Illinois News

Retired National Guard major general recounts leading battle against Mississippi River in 1993

By Herald-Whig
Posted: Jun. 30, 2018 12:01 am Updated: Jun. 30, 2018 11:43 pm

QUINCY -- Illinois National Guard troops who were called up to battle the flood of 1993 remember being tired, hot, wet and overwhelmed by the power of the Mississippi River.

On the Fourth of July, a 25th-anniversary Great Flood Commemoration will give people attending Quincy Independence Day events a chance to remember and express appreciation for the National Guard's efforts.


• Keynote speech by retired Maj. Gen. Donald Lynn, the adjutant general of the Illinois National Guard during the 1993 flood, at 3 p.m. at the Quincy Readiness Center, 702 Koch's Lane, and at 8 p.m. in Clat Adams Bicentennial Park, Front and Broadway.
• Photos, artifacts and videos on the 1993 flood will be displayed from 3 to 5 p.m. at the Quincy Readiness Center.
• Quincy Park Band performs at 6:30 p.m. Clat Adams Park.
• 144th Army Band performs at 8:20 p.m. leading up to riverfront fireworks display at 9:30 p.m.

Fireworks organized by The Herald-Whig and WGEM, with sponsors Blessing Health System, Hy-Vee, Refreshment Services Pepsi, Gardner Denver and Knapheide.

Retired Maj. Gen. Don Lynn, who commanded troops during the flood-fighting efforts, will speak at the Quincy Readiness Center at 702 Koch's Lane at 3 p.m. and at 8 p.m. at the Independence Day celebration in Clat Adams Park.

Lynn was calling troops to active duty starting on July 4, 1993, as levee districts in the area were in peril.

"We had over 7,000 troops from Oquawka to Murphysboro," Lynn said.

Although most of the National Guard personnel were only activated for six weeks, some people remained on duty until November coordinating flood recovery efforts.

"We saved a lot of those levees," Lynn said. "The amazing thing about it is, we had no major injuries and no deaths."


Holiday activation

Rick Gengenbacher of Quincy had just gotten back from his officer basic course and quartermaster training 25 years ago when he was called to report for duty July 4.

"I didn't know what a levee was or a breach," Gengenbacher said.

He and thousands of others were about to learn much more about floods.

Lynn said he'd already gotten his schooling in flood fighting during the early 1970s, when he was with a 200-man unit protecting farmland near Meredosia, on the Illinois River.

"I got an education in what a boil was and how to build a chimney on a levee," he said.

Levee district officials showed Lynn how an earthen levee can become so saturated that floodwater starts to percolate out of a boil. If left untreated, it doesn't take long to develop into a full-fledged breach that will flood a protected area.

The cure for a levee boil is to build a chimney that starts as flood fighters encircle the affected area with sandbags and bring the bags in a little with each row. As the chimney rises and the water in it gets deeper, the pressure eventually equalizes the pressure of the river and the boil stops leaking.

Gengenbacher and fellow guardsmen worked at Warsaw the first few days of the flood call-up and slept at night at Warsaw High School. At age 27, Gengenbacher said, he felt that he was up to the physical stress of sandbagging. Other guardsmen who were older and had worked at office jobs for years had a lot of muscle soreness. Supervisors had troops take frequent rest breaks knowing how stressful it could be to lift sandbags for nine hours or more a day.

"I remember it being really hot, and even when it rained, it seemed like the rain was hot," Gengenbacher said.

Troops also got wet getting to levees because the flood walls usually were surrounded by service roads that had ditches full of water.

Standing on those sodden levees, Gengenbacher said, he felt "overwhelmed by the power of the river." He said that until then, he had always seen the Mississippi River as a scenic part of the local environment.

But with the water creeping up the levees, it seemed more intimidating.

"We were sandbagging at Meyer right next to the grain elevator," he said. "We were working south of where the levee broke, and we drove back through the water to get out of there."


Millions of sandbags

Lynn has no idea how many millions of sandbags were placed by National Guard troops. Many of the bags were provided by the city of Quincy, which maintained a sandbagging station, and other munipilaities. Other sandbags came from other sites and from the Illinois Emergency Management Agency.

Lynn said a typical sandbag weighs about 30 to 40 pounds. They can be filled beyond that weight, but heavier sandbags are not as effective for fighting floods.

"If you put too much sand in them, they won't stack," he said. "You have to get them where they will flatten out."

During several helicopter flights taken by Lynn to view flooding, he traveled with then-state Sen. Laura Kent Donahue and then-state Rep. Art Tenhouse.

"Gen. Lynn was an old farm boy himself, and it sure didn't feel like we were dealing with generals or colonels," Tenhouse said. "They really worked with the local units of government and integrated themselves with the community."

Donahue said her senate district had more flooding than any other district in the state when the National Guard was activated. She said Lynn was the right person to lead the flood-fighting efforts.

"If it hadn't been for the guard, a lot more damage would have occurred. They made all the difference," Donahue said.

While Lynn, the National Guard troops and thousands of volunteers wanted to see all the levee districts saved, the river's record flood levels made that impossible. The river reached 32.13 feet at Quincy on July 13.

"When another levee was lost, the river might drop about a foot in 24 hours" in that immediate area, Lynn said.

River levels would then rebound as heavy rains in the region and far to the north kept the flood rolling.

People came from all over to help fight the flood. Volunteers from distant locations showed up at sites were sandbags were filled or offered their services to levee districts.

Lynn now lives near Champaign and still runs into people who tell him they came to Quincy or other areas to help battle the river.


Helpless feeling

Gengenbacher said that even though he was close to his Quincy home, activation of the National Guard made him unavailable to deal with some family emergencies.

"One night when I was at the Warsaw school, my wife called and said a neighbor had gotten on a bulldozer and damaged part of our garage," he said.

The garage damage was eventually covered by the neighbor, but Gengenbacher remembers feeling helpless to help his wife cope with the immediate situation.

Lynn said one of the most unusual events about the 1993 flood was that the Mississippi River became so swollen that it pushed water in the Illinois River northward at the point where the Illinois normally flows south into the Mississippi.

National Guard troops who had been working along the Mississippi got called to help sandbag along the Illinois to protect levees on the lower reaches of the river.

Above all, people who fought the flood remember how everybody seemed to be working together. The effort to protect homes and land became the overriding goal.

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