Editor's Note: The following story was written by Bob Wigginton, a Herald-Whig staff writer at the time of the Flood of 1993, capturing the events, emotions, heartbreak and heroism of that long summer. The story was published in a Herald-Whig special section, "The River, The People, The Story," on Aug. 15, 1993.
THE Mississippi River claimed our lives this long, undulating summer of '93.
We watched it rise and fall, rise and fall — knowing it was beyond our control. We knew it could do as it pleased.
We granted the river human attributes. Everywhere we went — down on the levees or to threatened farmland, high overhead in helicopters or to drainage district offices, in flooded towns or dry ones — we talked about the river as if it were one of us, a decision-maker in an age of technology that pretends to insulate us from the natural world.
In the end, the river reminded us that we are just human beings, and that nature bows to no one.
This must be said: Human beings can be cruel, even evil, but the river was nothing of the sort.
Filled with unprecedented amounts of rainwater and snowmelt, the river simply flowed southward, without heart or conscience, powered by the abiding law of necessity.
Thomas Carlyle, the great British writer and philosopher, once said man was nothing without hope.
The Flood of ‘93 proved him right.
Hope filled the sandbags, transported them, tossed them, laid them, stacked them. Hope volunteered itself thousands of times. Hope shored up levees hours before they broke and just as they broke.
Hope may have contributed to the drownings of livestock by convincing at least one farmer the northern Sny levee wouldn't break. When it did, it was too late to move his animals from danger.
The act of fully retreating before defeat is a kind of defeat itself — and a killer of hope.
As we all learned this summer, when you face a relentless force like the Mississippi, all you really have is hope.
Life does go on, even in crisis. One of the stranger moments of the flood occurred shortly after the northern Sny levee broke on the morning of July 25, briefly trapping four men and eventually flooding more than 40,000 acres.
As med-evac helicopter crews rescued the weary men, people swam and played golf in Quincy and Barry — you could see it all from the air. The juxtaposition of heartbreak and heroism and recreational frivolity seemed unnatural, as if Archimedes had finally found his place to stand, seized a lever and tipped the world off balance.
Watching the people of Hull evacuate their town while the floodwaters approached — from the air they looked like ants scurrying from a giant foot — and seeing people playing golf and swimming seemed jarring. It just didn't seem right.
But it was right. The world turns, and the river flows.
IT'S difficult to pinpoint when this flood started.
The Herald-Whig ran a staff and wire story March 10, focusing on how farmers near creeks and small rivers in Illinois and Iowa had begun watching the waterline after minor flooding. It was the first of hundreds of flood stories to come and, in retrospect, it was unwittingly prophetic.
"If we get above-normal rains this spring, we could see problems with significant flooding. Even with normal rain, we could have problems," a National Weather Service hydrologist said in that story.
The hydrologist attributed the March flooding to saturated grounds from rain and snow in the Upper Mississippi River Basin. An "ice jam" caused record flooding along the Rock River, particularly at Joslin, Ill., where a few residents were evacuated after the river reached 18.2 feet — more than six feet above flood stage there. A week later, the river would burst through levees and cause more evacuations.
The Rock River empties into the Mississippi at Rock Island. Those waters eventually reach Quincy, where the river that weekend quietly climbed about two feet above the technical flood stage of 17 feet. This was normal. No one paid much attention.
On March 15, The Herald-Whig ran a staff story that started with these words:
"Snowfall in the Upper Midwest means there's a ‘minor to moderate' chance for flooding along the Mississippi River this spring, says the National Weather Service."
Forecasters based this prediction on several factors — including the depth of snow in the upper Midwest, river conditions at the time, soil saturation levels and, what would prove unreliable, long-range precipitation forecasts. To cover themselves, as smart forecasters do, they warned heavy rainfall could erode their assessments and cause "serious flooding."
With heavy rains increasing in the Upper Midwest near the end of March, causing minor flooding on Mississippi tributaries in Iowa and other states, forecasters and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began to hint that a serious flood was possible. A 1- to 2-foot snowfall from Sioux City to Mason City heightened the possibility.
"There is going to be a lot of water pushing its way south in the next few days," a corps spokesman in Rock Island said March 31.
