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St. Louis

Aug 15, 2023

Displaced from her Maryland Heights home, Patricia Howard cooks breakfast for her daughter and two grandchildren while surrounded by her belongings in a tiny two-bedroom rental house on Tuesday, July 25, 2023. Narrow paths in the rental are filled with items that would not fit inside the family's storage unit, where everything was put after her home was flooded. Photo by Robert Cohen, [email protected]

MARYLAND HEIGHTS — Patricia Howard sat on her fireplace and looked around at her house, stripped of mold and asbestos and still gutted bare.

It took Howard months to get her flood insurance to pay for cleanup and repairs. She negotiated with contractor after contractor. Then, in March, when she filed for building permits, a new hurdle hit: The city said she couldn’t move back in — she couldn’t really even repair the damage — unless she first lifted her house by about 6 inches, to get it 1 foot above flood level. It could cost her six figures.

“I’m taking it day by day,” said Howard, 74, a retiree and caretaker to two grandkids. “And I’m doing the best I can.”

One year after record rainfall triggered flash floods across the St. Louis region, hundreds of residents are still struggling to rebuild houses and apartments, many of which sit vacant. They lost their belongings and appliances, navigated insurance and disaster aid claims and faced repairs costing tens of thousands of dollars.

The damaged properties are scattered across the region, often near creeks or low-lying areas. In some cases, condemned signs are stuck to doorways. Yards are wildly overgrown. Walls are marked with water stains and mud. Dumpsters sit in driveways. Entire apartment complexes are ghost towns. Other homes look undisturbed from the outside — but are being rebuilt inside.

At least 325 homes, including several apartment complexes, remain condemned or vacant out of more than 900 St. Louis-area Missouri residences that the Federal Emergency Management Agency said had “major” damage after the disaster.

A surveyor with Topos Surveying Corp. works in the yard of Patricia Howard's Maryland Heights home to determine how high it would need to be raised to be above the flood plain, on Tuesday, July 25, 2023.

In University City, 225 have yet to pass inspection for repairs to water-logged electrical wiring, disabled furnaces and water heaters, and moldy walls and floors. Hazelwood, Florissant and Webster Groves still have anywhere from a handful to several dozen homes or apartments formally declared uninhabitable. Others hard-hit by flooding, like St. Peters, Ferguson and Ladue, didn’t condemn any properties and didn’t track flood-damage vacancies.

That doesn’t even count St. Louis, which didn’t respond to requests for information for this story, or the hundreds of residents in the Metro East who also sought federal help after the flood.

In Hazelwood, Norvel Coen is close to finishing repairs of his split-level home on Elm Grove Court, near Coldwater Creek. Insurance didn’t cover much, he said, but FEMA disaster aid “helped a lot” with replacing or repairing the furnace, the hot water heater, outdoor siding, drywall and flooring, Coen said.

But after living on Elm Grove for 50 years, the Coens won’t be coming back. They were flooded in 2008 by storm remnants of Hurricane Ike. The risk of another, third major flood is too great, said Coen, 87. They’re moving to Farmington.

“I’m too old to go through all this again,” he said.

In University City, Alex Poynter is ready to repair his house on Drexel Avenue so he and his 2-year-old daughter can move back in. He’s paying to rent an apartment on top of his mortgage and bills. But his insurance company, which approved his claim for structural repairs in March, has been slow to send checks. And Poynter can’t get someone on the phone to answer why.

“You have to keep going back and back to more calls and emails,” Poynter said. “But I don’t have all the time in the world. I have to work my job and take care of a child and deal with what I can.”

Starting in 1968, the federal government began mapping flood risk and established the National Flood Insurance Program. People living in a flood plain were largely required to get flood insurance, and new building projects had to meet certain codes designed to lessen future flood damages.

After last year’s floods, the NFIP paid out millions in claims. And because a federal disaster was declared, FEMA delivered millions in aid to property owners, including many outside the flood plain. The U.S. Small Business Administration also provided loans. And FEMA offered grant funding to help local governments with projects meant to lessen flood risk, mostly by buying properties that had repeatedly flooded and turning them into green space.

