A stop sign is barely visible after a winter rain causes flooding across southwest St. Louis County.
From the back of the family van, I see American flags small and large waving in the breeze as my dad slowly drives through Old Town Eureka, searching for a parking spot. We slosh through puddles on our way to Lions Park as my parents wave to familiar faces also on their way to the Independence Day celebration. The overcast weather suggests a low turnout, but we round the corner and see a buzzing, energetic crowd.
As we stroll into the park, the distant murmur of excitement grows into full-on crowd chatter, a moving kaleidoscope of neighborly hellos. I hear the musicians on stage shouting and pumping up the audience.
“When I say ‘Eureka,’ you say ‘Strong!’ Eureka!”
I wander over to the kids’ area and see a mini-carnival accompanied by children joyously screaming. Closer to the stage sits a sea of lawn chairs with people casually drinking. From children clad in light-up antennae headbands to vendors sporting “Eureka Strong” T-shirts, everyone is impervious to the drizzling rain.
I bump into my high school math teacher, orbited by his three animated kids, as well as former classmates, my youth group leader, a couple of neighbors—the whole town is here.
As evening turns to night, I rejoin my parents in time for the fireworks show, and we stake out a spot for viewing. I peer around to see if anyone else I know is nearby, but all of Eureka’s eyes have turned to watch the final fireworks show.
Eureka always throws a Fourth of July celebration, but this year, it earned one. After the historic flooding of December 2015, feet upon feet of rising water ruined homes and destroyed businesses. A flood of this magnitude could have knocked the life out of a small town like Eureka, leaving behind shells of businesses and a damaged community spirit.
But Eureka resident Tony Colona saw more than waterlogged destruction, and he entered Eureka into “Red, White and You,” a contest put on by USA Today honoring the best small town in America:
Our town rallied together to weather the storm, with many pitching in to sandbag or move people in danger, but much of our historic downtown area is still closed for repairs. A Fourth of July celebration, along with some media attention showing Eureka residents’ resolve and optimism, would do much to lift the spirits of many who have had a very difficult start to 2016.
Eureka won, beating out 6,400 entries and earning an extravagant fair to celebrate both Independence Day and the progress the town had made.
Now, the first fireworks explode into the sky, sparking a series of awed gasps that ripple through the crowd.
Seven months ago, these fireworks would have been reflected in a dark sea of flood water. But on July 2, they reflect in the eyes of Eureka citizens, gathered out in the damp fields of Lions Park to support their hometown.
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A crowd of thousands gather to watch the fireworks display in Lions Park at Eureka’s Red, White and You celebration.
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Children pick out prizes at one of the many carnival games in the kids’ area of Eureka’s Fourth of July celebration.
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As the Red, White and You celebration winds down, a couple watch the band perform their final songs.
The Heart of Eureka
On our way back to the car, we pass through Old Town, the main street of Eureka. Nestled between the train tracks and Lions Park, the area is undoubtedly the heart of the town. Old-fashioned street lamps frame businesses housed in traditional brick buildings with storefront awnings, lining a street that closes off during free summertime concerts. Buzzing with post-fair activity, Old Town is unrecognizable from the shocking images from December, where the edge of the muddy flood waters reached three-fourths of the way up the street.
Jill Umbarger kept her eye on a piece of property in Old Town Eureka for almost 12 years. The modest tan stone building had been home to a small coffee shop, a banquet hall—all locally owned, a familiar characteristic in Old Town. When the property went up for sale, Umbarger jumped on the opportunity, and the space was nearly hers, a way to expand her bakery business. But three weeks before the final close, the record-breaking flood filled the future home of “Sarah’s On Central” with three feet of water.
For Umbarger, the disaster seemed like an ill omen.
Her husband had a different take. “No, Jill, take a look around at all the people helping,” he said. “This is the reason we’re going to open a business in Eureka.”
Now, six months after their dream location was half underwater, Sarah’s on Central is set to open August 11, serving up its signature bakery items in a café environment.
The force en masse required to pick up water-soaked debris and gut out flooded homes came from volunteers drawn by personal connections. Volunteers like Pat Grimshaw, a gym teacher at one of the city’s elementary schools, who wasn’t called down to the flood by pleas from the fire department or other organizations, but by a buddy asking if he could come help.
“The swim coach at Eureka High School had her house flooded, and she sent out messages through text and Facebook that she needed help,” Grimshaw tells me. “Within an hour, there were probably 75 people over there. It was an amazing sight. Eureka is just one of those communities.”
