By Lisa Brunette
If you're a fellow St. Louisan, you're probably still trying to dry your webbed feet. If not, you likely saw it on the news: Last week's rainfall broke a more than 100-year record, causing flash floods across the region. The previous high-water mark dated to 1915, when remnants of a hurricane off Galveston, TX, dumped 6.85 inches here in the Lou. That record was obliterated last week, with totals of 8.64 inches recorded at Lambert Airport.
Tragically, two people died in the flash floods, and many more were displaced from their homes as massive flooding took its toll. Workers at a nearby industrial center spelled out "SOS" in a parking lot, reminding me of the flood of '93, when a resident famously spelled out "No Fear" on his rooftop.
Some of you have reached out to check in with us via email, which we very much appreciate. We were lucky not to experience much more than pools of water in our basement, which was disappointing enough; you might remember we had an issue with basement leaks until we added a French drain, a rain garden, and new gutters. So this epic flood broke a two-year period of dry-basement bliss. Oh, well.
As for the green growing things, they're... OK. That rain garden did its job admirably; when the torrents came down, the streets and all of our neighbors' yards were inundated, but our garden plants seemed to soak it up. They needed it; for weeks prior, we'd had more days above 100 than I care to count, without much rainfall. Governor Parson had issued an emergency order due to the drought just a week or so before. We did lose a witch hazel bush to that natural disaster.
What didn't fare so well in the flood is the bit of nature here in this suburban sprawland that I've come to count on.
The SOS in that parking lot was a reaction to Deer Creek overflowing its banks. Deer Creek is part of a waterway that has seen its share of misuse and abuse over the centuries of citified habitation. The creek drains into River Des Peres, which, for longer than should have been allowed, was basically St. Louis' open sewer system. And River Des Peres? It drains into the Mississippi.
The situation is so bad that the Federal government sued our own Metropolitan Sewer District––and won. Of course, the $4.7 billion cost to fix a system that is so broken, sewage is discharged into streams and rivers and regularly backs up into residents' homes will fall on... those same residents.
People used to fish in Deer Creek back in the day, but now, even when it's not overflowing its banks, it's often full of the kind of detritus you'd expect from a mid-sized American city. And while some people let their dogs tromp through the creek, I wouldn't. There are signs urging you not to swim or fish or otherwise come in contact with the water in what I sometimes derisively refer to as "poop creek."
While all that makes Deer Creek seem like a lost cause, believe it or not, the park flanking that creek has been a true source of solace for me. It's the closest nature strip I can get to, on foot, via a greenway that's part of a larger, ambitious system of trails and green spaces attempting to link our streams and rivers and transform them into places we residents can enjoy. I've seen bats, great blue herons, egrets, hawks, swallowtail butterflies, chipmunks, squirrels, of course, turtles, and yes, even deer along Deer Creek.
I spent one early morning with two enormous barred owls who seemed as curious about me as I was them. They were about two feet tall each, with expansive wing diameters. They followed me for a few paces through a wooded area, watching me watch them, all of us doing so quietly and intently. They came so close to me, the proximity made me catch my breath as the hair on the back of my neck stood up, and I broke out in goosebumps.
Last winter, the park and part of the greenway were closed for a few months for restoration efforts meant specifically for flood mitigation. A crew came in and replaced invasive plants with natives that would help filter the water as well as stabilize the banks of Deer Creek, and hopefully, stave off erosion. They also cleaned up some of the creek debris and installed new fencing and other structures.
Sadly, this work seems to fall under the category of "too little, too late." Last week's floods seemed to pay no mind to these changes, and some of them are now undone.
I lost access to the creek during its restoration, and I've lost access again now due to its sorry state and the need for flood cleanup. Admittedly, I'm no expert, so I don't know how bad the need for remediation is, but the simple fact is that the fences that had just been installed now need to be replaced. Many of the plants were still at the seedling or sapling stage, so it remains to be seen whether or not they'll survive. Some of them were completely flattened when Deer Creek overran its banks, like the one below. You can see it still had the plastic trunk guard in place.
You can also see dramatic signs of erosion all along the greenway path, like this fissure, showing that there's not much left now between the pedestrian path and adjacent strip-mall parking lot on the right and the banks of Deer Creek, on the left.
Speaking of that parking lot... Let me just say that to the credit of perhaps the strip mall owner and whoever else made this happen, there are rain gardens spread throughout the lot. Planted in them are the same native water-loving plants we grow in our own rain garden, Hibiscus lasiocarpos, or rose mallow. It's not only a lovely plant, with its huge blooms that unfurl like umbrellas atop sturdy, dark green stems, but it attracts all manner of native bees, such as the specialist hibiscus turret bee. It's also edible and makes a great tea.
But did it do its job? I think it might have helped, as the parking lot did not flood the way other areas of Deer Creek flooded. And the plants have survived the onslaught, too, looking like they will recover just fine.
It will take some time––and undoubtedly, more money––before the rest of the Deer Creek watershed will recover. I was able to visit the park in the days between the two storms, which is when I took these photos. After the second one, though, which greatly amplified the flood problem, the park was shut down. I couldn't help noticing that the newer, and of course cheaper, picnic tables were the ones damaged and carried off by the floods; whereas, the few steel behemoths still in the park from its origins in the 1960s weren't even nudged. Is it even possible for us to build now for the future we're facing?
I note the two signs spelled out for the world to see, nearly 30 years apart. In 1993, after he and his neighbors sandbagged for days to save their own homes, a man decided to spell out a message meant to inspire them: No Fear. But here in 2022, no more defiance, only an appeal for help: SOS. Maybe that's all we can muster now, after years of terrorism, loss of faith in our institutions, and the past two years of contradiction and lack of true leadership.
No Fear happened to be a popular clothing brand in the 1990s, not named for the famous flood signal but coinciding with it culturally. Perhaps it's telling that No Fear filed for bankruptcy in 2011.
I'm a lifetime environmentalist, but how I express that has changed quite a bit as my thinking has evolved. I often wonder if it's really useful to put ourselves into a paternal relationship with nature, treating it as something that needs us to save it, when it's more likely the other way around. Earth will always abide. Raging storms and flash floods like these remind us that we're ultimately at nature's mercy. We might disregard a creek enough to literally throw our shit into it, but the only ones we're really harming are ourselves. Garbage in, garbage out.