But funding for such projects is limited and can take years to process. Local governments are responsible for responding to property flood damages, regulating flood plains and applying for federal grants to help buy properties or fund public flood-proofing projects.

That means results can vary based on how much experience, resources and capacity a local community has in dealing with flood disasters.

“There’s pressing deadlines and a lot of requirements and local governments are often figuring it out as they go along, and that can lead to some really tough situations,” said Ana Weber, a policy analyst for the environmental advocacy group the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Folks were all exposed to the same flooding event, but their experience could be really different based on how the program is administered at the local level.”

And flood victims can fall through the cracks in the system. Homeowners often get minimal coverage because they’re unaware of the exact flood risk, said NRDC attorney Joel Scata. Missouri doesn’t require sellers to inform home buyers of previous floods.

Moreover, many homeowners don’t know the rules following a flood.

For instance, if repairs are worth 50% of a structure’s market value, homeowners in flood plains have limited options. They can move the house, or they can demolish it. But if they want to keep it on site, they have to elevate the first floor above the federally designated flood level for their area.

Those with NFIP flood insurance can get up to $30,000 to help pay for such costs. But lifting a house can run as much as $100,000, or more, depending on its size.

Mike Zeek, director of community development in Maryland Heights and the city’s local flood plain manager, said the city could risk becoming ineligible for flood insurance if it doesn’t enforce the regulations.

“At the end of the day, it’s to ensure the property is safe to inhabit,” Zeek said. “But, just as a local flood plain manager speaking, the lack of discretion can be frustrating and I feel for people like Mrs. Howard who are put in this situation.”

Experts expect the problems to get nothing but worse.

Flood plain maps already aren’t capturing the full risk of flooding, which scientists say is becoming more frequent as the world gets hotter and wetter.

“There is a lack of information about the risks that people face now, and are going to face, when it comes to climate change,” Scata said.

In Florissant, Evelyn Grandy’s four-unit apartment on Bruce Drive flooded from the basement up to 3 feet on the first floor. She lost everything except for some clothes hanging in her closet.

Grandy, 63 and a retired USDA chemist, bought the apartment building in 2012 to downsize from her North County home, which she started renting out. After renovating the building, she lived in one of the two first floor units and rented out the other three. Her mortgage required her to get flood insurance, but she only insured the building, not its contents, because she was told the risk of an actual flood was low. July was the first time it flooded more than an inch or two in the basement, she said.

Vandalized buildings in the Bruce Court Apartments sit vacant and mostly boarded up in Florissant on Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2023, after the city declared them uninhabitable following flooding in July 2022.

Grandy wanted to let her second-floor tenants return while she started repairing the bottom floors with money from her flood insurance. But Florissant condemned the building. And when she went to get a building permit in August, the city said she had to lift the structure or relocate it.

Her building was one of 14 there required to elevate. She could have appealed the ruling, but she couldn’t afford the time or costs. She could have gotten an SBA loan but didn’t want to commit her properties as collateral.

Now she’s hoping for a buyout. Florissant has applied for FEMA funding for seven properties, including hers, all on Bruce Drive. Grandy said it’s her only hope of getting anything out of her loss.

“At this point I just throw my hands up,” she said. “I’m just going to wait until they buy me out, whenever that may be.”

But she doesn’t know when or even if she’ll get an offer. In the meantime, her empty apartments are being vandalized, she said.

In Webster Groves, the basement of Bill Dahm’s home on East Pacific Avenue is still caked with mud, after 7 feet of water flooded the house last year. Dahm lost his furnace, hot water heater, all of the belongings in his basement and some in his garage. He hasn’t lived there since.

He bought the house in 2005 and got minimal flood insurance from a private seller because he was told the street had never flooded seriously before. Three years later, remnants of Hurricane Ike hit the region and inundated the home with water. Dahm and others hoped that it was a rare occurrence. Insurance didn’t pay for much and was more expensive than it was worth, Dahm said, so he dropped it.