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Americana decorations cover Old Town Eureka in preparation for the Red, White and You celebration.
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Photo by Mary Tomlinson
Chick N Elly’s, a restaurant in Old Town Eureka, put out decorations in the spirit of Fourth of July for Eureka’s Red, White and You Celebration.
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Photo by Mary Tomlinson
Old Town Eureka gets dolled up for the city’s Red, White and You Celebration on Fourth of July Weekend.
Since the flooding took place during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, many families were off work and had the time to set aside holiday festivities and lend a hand. What they faced at flood recovery sites was grim.
“There were so many memories and things, from clothing items to photo albums, that meant so much to the family members and loved ones,” Grimshaw says. “They were special things that meant so much that they had to throw away. To see their life turned upside down—it was hard.”
Joe Boccardi’s, a landmark family-owned restaurant in Old Town, has served traditional Italian to Eureka for 45 years. Joe’s core staff and community reputation have survived the test of time, but the flood waters could have washed it all away.
“To see the building I’ve been in my whole life, the place that I grew up ripped down to concrete shell, it was very eye-opening,” says manager Mario Boccardi, son of owner Joe Boccardi. “But the fact that my dad’s been here and worked his whole life, I wanted to keep his name going. He’s still here all the time, and we didn’t want to let what he built go by the wayside.”
Mario didn’t let Joe Boccardi’s go by the wayside—he set up an outdoor kitchen behind the flooded restaurant just a week after the flood. Joe Boccardi’s had the mobile kitchen for catering events, but this time used it to keep the name out there and make sure employees were getting some kind of income. They also started selling “Eureka Strong” T-shirts and giving the profits to their employees, many of whom had worked at Joe’s for years.
“It raised morale between everybody going through a tough time,” Mario Boccardi says. “This way they could make rent, grocery money, enough just to live.”
Joe Boccardi’s didn’t lose a single employee.
The same dedication took place at Chick-n-Elly’s, a hole-in-the-wall joint with a regular breakfast crowd who promised to the owners they’d eat there every morning and make sure the business stayed afloat, says Julie Wood, director of economic development for the City of Eureka.
Photo courtesy of Bridge to Recovery Coalition
Volunteers from Christ Community United Methodist Church in Marion, Iowa remove sandbags from a flood victim’s yard.
Wood sees the resilience of the local businesses in Old Town as a larger trend.
“I think most of the community thought, ‘Small businesses are what make us special,’” Wood says. “That’s what I feel the most is this recommitment to Eureka, to making sure that we have these businesses that make us different than any other place in St. Louis County.”
Eureka has a strong sense of identity. Growing up here, every time a major ordeal hit the town, tragic or joyous, the phrase “Eureka Strong” always floats its way into the minds of citizens and onto social media. Other cities have adopted this moniker as a slogan, most notably with “Boston Strong” after the marathon bombings. In Eureka, the phrase carries a weight of small town pride—yes, Eureka is small and a bit isolated from the rest of the county, but because of that sequestered nature, the ties among citizens are stronger, deeper. There’s a standard of kindness, and as long as you live up to it, you’ve got a home for life.
“We’re still this small town with small town values,” Mayor Kevin Coffey says. “We still hold onto what makes Eureka unique. A lot of places, people go home and open their garage door and drive in their house. It’s a different feeling here. People see each other at events, at concerts in Old Town.”
When speaking with city officials, there’s no hint that this disaster, which destroyed so much property, has had any effect on the town’s morale. Wood says, “there’s that feeling that we’ve been through this together.”
Wes Sir told me he’s experienced those feelings of togetherness on his many fronts of involvement in Eureka. He wears a lot of hats—city alderman, president of the Methodist men’s organization at Eureka United Methodist Church, Lions Club member—and spends his Sundays jovially bustling about the sanctuary before the church bell sounds, looking sharp in a polo and khakis.
Sir has used those connections to move the formation of the Eureka Disaster Relief Committee forward. The committee, made up of local faith-based and volunteer organizations, is using neighborly relationships to create a new system that will prevent duplication of relief efforts—both with this disaster and with future disasters—and streamline the response process.
Neighborly relationships around Eureka form through church, school, on the sidelines of a t-ball game. In her space for Sarah’s on Central, Jill Umbarger envisions a café environment where Eurekans can sit, mingle, and grow those neighborly relationships. She had this vision before the flood, but with disasters comes a need to recover.
“I’ve received so many phone calls and emails asking when we will open—the town is excited,” Umbarger says. “I think there is going to be more of a community feel.”
