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Months after historic floods, St. Louis picks up the pieces

ST. LOUIS – It has been about 12 weeks since flash flooding sent yoga mats floating through Melissa Ingram’s health and wellness center in Florissant, Missouri. The studio she had been renting for the last four months was submerged in several feet of water after the St. Louis area was inundated by the most rainfall it had ever seen in 24 hours, leaving two people dead and affecting thousands of residents.

“I was devastated. I stood there for maybe 10 or 15 minutes not knowing what to say, what to do,” Ingram explained.

That day, July 26, she woke up at 2 a.m. in the dark. At that point, a powerful set of thunderstorms was already making its way through the St. Louis metropolitan area, knocking out her power and scaring her children.

At 9 a.m., after she and her husband struggled to find a safe route through flooded streets in North St. Louis County, she found out her business was destroyed. It had only been open for four months.

Water flooded the building, several feet deep inside.

WATCH MORE:Hundreds rescued from devastating flooding in St. Louis area

“We walked in, opened the doors, we saw that products from the store had rushed down our hallway. They were on the way to the bathroom,” Ingram said. “In the back rooms, there were still huge puddles of water.”

Ingram called her insurance provider, but the company later denied her claim, because natural disasters were not covered under her plan.

Two months after flash flooding killed two in the area and displaced several more, hundreds of homeowners and business owners in and around St. Louis find themselves in similar predicaments: Thousands of dollars in repair and cleaning costs, unanswered questions from various institutions and questions about when more relief is coming, if ever.

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After July’s all-time record rainfall, Melissa Ingram found her health and wellness studio, a brand new business, submerged in so much water she couldn’t make it to the front door. Photo courtesy of Melissa Ingram

The road to some of those answers – and to recovery – is not a short one, said Melissa Roberts, executive director of the American Flood Coalition.

“We’re spending a vast majority of money as a country after the event already occurs, after we’ve seen loss of life, devastating loss of property, huge amounts of trauma in communities that often takes years to recover from,” she said.

The American Flood Coalition is a nonpartisan group of more than 300 cities, businesses, and military leaders that work to find national solutions to help flood-affected communities. After witnessing parts of the country flooded this summer, Roberts said it just reiterates the urgency the country must take to get ahead of the next national disaster.

“We tend to see that it can take three to five years to fully recover, and we often see a lot of small businesses never reopen. Some communities never really come back to life,” she said. “I think it’s because of a few reasons: one is that our system of disaster funding is incredibly fragmented.”

The deadline for FEMA aid after the floods in Missouri, has been extended one month to Nov. 7. But with or without FEMA, residents like Ingram say they want to know how such damaging flooding happened in their community, and how they can ensure it won’t happen again.

After learning that her insurance claim was denied, Ingram turned to one of the centers the state set up to help people who were affected. There she touched base with the State Emergency Management Administration, or SEMA. But SEMA’s support, as she would come to find out, was for residents, not businesses. So she got into contact with FEMA who told her to contact the Small Business Association, or SBA.

“SBA took all this information about my business, about my personal life, my personal finances, my business finances just to tell me … that the only way they can help us is to get a business loan, what is called a disaster loan,” Ingram explained.

Ingram said that going into debt in order to save the one thing she had poured so much money into was frustrating.

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Melissa Ingram opened up Issa Lifestyle in hopes of bringing health and wellness resources to her community. Now she has no idea when she will be able to reopen theher doors to her business. Photo by Gabrielle Hays/PBS NewsHour

“They told me that I would qualify for $25,000. Anything more than that, I would have to put up my house as collateral or a vehicle, but they would start with my house,” she said. “I do not want to risk my house.”

It took 10 days and a restoration crew to flush the water out and dry the space. Lost now is every inch of her floor, several feet of her walls and much of her hope. Due to the 24/7 use of fans used to prevent mold growth, Ingram said her electricity bill ended up being around $1,000 after a week. Still, she was determined to open her doors again.

Today, from the ground to a couple inches above where the water sat, you can see through the walls inside her studio, Issa Lifestyle STL. Ingram said the owners of the building paid for the restoration team and will replace the flooring and walls. But she feels the flood has changed the trajectory of where her business would be and where she was hoping she could go, forcing her to close down after only opening a few months before the storm.

