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Floods' Deepest Scars Left on Smallest Scales


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

As the water recedes, the true toll of the Great Floods of 1993 is finally starting to emerge. By the time the final feeble crest rolls past Cairo, Ill., on Monday, the rivers will have flooded more than 23,500 square miles of land, an area that, if combined, would exceed Lake Michigan.

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

In the flood zones--in the Gumbo Flats of Chesterfield, Mo., where dank Missouri 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 Bud Pieper's cornstalks once waved--the story is not over, and will not be for months.

"There's so much we don't know," said Bob Davis, the Alexandria, Mo., mayor who now presides over a community covered by 14 feet of Mississippi water and mud. "The present's bad enough, but it's the future, it's all that you don't know, that kills you."

Yet on a national and a regional level, the overall financial impact of two months of flooding may not mirror the harrowing images of "high water everywhere," as Mississippi blues musician Charley Patton sang of the Mississippi River flood of 1927.

Damage estimates from this year's deluge range as high as $15 billion, but economists have yet to agree on the real extent of monetary loss.

After the soil is re-plowed, the wild animals return to revitalized forests and thousands of flooded homes are repaired or bulldozed, many officials wonder if the long-term fallout from the floods will turn out to be surprisingly mild.

"The personal losses associated with the floods are tremendous," said Diane Swonk, an economist with First Chicago Bank. "But on a macroeconomic 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.

In Washington and in Midwestern state capitals, concern about budget deficits is forcing politicians to take a hard look at the extent of government responsibility in defraying disaster costs--even as flood-racked constituents plead for more aid.

Major population centers, such as Des Moines, Iowa, 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.

Des Moines, which lost its water system for two weeks, its power for two days and many of its levees, is undergoing a major analysis of its most vital city services.

"We're making everybody go back and re-examine the flood protection methods that are used," said City Planning Director Jim Grant. The city's flood control system had gaps, he said, "that shouldn't occur again."

Along the Mississippi, the great surges of water that wreaked so much damage on the land apparently did little to alter the face of the river. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers surveyors have already sailed out on the swollen river in flatboats, taking soundings from the silt-caked bottoms and bends.

Corps of Engineers officials said they expect no lasting channel changes north of St. Louis, where surging floodwaters altered the course of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers so that they now flow together as the "Missourippi."

"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.

Dick Baker, a Corps of Engineers dredging coordinator, said that although the Mississippi River is receding slowly, its speed is not sluggish enough to allow for a natural re-scouring of silt that has collected on the river bottom over the past month.

That means the Corps of Engineers may end up spending far more on dredging the river than it would like--substantially in excess of the $1 million in dredging costs incurred in a normal year, he said.

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

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 building be permitted in the lowlands? Should those areas be reverted to wetlands, the better to absorb the river's overreaches?

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