Not just a pastry shop, but a gathering place for a healing town.
Filling the Recovery Gap
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Photo courtesy of Bridge to Recovery Coalition
Dan Hoeft (second from left) and John Lorts (right) pose for a team photo in between working on the Lorts home that was damaged in the flood.
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Photo courtesy of Bridge to Recovery Coalition
Bridge to Recovery volunteers.
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Photo by Mary Tomlinson
A volunteer for Bridge to Recovery works on John Lorts’ home in between seeing gymnastics events in St. Louis.
Water from a flood recedes at a relatively uniform rate. The recovery process after a flood does not have the same consistency. I’d never had a disaster hit so close to home, so I never fully understood the process of recovery until it happened in my own backyard. I began to learn how slow it is. True heartbreak lies not in how much damage there is right after the flood but in the amount of work left to be done six months later, when the national spotlight has receded with the flood waters.
Dan Hoeft, a volunteer originally from Minnesota, is sturdy and tall with curly blond hair often matted from working outside all day in the humidity. He speaks softly, with a Minnesotan accent. He came to Eureka with All Hands, a group that specializes in immediate disaster relief—doing the gut out and clean up, then pulling out after a month or so. Hoeft could have left when All Hands did, moved on to the next disaster, and stayed in the familiar pattern of disaster relief he’d followed for 10 years. Instead, he decided to stay in Eureka, take up humble residency in the semi-finished basement at Eureka United Methodist Church, and continue to the work he started.
“People ask me how long it will be until they can get back in their homes, and it’s getting harder and harder for me to tell them six months to a year,” Hoeft says. “But when I saw people sleeping in their cars, I knew this is where I need to be.”
Hoeft joined forces with Jon Griswold, Aaron Sangter, Neil Lawson and Jennifer Weinstein, All Hands veterans, to plan to stay behind and has been living out of the church basement ever since.
In the disaster relief world, there isn’t an immediate continuation of the work after the first responders pull out. The next groups to come in are long-term recovery groups, but before they can start, extensive casework needs to be done, questions need to be answered about where FEMA money is spent, and a litany of other bureaucratic processes have to unspool. In the meantime, disaster victims are left with gutted-out homes.
Hoeft set out to ease the gap between initial response and long-term recovery by forming the Bridge to Recovery coalition. They’re a young, energetic group, and although they’ve started small, they’ve ramped up to bringing in new volunteer groups from across the country each week. Bridge to Recovery partners with local faith-based organizations and case management from the Salvation Army and the Red Cross, but their largest partnership comes from AmeriCorps St. Louis, who applied and qualified for a grant from the Center for Disaster Philanthropy’s Midwest Early Recovery Fund.
Nancy Beers of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy sees exactly what Dan has seen in 10 years on the ground: a gap in recovery.
“This period in between, we consider it very critical, and it starts about two weeks after disaster when people are ready to start getting their lives back together,” Beers says.
This led her to, in 2014, pioneer the Midwest Early Recovery Fund, a $2.5 million grant that’s broken into smaller grants to shrink the gap between short-term response and long-term recovery.
Over the last two years, money from Midwest Early Recovery Fund has gone to communities seeking to recover from a disaster. But giving a grant to Bridge to Recovery, a program focused solely on the early recovery transition, is a new strategy.
“There are very few organizations at this time across the U.S. doing what we call ‘early recovery,’” Beers says. “This project in Missouri is really a pilot to develop a process that hopefully we can replicate across the Midwest area, to mitigate that gap between response and recovery.”
Beers says FEMA is very interested in Bridge to Recovery and the early recovery process in general, because FEMA money has been getting on the ground quicker over the last few years, and early recovery helps the money go to work faster. FEMA also understands that the money it gives out—$30,000 is the max grant for a completely destroyed home—isn’t enough for a full recovery, and the agency counts on nonprofits to step in.
In addition to putting money to use more quickly, Hoeft says a speedy recovery process can help a community feel like they’re moving forward.
“Neighbors see stuff getting done, people at the church see boots muddy from drywall mud,” Hoeft says. “They see something is actually happening.”
Mother Nature or Man?
For the three days following Christmas, Missouri was hammered with six to 12 inches of rain, leading to immense flash flooding that broke record after record on Mississippi, Meramec and Bourbeuse Rivers. At the Meramec River near Eureka, the water crested at 46 feet—crushing the previous record by three feet, according to the National Weather Service. At least 10 other crest records were broken.