The jet stream was farther south than normal across western North America and farther north than usual in the eastern half of the continent. That set the stage for a collision of what forecasters called "contrasting air masses." Cool, dry Canadian air sank into the northwestern part of the country, while hot, humid air took up residence in the southeastern section.
As the two air masses warred over the central and north-central parts of the country, they sparked unrelenting thunderstorms across the northern Great Plains and Mississippi Valley.
That weather pattern, which caused a drought in the Southeast, closed ranks and held its position for months. The result: The Mississippi River basin upstream of Quincy "experienced the wettest spring and early summer of this century," according to a July 13 report from the Illinois State Water Survey.
Slightly more than 21 inches of rain fell in the Mississippi basin — North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois and Missouri — between April 1 and July 12. That's 1.5 times the basin average of 14.6 inches and nearly 2 inches more than the previous record set in 1990. The basin's soils could not absorb the runoff. Abundant rainfall during the summer and fall of 1992 had saturated the soil by winter. The rain had no place to go but into scores of tributaries and then down the Mississippi's 2,350-mile length to the Gulf of Mexico.
The flood that had one chance in 500 of occurring in any given year — a 500-year flood of 31.35 feet — was here.
IT WOULD take more than two months for the 500-year flood to reach Quincy.
In early April, forecasters still had no idea the basin would receive unprecedented amounts of rain. The 90-day outlook for Missouri was for below-normal rainfall. Levels along the river were below flood stage in most areas except Hannibal, Mo., where the river flowed about three feet above technical flood stage of 16 feet.
People living along the river watched the waterline fluctuate while forecasters called for 20- to 21-foot crests in both Quincy and Hannibal — manageable river levels with most levees prepared to sustain at least 28 feet. Experience reassured them, especially those who had lived through the flood of 1973, when the river crested at 28.9 feet that April.
Then the rains came to the Mississippi River basin. On April 4, a house boat ripped free of its moorings and floated down past Quincy Soybean Co. Hannibal officials decided to install floodgates in the uncompleted floodwall designed to protect downtown.
Still, people there joked about selling their hip-waders, certain the river wouldn't touch them.
By April 11, the river had crested at 20.7 feet at Quincy and 21 feet at Hannibal, where the high water was "quite a tourist attraction," City Engineer Bob Williamson said in explaining the city's decision not to install all five floodgates and shut off access to the riverfront.
Williamson said later officials were "writing the book as we go along," this being the first time they had used the flood-control system. They would install all the gates later that month in light of 22.5 foot crest predictions.
Generally, riverfront residents believed the worst was over. With the river in his yard along Bonansinga Drive, Joe Allen said: "If you don't like water, you oughtn't live here."
But Sylvia Meyer, who has lived on the river for 45 years and whose home on Bonansinga Drive stays dry inside as long as the river is below 24 feet, prepared for higher waters by stockpiling dirt to build higher ground around her home.
"I've walked the floor more than once," she said. "You'd be foolish not to worry."
Residents along Bear Creek in southwest Hannibal had a tougher time. The creek had topped its banks and spread to the edge of their homes in mid-April.
Farther north, businesses in Alexandria, Mo., were surrounded by overflow from both the Des Moines and Mississippi rivers.
‘You just get tired of fighting it year after year," said Virginia Alvis, manager of the Ayerco Convenience Center midway between Alexandria and the Iowa border at U.S. 61 and 136.
For Alvis and thousands of others, the fight this year had just begun.
The first mention of local levee problems coincided with the National Weather Service forecasting a 24.5 foot crest for April 23. Officials in the Lima Lake Drainage District discovered a "leak" in the levee near Meyer and mobilized the first local volunteer crew of the Flood of ‘93. The volunteers, including work release inmates from the Adams County Jail, sandbagged, laid snow fencing and plastic to strengthen the eroded levee for the coming crest.
"With that (river) channel right up against the levee, if it breaks, the whole river is going to pour in," Floyd Penn, operator of the district's pump station, said at the time.
Other levee officials in the area weren't concerned about a 24.5 foot crest. But years of erosion at the base of the levee north of Mryer worried officials there. They stepped up their ongoing campaign to secure funding, repair and maintenance help from U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which built the levee but turned it over to the district in the early 1970s.