After last year’s flood, FEMA emergency aid helped him navigate the aftermath. But Dahm, a retired computer programmer who now works at a bowling alley, was still left with a house he couldn’t afford to repair.

“At my age,” said Dahm, 69, “why would I put tens of thousands into a property that’s just going to flood again?”

He, too, hoped for a buyout. But the city of Webster Groves, which like other local governments has to fund 25% the cost, decided to limit its federal application to six houses, all damaged worse than Dahm’s.

“I attended council meeting after meeting and tried to make my point politely and straightforwardly, but they made their decision,” he said.

A notice barring occupancy by the city of Webster Groves remains on an East Pacific Avenue home that flooded in July 2022, seen on Monday, June 19, 2023. Three homes that sit along the edge of Deer Creek Park remain vacant.

Webster Groves, in a letter to residents, estimated it would cost the city $300,000 to buy the six homes. It would cost more than $900,000, the city said, to buy out all dozen homeowners, including Dahm, who had hoped for a buyout.

“Unfortunately, this is not financially feasible,” the city said, “and difficult decisions had to be made.”

After the flood, Dahm bought a smaller house in St. Louis. He says he’s luckier than other flood victims that he could afford to make the move.

Now he’s hoping to sell his old home. He thinks it will flood again.

But he doesn’t feel like he has another option.

Back in Maryland Heights, Howard’s home on Doddridge Avenue was one of three near Fee Fee Creek wrecked by last year’s flood.

The water outside rose up to their mailbox, and filled the basement and a half-foot on the first floor. They lost their furnace, water heater, washer and dryer. Walls and flooring on the first floor were damaged. Their electrical wiring was swamped. Her adult daughter, who lived in the basement, lost everything. It took two weeks to pump it all out.

Water restoration workers emptied Patricia Howard's Maryland Heights basement, including a destroyed furnace and hot water heater, following flooding July 2022 at her home. Howard was waiting on Tuesday, July 25, 2023, as a surveyor measured to see how high the house would need to be raised to be above the flood plain. If that happens, her basement will be filled in. She has no idea how she would pay for that, as insurance money would only be enough to rebuild the inside of the home.

Howard and her late husband moved there in 2018 and sold their house in University City to make way for the commercial development anchored by Costco. The Maryland Heights home was affordable and spacious and surrounded by grass and trees.

Their lender required them to get flood insurance; they insured the structure but not their belongings.

But after the flood, Howard had to fight to get the insurance money — the house was in both her and her husband’s name. She paid for the cleanup, which she had to do twice because the first contractor didn’t get all the mold.

Then the city told her she had to raise the house, and fill in the basement.

Around the corner, another home was so badly damaged the owner had to demolish it. The city applied for federal funding to buy the third and turn it into green space — it was the third time it had been damaged in a flood in recent years.

But Howard’s home didn’t qualify, the city said. Last year’s flood was, for it, the first.

Patricia Howard, 74, waits for a surveyor to finish measuring how high her Maryland Heights home would need to be raised in order to be out of the flood plain, on Tuesday, July 25, 2023. Last July, floodwater filled Howard's basement and about 6 inches of the main floor of the home.

Since the flood, Howard and her family — two grandkids, daughter Dinita and dog Ratatouille — have rented a two-bedroom house just down the block. Belongings they salvaged from the flood are stacked in piles along the walls. Howard visits her old house each day to pick up the mail.

Last month, Howard paid to have her house surveyed, the first step toward raising it. Even with the $30,000 elevation grant, she’d still have a long way to go to rebuild, she said.

Relocating the house would be more expensive. And demolition would mean she’d pay to lose her home.

“If I have to raise it, I have to raise it,” she said.

And then she’ll just have to figure out how to pay to rebuild.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch staff and readers show the destruction that was brought by historic rainfall in the area.

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