Experts disagree over whether the severity of the floods is the work of man or Mother Nature. John Boggs, Eureka Building Commissioner and Floodplain Administrator, and Russell Errett, a hydraulic engineer at the Army Corps of Engineers, tell me the December flood was a result of abnormal weather conditions: lots of rain in the winter, an already saturated ground resulting in more runoff.
But for John Hoal, professor of architecture and urban design and founding partner of H3 Studio, a design and planning firm in St. Louis, seeing extreme flooding as an urban planning issue is paramount. Heavily paved cities aren’t built to absorb water, and when the water has nowhere to go, it rises, and it rises fast.
“The flood is clearly tied to a case of extreme weather, but it’s amplified when you continue to build cities in ways that don't respond to extreme weather conditions,” Hoal says. “We need to think of cities as a sponge that can absorb water to keep us safe from flash floods. We must design preventatively. If you’re using historical long-term flood levels for urban planning, they are, in my mind, becoming less and less relevant. How we design and develop cities today must respond to this increasing frequency and severity of floods.”
Preventative designs include opening up small tributaries and designing flood parks, which are retention areas in each municipality to hold rainfall in a flash flood instead of pushing it down to the next municipality, Hoal says.
Theorizing on how best to deal with the destructive power of the river isn’t new—in my research, I came across a century’s worth of proposals on how best to control flooding in the rivers surrounding St. Louis.
One particular proposal, a reservoir built to dam the Meramec, came close to becoming a major flood control measure in the 1970s. When reading about the project, I came across one environmental engineer who, in a comprehensive study, asserted the flood control benefits of the project. Reading closer, I recognized the name: H.D. Tomlinson. My grandfather. His environmental engineering firm spent a year verifying a project that could take disastrous floods out of the river’s equation. I wondered if he’d realized that 40 years later, his granddaughter would be looking for answers to the same problem.
Three major floods have hit St. Louis since the referendum, and though the Meramec reservoir may not have been the best solution— “if you look at the long history of reservoirs, they have changed the path and function of the river itself, and I’m for retaining natural river system,” Hoal says—the idea of a systemic problem in urban planning for floods lingers. Academics like Hoal see that cities must work with, not against, natural river systems, but the actions must be carried out comprehensively and at multiple scales by urban planners and their municipalities.
On the Ground
Since the mid-1950s, the Lorts’ family homes have stood alongside the Big River on River Bend Acres Road. The three narrow, elevated homes sit several feet above the ground and have seen the river rise and fall—but have never flooded.
Until December 2015, that is.
The Lortses are living the reality of three water-damaged homes. Bridge to Recovery has worked especially close with John Lorts, a wiry carpenter with a bushy white mustache and a knack for friendly jabs. Without an early recovery group, Lorts could have been waiting for long-term recovery groups for months and “just forgotten.”
“You’re not put on a list to finish later when the job is only half finished,” Lorts says.
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Photo by Mary Tomlinson
Chad Jennings, pastor of First United Methodist Church, preps his hand drill before getting back to work in the Lorts home.
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Photo by Mary Tomlinson
John Lorts, a flood victim, looks over the worksite where Bridge to Recovery volunteers are at work.
The Lorts homes sit at the end of a dirt road, facing a lush green field with the muddy Big River, a tributary to the Meramec, behind them. When I first drove down the road, I was so taken aback by the bucolic beauty, I didn’t even notice the Bridge to Recovery crews working. On my second visit to see Lorts, his mother’s house was the one abuzz with activity. Volunteers down from Marion, Iowa, worked alongside the Bridge to Recovery team.
The Iowa volunteers were mostly middle schoolers who attended youth group at First United Methodist Church in Marion. One young man was from Michigan and helped out in between watching the Olympic gymnastic trials downtown. They sought direction from Jen, Neil, Jon and Aaron, who are originally from California, Missouri, Massachusetts and the U.K., respectively.
The volunteers from Iowa made Eureka the destination of their summer mission trip because they, too, knew how easily flood victims can be cast aside. Eight years ago, floods hit Cedar Rapids hard, and today there are still homes that need to be refurbished.
“While you don’t see the effects of the flood long term, it’s still there and there are people that still are affected,” says Chad Jennings, pastor of First United Methodist Church. “When you have something like a flood, you have to think long term.”
For recovery to continue into the long term, more donations and more volunteers are crucial—the two aspects that drop off as the flood moves from present to past.
“Just because it’s in the news today doesn’t mean that it’s more important than something that happened three or four months ago,” Lorts says.