District officials blamed the erosion on a widening navigation channel that had washed away the 200-foot buffer zone between river and levee that existed when they signed an agreement to maintain the structure. The corps, suffering from congressional cutbacks of its own and arguing it wasn't responsible for private levees, took the matter under advisement while residents in Meyer and the area packed up their belongings and prepared to flee if the levee broke.
"This is a constant problem," U.S. Rep. Richard Durbin, D-20, said at the time, adding there was no easy answer to the dilemma facing Lima Lake and other drainage districts along the Mississippi. "It's an expensive but a very important investment for this country to make."
The levee near Meyer held in April, when the river crested twice at 23.9 feet at Quincy, and 21.5 feet at the levee — higher than it had been in seven years. It was the wettest April in a decade — 4.4 inches of rain fell, compared to normal rainfall of 3.37 inches — and temperatures were below normal.
Residents, some of whom lived through a levee break there in 1960, were optimistic when the river started receding inch by inch.
"It's a way of life. It's home," said Glenn Orr, who has lived and farmed in the area with his wife, Pauline, for 42 years. They lost their crop to flooding in 1960.
The April episode in Meyer foreshadowed the urgency of the summer — and revealed something about people.
"There isn't anything like this to bring people close together," said Don Britt, a pump station worker who lived and farmed next to the building until floodwaters tore into the district less than two months later. "It's hard on the nerves, hut it's good for the soul."
THOUSANDS would learn what Britt meant in the coming weeks as the river stayed above flood stage from April 2 to May 26.
Meanwhile, Quincy Mayor Chuck Scholz took office, local residents started spotting incredibly large wild mushrooms, the Dogwood Festival went off without a hitch, high school and college students graduated, CIPS workers were locked out.
Recreational fisherman stood along the extended river banks and speared carp with ease, while commercial fishermen came home with bare nets because the fish moved inland, away from the swift currents and beyond legal commercial fishing zones. Some admittedly ventured into illegal fishing areas.
City and county crews started cleaning up riverfront parks from the April flooding, which destroyed vegetation and left behind foul-smelling silt and debris. Residents in the North Bottoms, along Bonansinga Drive, also held their noses and cleared their yards — and a few basements — of flood residue.
The rains kept falling and toyed with river levels. But a downward progression of the river suggested the worst was over.
By May 27, the river was back in its banks. The corps, which had been inspecting the levee near Meyer since the April scare, issued a report stating the levee was not in immediate danger of failing. The corps would say the opposite July 1 after the river swelled to nearly 26 feet, prompting an evacuation of the area.
Sodden, muddy fields prevented farmers from planting all their crops, leaving few jobs for seasonal farm hands.
"We take the good with the bad," said Wilfred Dittmer, who farms east of Quincy. "It's a patience game."
Patience didn't win. The problem persisted, then got worse.
The river stayed below flood stage at Quincy for 12 days, then climbed to the 17-foot level on June 9. But numerous barge and towboat collisions up north and as far south as New Orleans — attributed partly to currents flowing twice the normal rate — indicated trouble.
The trouble came swiftly, prompting the corps to shut down 230 miles, then 436 miles, of river traffic by the first week of July. Locks and dams were closed to let the river flow freely. More than 2,000 barges and 60 towboats were stranded, with an estimated loss of millions a day to the barge industry.
By June 27, the corps forecast the third worst flood in the river's history, expecting a crest of 24.9 feet July 6. The prediction then went to 26.5 feet — nearly a foot higher than the 25.3 foot crest recorded in October 1986 — after more heavy rainfall to the north June 29 and 30.
The first levee in the area broke the morning of June 30 in the Mississippi-Fox River Drainage District in extreme Northeast Missouri, just south of Alexandria, flooding an initial 800 acres. Sponsors of the July 4 celebration on the riverfront postponed some events and moved others. More homes along Bear Creek in Hannibal were flooded, residents were evacuating from an unprotected South Hannibal.
Then came the night of June 30 and the morning of July 1. Lightning tore brilliant designs in the sky for hours, thunder shook houses, high winds blew over power lines and damaged homes. And the rain — in Quincy it poured into basements, damaged a wall in the city's wastewater treatment plant, eroded the reservoir berm at the filtration plant and, overloading the sewer system, blew a manhole cover at Front and Broadway.
A total of 6.06 inches of rain fell the morning of July 1 alone — almost two inches more than the monthly average.