“I’m paying bills with no income and with no sight of when an income will come, and all we can do now is stick together,” she said, getting emotional.

Questions loom as FEMA aid deadline approaches

FEMA released preliminary data in August, showing 1,661 residences in the St. Louis area were affected by the floods. Out of those, one home was destroyed – a total loss – and 946 more incurred major damage, meaning there was substantial failure to the structure that would take more than 30 days to repair.

As of Oct. 14, $101.2 million in federal funds had been approved for those affected by the floods. That included $38.2 million in Individual Assistance grants, $34.7 million in claims for flood insurance policyholders from the National Flood Insurance Program and $28.3 million in disaster loans from the Small Business Administration.

But some residents say they still have many questions that have largely gone unanswered.

READ MORE:As ‘flash floods are getting flashier,’ communities worry about aging infrastructure

Andrew Schaefer had to carry his wife and kids in chest-high water across a street to get out of their house the first day the floods hit Missouri. He took the children across first, then his wife.

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Sarah and Andrew Schaefer opened their front door as their family cars sat overcome by water after the St. Louis area experienced excessive rain for hours, breaking a more than 100-year-old record. Photo by Gabrielle Hays/PBS NewsHour

The couple’s 6-year-old first discovered the water seeping into the house on a trip to the basement for some snacks. When the couple got to the basement door and opened it, they said the water rushing in was so loud it sounded like “a jet engine.”

“It sounded like I was on a flight line at the Air Force base,” Andrew said.

As they packed emergency bags, water “started to bubble up through the floorboards and it started rising into the main floor, main living space of the house.”

The Schaefers, who have lived in their home in the Ellendale neighborhood, in St. Louis City, for the last seven years, said everything inside was a total loss. If you were to look at it today “it looks like a vacant house has just been burned out,.” Andrew Schaefer told the NewsHour.

According to the couple, their losses totaled $250,000, including personal belongings and structural damage to the home. But that doesn’t include the cost of their house. As they work to bring their home back to life, they would like to know how this happened and what will be done to make sure it will not happen again.

In searching for the answers of those questions, the couple said they have reached out to the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District, locally known as MSD, at least five times “and that’s emails, that’s phone calls, that’s everything and I’ve got no response from them at all,” Sarah Schaefer said.

The NewsHour reached out to MSD to clarify concerns raised by residents – specifically a statement the department released on Day 1 of the floods that noted the sewer system performed the way it was designed to function. When asked whether the department still stood by that statement, Sean Hadley, manager of public affairs for the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District, said yes.

“The sewers did work as they are designed, but these rain events exceeded the capacity of any man-made sewer system. MSD’s sewers are generally designed to handle a 20-year rain event (2-3 inches in a 20 min time period.) The storms that we saw in later July and August were 100, 500 and even 1-thousand year storms in some parts of the region. That’s more than 9 inches of rain in a 6-hour time frame,” Hadley said in an email to the NewsHour.

The storm broke a 106-year-old record for rainfall in the St. Louis region, and some areas saw as much as 12 inches of precipitation. The stormwater management system in St. Louis isn’t alone when it comes to flooding during severe rain events. Storm water systems in New York, Columbus, Houston and Orlando have been overwhelmed in recent years during heavy rain events that experts say are made more severe by climate change. An analysis by Climate Central found that 2021 was a record year for extreme rainfall events across the U.S.

As for whether any changes will be made in St. Louis in the future, Hadley said “it’s not realistic to build a system capable of handling that volume of water in that amount of time.” He went on to say discussions are being had around what to do about neighborhoods located in “floodplains and flood-prone areas.”

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Ellendale resident Barry Lalumandier took pictures of floodwaters entering his home and the devastation it left after it receded. He said the water overcame his pool, flooded his basement and left watermarks on the side of his home. Photo by Gabrielle Hays/PBS NewsHour

In August, Hadley told the NewsHour the department would need more funds in order to make improvements to the stormwater system. The funding would have to be approved by voters, but after a similar proposition failed back in 2019, “the soonest MSD can put anything back on the ballot is 2024.”

Barry Lalumandier said he and his wife spent at least $50,000 to renovate their basement which had to be gutted after it was filled with flood water.

“When I saw the pool go under is when I realized … we got a problem,” Lalumandier said. “But then, you’re also thinking that there’s nothing we can do about it, right? Because it’s still raining.”

