivers to examine their options. They can seek a respite at the new Hilton Garden Inn or shop till they drop at Chesterfield Commons, where Wal-Mart, Sam's Club, Best Buy, Lowe's Home Improvement Center and several other big-box stores squat on the south side of the highway like a carnival midway.

In the past three years, business has boomed in Gumbo. Besides the Commons, there's Chesterfield Corporate Park, Chesterfield Town Centre and a slew of other projects in the offing. As a consequence, property that couldn't be given away in the wake of the Flood of '93 now commands a premium price.

Turning a floodplain into a commercial bonanza does not come without great cost. In this case, $72.5 million in tax money has been dedicated to the effort by Chesterfield. The city is also diligently working to have the federal government provide as much as $58 million for the task. Backers of this grand scheme include local politicians and businessmen, who shrewdly realized that rebuilding the levee at public expense was integral to the success of their venture.

In addition to the use of public money to support private enterprise, there are a couple of other questionable aspects to this monumental effort. For one, state and federal regulatory officials warn there is no guarantee that the Missouri River won't flood the area again, even with the beefed-up levee. If the levee does hold up, they say, it will only push the floodwaters elsewhere, most likely across the river to St. Charles County.

None of Chesterfield's business and civic leaders seriously considered where floodwaters would go; they're more concerned about flooding dampening the valley's economic joyride. With so much money at stake, they never thought twice about defying nature.

Before the ground dried in late 1993, planning had begun. Making repairs and improvements to the existing levee, as required by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, became the focus of the initial recovery effort. But Chesterfield and St. Louis County officials quickly decided that the levee needed to be raised far beyond those standards to sufficiently protect private investment in the floodplain. They had only to look a few miles downstream for guidance and inspiration: successful developments at Riverport and Earth City -- which were protected by higher levees -- remained bone-dry during the deluge.

At this early stage, too, it became evident that local government was taking its cues from the business community. Indeed, in some ways, private interests were charged with setting public policy. Then-Chesterfield Mayor Jack Leonard appointed a 20-member task force, including local businessmen, to look into rebuilding the Chesterfield Valley. Within a month, the group had identified key goals and funding sources. By November 1993, St. Louis County had published its own recommendations, which essentially echoed those of Chesterfield and its business community. The county advisory group was also stacked with representatives from the real-estate, banking and development fields.

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