"I've not seen a thunderstorm with that much rain in it in a long, long time," Deputy Police Chief John LaTour said afterward. "That much rain in a period of five or six hours is almost unheard of."
Locally, it was. The previous record for one day of rainfall was 5.84 inches, set in 1950.
Forecasters revised their crest prediction to 30 feet for July 3, not July 6. The river was flowing south like a liquid train, up to five times its normal speed, with five to 10 times its normal volume.
When officials urged residents in the Lima Lake Drainage District to evacuate, pump station operator Floyd Penn, noted for his terseness, said it in 12 words: "All we can do is get the hell out of the way."
LEVEES fell like dominoes afterward. By the end of July, every drainage district in the area, except the one protecting South Quincy, would suffer at least one breach.
After the torrential rainfall July 1, officials of the Fabius River Drainage District closed the Quincy Memorial Bridge to build a temporary levee on the west side. Eastbound traffic was rerouted onto Qnincv Bayview Bridge.
District officials acted without authority from the highway department, having told the state ahead of time they'd close the bridge if the river level exceeded 25.8 feet. The rain pushed the level up more than two feet, from 24.1 feet to 26.3 feet, and the river rushed against the base of the bridge and threatened the shoulders.
"We know what we have to do," said Harold Knapheide III, president of Knapheide Manufacturing, one of dozens of businesses protected bv the West Quincy levee.
So did people living in the Meyer area. Thev packed up their belongings and headed out for the second time in two months. "This is ridiculous, but what can you do?" said Sylvia Wiese, whose family lived less than two miles from the levee.
But people didn't argue with reality, and the reality was the levee "could go at any time," as Penn said.
That was the case throughout the area. Before sunset on July 1, the U.S. 54 bridge at Louisiana was closed, Gov. Jim Edgar had declared 17 Illinois counties disaster areas, and the Illinois Emergency Management Agency was headed this way.
Hannibal Mayor Richard Schwartz declared a state of emergency for the second time in two months. The Illinois Department of Conservation banned recreational boats from the river. And, with Clat Adams Bicentennial Park under water, the July 4 celebration on the riverfront was canceled. There would be no fireworks.
The next day, high water forced officials to close the U.S. 36 bridge at Hannibal.
As the river climbed, with an expected crest of 32.5 feet on July 11, the area was flooded with politicians, acronyms (IEMA, FEMA), experts, and the national media.
All the while, the people who mattered manned the trenches, as they always do. Employees of businesses along the riverfront — those at Celotex Corp., Comstook Castle, Brunsport, Cooper Industries and those in West Quincy — and hundreds of levee officials, volunteer workers, sandbaggers and the first detachment of Illinois National Guardsmen played chess with the Mississippi.
The bridge linking Hamilton and Keokuk, Iowa, closed July 5.
Quincv's Bayview Bridge was then the only link open from Alton to Fort Madison, Iowa, causing a transportation nightmare for thousands of Tri-States commuters and hundreds of commercial businesses.
Riverfront businesses would shut down production in the first week of July, and Celotex would lose its fight with the river July 7, when floodwaters swept over a makeshift levee and entered the plant. Mayor Scholz would declare a state of emergency the next day and set up the sandbagging operation at QU Stadium.
Yet, hope refused to bow to overwhelming, stubborn odds.
"We hope all this is for nothing, but it looks like the levee will break somewhere," said New Canton farmer Jim Koeller, who kept his fingers crossed while shoring up a northern section the Sny Island Drainage District levee. "It can't hold all the water back. It's just a question of which one will break and where."
The breakneck pace of sandbagging actually seemed to build hope. "We're going to stay here until we save it," Alexandria Mayor Bob Davis said, just two days before the Des Moines and Mississippi rivers breached levees there and put about 100 homes under as much as 10 feet of water.
The day before, July 7, floodwaters spilled over the Union levee south of LaGrange, inundating 4,000 acres of farmland. Then the levee at Gregory Landing went, smothering another 8,000 acres and leading Canton, Mo., Mayor Jesse Franks to call for an evacuation of about 3,000 residents.
The shored-up levee protecting the town was not in danger. "We'll hold it, but I want everybody to be safe," Franks said. "I'd rather have them condemn me for having them move than say (later), ‘Why didn't you have me move?' "
The Canton levee did hold back the river, but the residents heeded their mayor and left town in a steady stream of cars, trucks and trailers, many of them winding up at Culver-Stockton College dormitories.
