Bagnell Dam, Big River, Black River, Bourbeuse River, Clearwater Lake, economics, flooding, Huzzah Creek, Jacks Fork, Marble Hill, Meramec, Missouri, Mountain View, Neosho, Ozarks, Piedmont, rivers, Seneca Mo, Steelville, Table Rock, Wappapello Lake, West Plains
Ozarkers, and those who follow the Ozarks, have been stunned by the widespread flooding that occurred after the past weekend’s heavy rains – more than 10 inches in many areas – and the road and bridge washouts that have happened as a result. (Follow “Love My Ozarks” on Facebook if you want to see the latest crowd-sourced photos and videos.)
If you live in a region of narrow valleys and steep hills, you get used to occasional washouts, and even the occasions when the little creek that runs through town gets out of its banks and floods Main Street. That creek, after all, is usually why the town was there in the first place. But this “rain event,” as the TV people like to call it, was historic. Instead of one town getting the big flood from an intense storm cell, as is usually the case, this time the whole region suffered. Seneca, Neosho, Mountain View, West Plains, Steelville, Marble Hill – towns from one side of the state to the other took the hit.
The flood-control dams at Clearwater and Wappapello, and the combo flood control/power generation dams like Table Rock and Bagnell, did what they were designed to do and held back the floodwater until they reached maximum capacity, and then had to begin releasing water through their floodgates and spillways. The resulting downstream flooding will no doubt be less than it would have been had the dams not been there, but creeping development in downstream areas also means that the damage to property will be more costly.
Meanwhile, as the Big, Bourbeuse, and Huzzah all pour their waters into the Meramec, folks in the lower regions of that river gear up their sandbags to protect as much of its valley as they can, a valiant effort regardless of whether the flooding on the Meramec is exacerbated by earlier human actions. The governor has already had his mandatory photo-op filling some sandbags and has activated the National Guard, but the real work – and by that I mean the work that will tell the difference whether the towns of the Ozarks will survive in the long term – will begin in a few weeks.
Most of the small towns of the Ozarks have a tenuous hold on prosperity to begin with. One economic blow can have immense consequences for the people who live there. When the Wal-Mart in Piedmont closed recently, that closure took more than $200,000 out of local tax revenue, a blow that cannot be remedied in any short or medium term. And in a region that is already disproportionately populated by poor folks and retirees, one can’t just fix the shortfall by raising taxes. All over the region, governments and businesses will be cleaning up the mess, and then they’ll be faced with the decision of whether to try to start over or just give up.
But Ozarkers are not good at giving up. They are, as the saying goes, three kinds of stubborn. So over the next months and years, I hope to do my part to help the region the only way I can, and the only way that makes a long-term difference: by visiting the area and spending some money down there, particularly with those mom-and-pop businesses that don’t send away a chunk of their earnings to the National Headquarters in some distant location, but recycle it into their community as small businesses everywhere do.