Beers hopes that through the Early Recovery fund, with good data and good storytelling, the Center for Disaster Philanthropy will be able to keep a disaster more in the public eye.
As for the volunteers that have staved off the temptation to simply forget the flood or its victims, John Lorts says he is overwhelmed by their graciousness.
“I’ve never asked for help before in my entire life,” Lorts says. “It’s a humbling experience to say I need some help. The volunteers understand that it’s hard for some people to accept help. I would say thank you to the volunteers and they would respond, ‘No, thank you for letting us be here.’”
Volunteers from Christ Community United Methodist Church in Marion, Iowa discuss which parts of the room to tackle next with their painting project.
The Fringes of Eureka
Though it was supposed to rain the day of the “Red, White and You” Fourth of July celebration, the accumulation of grey clouds bring in nothing more than mist. But another cloud hangs over the fair, much closer to the ground.
As my parents and I rest our feet at a picnic table, I see a section of the fair previously unnoticed—a handful of tents housing flood recovery groups, including Bridge to Recovery. I cross over a small foot bridge to check them out, leaving behind the boisterous energy of the fair. At the main fairground area, vendor tents pulsate with volunteers, fairgoers, energy. Across the footbridge, I see a couple of volunteers manning the tables, clipboards with meagerly-filled signup sheets, and few passersby. These organizations are instrumental in Eureka’s recovery, and their sidelining leaves me feeling a bit empty.
At one of the tents I meet Denise Kasten, a member of St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Eureka who’s been working ferociously on the recovery since day one. I can see by her tenacious tales of moving cleaning supplies and equipment to and from work sites that she’s a powerful force behind the community flood relief. It’s also clear what’s motivating her.
“One day I was going down the gravel road to see the damage, and I saw a beautiful mom and kids, wearing coveralls from Buchheit’s,” Kasten tells me. “It was so cold and so wet and they were standing there shoveling debris, throwing it all out the window, including toys and the stuffed animals. When their girls started crying, I handed them waters, and then mom started to sob. Her husband, a big rough, tough guy was crying too. I told the mom, ‘Let me help you find a place to stay and rejuvenate.’”
At the end of the story, we’re both fighting back tears.
As Denise and I talk about the progress of the flood recovery over the chatter of fairgoers in the background, I learn that she advocated for flood victims in more ways than one.
When you head south from Eureka on Highway 109, city immediately becomes country, with long, winding roads offering views of corn fields and glimpses of the river, and many families live on a fixed income. Trailer parks and small homes right hug the river’s edge. Kasten ministered to families in these neighborhoods through St. Mark’s and knew even before visiting these homes that they would need assistance.
When the Eureka Disaster Relief Committee started meeting after the flood, there was discussion of what areas were hit, what areas to serve. Kasten brought up the outlying parts of town. But those outer fringes of Eureka are a patchwork of jurisdictions—some fall in the Eureka Fire Protection District, but not the jurisdiction of the Eureka Police Department. Homes aren’t technically in the Eureka city limits or even in St. Louis County, but are within the Eureka ZIP code, 63025. Kasten acted as an advocate for raising awareness about these fringe neighborhoods.
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Should Eureka flood recovery efforts be confined to within city limits?
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Some homes hit by the flood aren't technically within the Eureka city limits, but they share the same ZIP code, 63025.
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Incorporated or unincorporated, flood waters don't discriminate.
“The question was who’s going to take responsibility for it,” Kasten says. “In Jefferson County meetings, they said that wasn’t their responsibility. It was an awareness that needed to be brought to city limits. That took a couple of weeks to establish. It’s about recognizing and embracing and supporting outlier parts of our community. They couldn’t have made it if Eureka hadn’t embraced them.”
The power of “Eureka Strong” gets put to the test on the fringes of the Eureka municipality.
Even when the outlying neighborhoods initially get the attention they deserve, that attention is prone to fade away a few months down the line. When checking in with Dan Hoeft of Bridge to Recovery in late July, he confides in me that he’s completely at a loss as to why they are still the only group that has started on recovery in the area, now eight months out from the flood. Eureka has made many strides since December, but for those still seeing the continual struggles of flood victims, community celebrations like Red White and You provoke mixed feelings.
“I want to be joyful and share in that celebration, but it’s difficult because I know the people who are not in their homes yet, and I know the suffering they continue to have,” Kasten confides. “I don’t want to be critical. I want to share in that celebration. That’s the struggle: how do you balance that? I know there’s still a lot to do. Don’t let them be forgotten.”