"The mood in town is a lot different than in 1973," said resident Edna Solter, who lived through the last record flood. "There is a lot of fear and apprehension. It wasn't like that back then."
Gov. Edgar toured the area by helicopter the next day, July 8, accompanied by a TV crew from elsewhere in the state. The governor held a brief press conference at the Illinois National Guard Armory.
"Governor, what are your impressions?" he was asked.
"A lot of water," he replied.
Before flying back to Springfield for another negotiating session on the state budget, Edgar said he was "impressed with the levees ... We're just very hopeful that the levees hold ... They look like they're going to hold."
Levee workers near Meyer lost the battle with the Mississippi about 24 hours later.
ONE levee break is just like another. They all hurt.
"It's heartbreaking," Gene Oenning said after the Mississippi pushed away the top of the levee near Meyer, flooding the town itself and eventually swallowing 13,189 acres. Another 15,309 in the Hunt Drainage District were flooded as well.
"They held that river longer than anyone thought they could," a tearful bystander told a Herald-Whig reporter.
They felt the same near Taylor, Mo., where volunteers "went until they couldn't go anymore"— only to lose the battle the same day when the river breached a levee in the Marion County Drainage District and engulfed 4,200 acres.
That night, Julv 9, a levee shift in the southern portion of the lndian Grave Drainage District prompted officials to evacuate the area. Volunteers returned later that night and shored up the weakened section, south of Meyer.
The break at Meyer lowered the river level at Indian Grave by 1.5 feet over the next 12 hours. But the section near Baseline Road showed signs of trouble throughout the early-morning hours of July 10, when another violent storm blew through the area and prompted pump station workers to abandon the building.
The levee itself was mush. New seeps knifed down the sandy structure, adding more internal water to an already overworked pumping system. No one on the levee that night believed it would hold until morning.
Farther upstream, residents of Niota, Ill., abandoned their town to floodwaters that crashed through a secondary levee there on July 10 and claimed their homes. The river flooded the access road to the Fort Madison, Iowa, bridge, closing the last remaining Tri-State link for 200 miles except for the Quincy Bayview Bridge.
The river wouldn't rest. It broke the Indian Grave levee near Baseline Road on July 12 at 5 a.m., flooding 9,000 acres. The remaining 8,000 acres of the district were flooded the next night, July 13, when a levee in the northern section caved in to the river.
On the Missouri side, a levee in the South River Drainage District, north of Hannibal, also failed on July 13, washing away another 10,000 acres, numerous homes and businesses, and turning American Cyanamid into a island protected by its own 35-foot levee.
Across the river in Illinois, Hull residents and businesses started moving their possessions and equipment to higher ground, something businesses and residents of West Quincy already had done. Farmers in the Sny Island Drainage District intensified their efforts to move livestock out of harm's way.
The odds were slim for the remaining levees. The river was at an all-time, unbelievable high of 31.54 feet at the Quincy filter plant — almost three feet higher than it had ever been. The National Weather Service measured the river at 32.2 feet that day.
Norman Haerr, president of the Fabius River Drainage District in West Quincy, thought the night of July 13 would be the "worst," expecting workers to be pushing back the river with shovels and straw.
"We're having some serious seeping," Haerr said. "Erosion will be what gets us."
Three days later, July 16, Haerr was more optimistic, but he said it was "too soon" for a victory celebration.
Shortly after 8 p.m. that night, the river broke through a section of the levee just north of Quincy Bayview Bridge, closing the last remaining Tri-State link from Alton to Burlington, Iowa. The river pushed seven miles inland, touching off a blaze at the Ayerco Convenience Center, devouring dozens of businesses and homes, 14,000 acres of farmland, and closing sections of U.S. 61 — causing a transportation headache of immense proportions and stranding workers on both sides of the river.
The brutal current sucked two barges through the break, and officials initially believed one slammed into Ayerco and ignited the blaze. Later, they said the flow of the water toppled fuel tanks behind the station and sparked the fire.
West Quincy levee workers felt sick for days. The break occurred well south of Durgens Creek, the main trouble spot. They said the levee couldn't have broken where it did, and yet they said it "was a miracle to hold it as long as we did."
