Rising Waters! Forecasting Rising Rivers and Exploring Flood Emergency Tech Teen Cafe

Mark Fuchs
Senior Service Hydrologist, National Weather Service, Weather Forecast Office St. Louis, Missouri
Gateway Teen Science Café


Have you ever seen water from a nearby lake, river or stream that looked worryingly high? I’m sure you’re aware that too much rainwater can cause any number of hazards, and greatly impact and disrupt life in cities, towns, and communities. Impermeable surfaces and compacted soil in cities and towns can cause rainwater to flow overland picking up trash, contaminants, sediment, and objects that get in the way of the flowing water. Sewer systems can become overwhelmed, water pollution, soil erosion, and flooding can occur, displacing families, putting lives at risk, and destroying homes, property and businesses.

The St. Louis metro region and surrounding counties where the Missouri and the Mighty Mississippi rivers meet, have experienced major floods in the past and in recent years with record flooding in 2008, 2013, 2015, and 2017. This spring, we’re on track to hit near historic levels, with the Mississippi cresting just 4.5 feet below the Great Flood of 1993 and it’s record 49.6 foot crest.


The Academy of Science – St. Louis STEM Teen Leaders and the Saint Louis Science Center’s YES Teen Youth Leaders, wanted to learn more about the scientists who know about flooding, and so as the Gateway Teen Science Café collaborative, we came together to organize multiple cafe presenters for our Rising Waters! Forecasting Rising Rivers and Exploring Flood Emergency Tech Teen Cafe to teach area teens about emergency prevention and preparedness in flooding situations.

Teen Leaders developed an icebreaker activity themed to the café. Café attendees had to work at their tables, consult with their team members, and in 5 minutes, 1) come up with as many items as they could list that would need to be included in an emergency “Go” Kit in the event of a flooding emergency, and 2) list what they might want to include in a Family Flood Plan. Teen Leaders compared the completed lists against Official Family Flood Plan and Emergency Go Kit lists compiled from organizations such as Focus on Floods, the American Red Cross, and Federal Emergency Management Agency. At the end of the café, Teen Leaders passed out copies of ideas to add to the Family Flood Plan and Emergency Go Kit lists to send home with teens to share with family members and friends. These ideas included signing up for flood alerts, practicing emergency drills, creating a document that contains contact information for family members, knowing evacuation routes and planning with neighbors.Icebreaker Checklist Rising Waters Cafe_FINAL

Our featured café speaker was Mr. Mark Fuchs with the National Weather Service at the Weather Forecast Office in St. Charles, Missouri. As Senior Service Hydrologist, he’s responsible for providing people who live in the St. Louis region and surrounding counties with accurate river forecasts and flood warnings. Mr. Fuchs relies on and uses a number of tools and scientific strategies and methods that allow him to track rising rivers reliably. One tool of particular importance in record rainfall situations that he shared with teens was the Weather Service’s use of manual and automated gauges and how this technology is used to determine how much of the rain that falls in a region makes it to nearby rivers. He then demonstrated how the Weather Service uses rain gauge observations and rainfall forecasts with a model of a river to generate river forecasts. Mr. Fuchs challenged teens to an online Kahoot quiz competition after his presentation, to test the teens’ knowledge of the information he’d provided on forecasting rivers.

Hands on Activity

After the Kahoot competition, teens were divided into groups to rotate between stations where instructors taught them about everything from how traffic cams are programmed and used in flooding situations, to managing disease risks and fire prevention.

Items to Be Included in an Emergency Kit

Emergency Flood Plan Ideas

Teens toured flooding emergency management stations with representatives and STEM professionals from the American Red Cross, Missouri Department of Transportation, St. Charles County Division of Emergency Management, the St. Louis County Department of Public Health, and the National Weather Service.

At one station, teens designed their own fire escape plan to use in the event of an emergency; and at other stations, teens learned about the large traffic cameras used by the Missouri Department of Transportation and how they are used in flooding situations, how disease might spread in a flooding situation, and how the Emergency Management System works to alert people of impending weather events.

Mr. Fuchs brought a physical model of a stream to demonstrate how rainfall on a parking lot can have a much different impact on a downstream area than rain that falls on greenspace or goes to a storm retention pond. Greenspaces help with surface water runoff by taking rainwater and using it in the landscape such as a park or garden. Rainwater collected in a retention pond causes less damage to the surrounding area. By pouring different amounts of water on the model, you could see how the amount of rainfall, and the landscape itself and it structures, affected where the water flowed and impacted the surrounding environment. That was neat to see!

Rotating between stations allowed students to absorb a lot of information quickly in short 10-minute periods about a variety of flooding emergency management responders and responses. This especially hands-on cafe was one of our most memorable!

Having so many organizations at the café provided me and other area teens with new insight into just how interdisciplinary managing emergencies is—requiring many specialized groups of people working together to keep our cities, towns, and communities safe during emergencies, regardless of the scenario. This café demonstrated how crucially important it is for all of the organizations to work together to mitigate an emergency situation. A flooding emergency not only requires the attention of the weather service, but numerous other professional and volunteer groups as well, because flooding can lead to numerous problems—disrupted communications, roadways and transportation, disease and loss of life, property, etc., that all require the specialized knowledge of experts in their fields.

Mr. Fuchs’s physical model of rainfall and runoff showed how quickly rainfall can turn into significant catastrophe for an unprepared city or town. This displayed how crucial the forecasting service is in saving lives or property that would be lost in a flooding emergency. This model also illustrated the rapid pace at which flooding can overtake an entire city or town, and highlighted the importance of families having access to a family plan and “Go” kit to remain safe in the event of an emergency.

Some of us may be using the information from our October café this spring!

Rincon Jagarlamudi – 4-year Teen Leader