Not only was his pool underwater, but so was his basement. What started as water seeping through the sewers resulted in several inches of “funky” water climbing his stairs.

Once the water receded, he had a team come in to pull up the flooring, throw debris away and abate the mold, all costing $14,000. They then had to replace their heating and cooling system resulting in an $8,000 price tag, according to Lalumandier.

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Barry Lalumandier took this July 26 picture as floodwaters rushed through his yard and eventually into his house. Photo by Gabrielle Hays/PBS NewsHour

He and his wife, like most people, sought support from their home insurance policy.. Lalumandier said his agent told him the most he could get was $9,700.

“That just struck me funny because we pay lots of money to them,” he said.

“She goes, okay, I’m going to text you a form that you need to fill out. It’s going to have your banking information and we will go straight to the bank,” Lalumandier explained.

He added that he was told the money would make it into his account within 30 minutes.

One month after that conversation, Lalumandier said he and his wife Mary have yet to receive the $9,700.

“I’m not quite ready to give up”

Steve Gibson woke up to a call at 4 a.m. on July 26 from a neighbor. It had been only a few days since he learned of his wife’s cancer diagnosis. After surviving breast cancer, another biopsy showed she now had lung cancer that had also metastasized into brain cancer. When the call came in early that morning, he thought it was her job asking her to come in to work one last shift. Instead it was his neighbor.

“I answered the phone and she said, hey, you know, we’ve got a situation going on. Look out in the street. Your car is spinning around on the street,” he said.

Gibson made it to the window only to find four of his cars outside – floating. “It was like just lost in a sea of despair. I mean, it was just unbelievable,” he said.

From there Gibson jumped into action to get his wife and his 89-year-old father who lived next door to safety.

“I went over to get him, actually. When I did, I was wading through water, was like up to my chest and I got shocked [by some wires],” he said.

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Residents on Hermitage Ave. in St. Louis’ Ellendale neighborhood say they came home to signs on their doors declaring that the buildings they had called home, some for decades, were no longer habitable. Photo by Gabrielle Hays/PBS NewsHour


Once he made it into his father’s home he was surprised to find him awake, dressed and sitting at the kitchen table. The water was already starting to cover the bottom of his feet.

“He said, ‘Boy, what’s going on, we got a broken pipe?’ I said, ‘No, Dad, we got a flood,’” Gibson said.

City fire officials came to rescue his dad that day among several other rescues. All of them required the department to deploy rescue rafts, floating down neighborhood streets between flooded houses to rescue trapped residents. In Gibson’s case, by the time they got him out the water, it was starting to recede. That’s when the gravity of the situation started to sink in.

“It was just time to assess the damage and then, of course, everything’s ruined, you know, more or less,” he said.

He and his wife have since moved to a different property where they are paying $1,700 for rent and thousands each week to gut, renovate and restore both his and his father’s homes. To finance this, they’ve had to dip into their savings and alter future plans. According to Gibson, a Navy veteran who has spent the last 43 years as an aircraft engineer, he will now have to wait a little longer to retire.

“You get your mind set on something like that. It’s hard to change, but, you know, life’s about change and being able to adapt to it,” he said.

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Steve Gibson had to completely gut – not one – but two homes on Hermitage Ave. after the July floods left their home underwater and floated their cars down the street. He and his wife hired a team to completely rip out the floors and almost every wall. Photo by Gabrielle Hays/PBS NewsHour

Almost every house on Gibson’s street now has a condemned sign on it. Some people have moved away, at least one person has sold their property, some are fighting for some accountability and many are trying to figure out how to salvage their homes. Gibson said the sign placed on his door came with a letter.

“They said the only way you can get this lifted is to go to an engineer,” he said. So he hired one who connected with the city government and helped him figure out what he needed to save his home. But Gibson said that despite the fact city officials were proactive in house displaced residents and cleanup the neighborhood, he’s still looking for more answers from MSD.

Against all this, Gibson does not plan on throwing in the towel. Though he said he has spent at least $125,000 so far, the life he built for him, his wife and the rest of his family is worth it.

“You know, if you fall down a deep hole, one or two things are going to happen, you’re going to get out or you’re going to die. Well, you know what? I’m going to get out. I’m not ready to quit yet,” he said. “I still got a little scrap in me. I’m not quite ready to give up yet.”