Six days later, district officials asked law enforcement to investigate the possibility that the levee was sabotaged. They said they had no hard evidence, only a "hunch" that someone deliberately broke the levee.
Alex House, a landowner in the Sny Island Drainage District, happened to be flying over West Quincy in a National Guard helicopter shortly after the levee broke and captured the scene on videotape.
"It was the worst possible feeling, knowing the tremendous devastation that was just beginning," House said later.
The break boded ill for the Sny, where House and hundreds of others had worked for weeks to shore up the 52-mile system of levees protecting 110,000 acres.
"We're far from being out of the woods," House said. "No one has ever had to fight this kind of flood before. ... It used to be that when one levee broke, it relieved the pressure on others. It was bad for some, but it meant others would survive.
"Not this time. We're going down like dominoes. The Mississippi is picking us off one by one."
The river had picked off 150 primary and secondary levees in all by the time it devastated West Quincy, and caused at least $12 billion in damage — an estimate likely to rise.
In our area, the river had one more levee - and hundreds more hearts - to shatter.
The northern section of the Sny, near East Hannibal, had been the district's weak spot throughout the flood. The river seemed to collect there, pushed back partly by the Hannibal bridge approach that acted like a dam.
The river dropped about 1.5 feet there after West Quincy fell. But with more rains locally and up north, it started rising again July 19 and held steady at about 30.5 feet. The National Weather Service issued a 32-foot crest prediction on July 24.
Officials and volunteers had spent that day attending to sand boils and seepage problems, with johnboat pilots on patrol for weak spots. Some didn't want the media to report the new crest prediction, fearing it would destroy morale, which was about all that held the river back at that point.
"We're going to hold more water than we ever held before, and it looks like we're going to do her," said a worn Dean Paben, district superintendent.
The river did not climb to 32 feet. The Sny broke at 31.55 feet at 11 20 a.m. the next morning, July 25, between East Hannibal and Fall Creek. Over the next two days, the river would claim more than 40,000 acres of prime farmland, dozens of farm sites, the town of Hull and part of Fall Creek. It also would sink about six miles of Ill. 336, sections of Ill. 57, Ill. 96 and Ill. 104.
A system of lateral levees would protect the remaining 66,000-plus acres of the district.
"The river just came up too many times," said Jeanie Cox, district treasurer and office manager. "It's just really amazing that it didn't happen before somewhere."
As so many people so often said, you never know what's going on inside a levee that has been holding back the immense flow and pressure of the Mississippi for months. There aren't any X-ray machines on levees.
"I just don't know what else we could have done as human beings," state Rep. Art Tenhouse, R-96, Liberty, said afterward. "If we would have just had a little help from nature, I think we would have been all right."
NUMBERS are a part of the story of the Flood of ‘93, but only a part. The story was and still is about people.
It is about National Guard helicopter med-evac teams that saved four men trapped in floodwaters after the Sny broke.
It is about a peaceful area that changed complexion, seemingly overnight, and became what some hyperbolically called a "war zone."
It is about booted men and women in camouflage uniforms walking the streets and roadways, and the apocalyptic drone of helicopters defiling the morning, afternoon, evening and night air.
It is a story about nurses giving levee workers tetanus shots, about the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army feeding and sheltering thousands of people, about strangers helping strangers, about giving up only after there was nothing more to do.
"We lost," Michael Powell said after the levee breach near Meyer, "but we put up one hell of a fight."
It is a story, as Salvation Army commander James Frye so aptly observed, that "got a lot bigger than any of us thought it would."
It is not the story, as some "outside experts" allege, of people foolishly living in a floodplain that belongs to the river.
People live on the river because it is their home.
Lawrence "Tony" Pothast, 82, lived in Hull because that's where his wife, Kathryn, wanted to live. Mrs. Pothast, who died in May, was born on the edge of town. She wouldn't leave even when he wanted to move into a retirement community.
Pothast returned to his Hull home while four feet of water still covered the first floor.
"Her beauty shop was next door," he told a reporter, "church was three doors over, the Post Office was a block and a half down this way, and the fire department was a block and a half away, the grocery store is a little less than a block and a half, and if you go four blocks in either direction, you're out of town."
"She wanted to stay here in this hole, in this mud hole."