Twentieth anniversary of 1993 event brings back flood of memories

Norman Haerr, president of the Fabius River Drainage District during the Flood of '93, is shown in this Herald-Whig newspaper clipping.
Posted: Jul. 10, 2013 10:09 am Updated: Nov. 28, 2014 7:17 pm
The Ayerco Convenience Center in West Quincy, Mo., became a torch billowing black smoke into the sky shortly after the levee breach July 16. (H-W File Photo)

Herald-Whig Staff Writer

Norman Haerr of Taylor, Mo., will never forget his 54th birthday.

He didn't do much celebrating that day. Instead, he remembers it as being more of a nightmare than anything else.

Haerr's birthday on July 16, 1993 — 20 years ago Tuesday — was the day the West Quincy levee gave way after weeks of intensive flood-fighting efforts involving hundreds of volunteers.

What happened that day became the climactic moment in what many regard as worst disaster ever to befall this area, and Haerr was right in the thick of things.

As president of the Fabius River Levee and Drainage District, Haerr was in charge of the monumental effort to temporarily raise the levees protecting West Quincy and the surrounding area from the menacing Mississippi River, which had climbed to unprecedented levels that summer.

Levees up and down both sides of the Mississippi had been crumbling like dominoes after the rain-gorged river found ways to circumvent the sand and dirt walls holding back the torrent of murky water.

The Fabius district was one of the final holdouts.

Just three days earlier — on July 13, 1993 — the Mississippi at Quincy had reached its all-time-high level, widely reported then as 32.19 feet. (The National Weather Service subsequently put the record at 32.13 feet.)

The fortified West Quincy levee was still holding firm that day. By July 16, the river had fallen back to 31.97 feet at Quincy, and the situation in West Quincy was looking hopeful.

Then things suddenly unraveled.

Haerr recalls being in the district's flood-fighting headquarters on the Knapheide Manufacturing property in West Quincy when a National Guard helicopter landed outside shortly after 8 p.m. A military officer emerged from the chopper and said: "We want somebody to go up and confirm a levee break."

Haerr quickly stepped forward.

"I got into the helicopter and went up, and there was the awful sight to see that water flowing in," he said. "I saw a barge just coming through the levee right about then."

While still inside the helicopter, Haerr got on his radio and ordered levee workers on the ground to start evacuating. He was particularly concerned about a large group of people still doing some levee-fortification work in the Durgen's Creek area north of West Quincy. Haerr told everyone to drop what they were doing and follow the pre-arranged plan to head west — away from the levee break.

Haerr looked down and saw a Missouri Department of Transportation vehicle stopping to help a stranded motorist whose car was submerged by floodwater in a low-lying highway underpass not far from where the levee had broken.

The helicopter pilot returned Haerr to the Knapheide headquarters, where a scramble was under way to rescue cars, trucks and four-wheelers from the onrushing floodwater. As this was happening, Haerr glanced to the east and saw black smoke billowing near the western end of Quincy Bayview Bridge. Haerr didn't know it at the time, but one of the barges that floated through the gap in the levee had plowed into a fuel storage tank outside the Ayerco Convenience Center, triggering a spectacular fire that lit up the early-evening sky as floodwater poured relentlessly into West Quincy.

By the next morning, water had engulfed 14,000 acres of farmland and submerged dozens of homes and businesses in West Quincy and the surrounding area. It also engulfed U.S. 24 and rendered Quincy Bayview Bridge and Quincy Memorial Bridge useless for more than two months.

The last open river crossing between Burlington, Iowa, and St. Louis — a distance of 212 miles — was now closed, and people who lived on one side of the river and worked on the other now had to scurry to find a way to get from one side to the other.

Haerr was crestfallen. He recalled how his father, who previously held his seat on the levee district's board, was dejected after the record flood of 1973 broke through the district's levee system and caused massive damage.

"He hated to see it, because of all the work that his sons and neighbors had put into it," Haerr said. "I felt somewhat the same way with the 1993 levee break. We had fought so hard to try to keep that water out. But it was not to be."

As it turned out, the West Quincy break might have had unwanted assistance. An Illinois man, James Scott, was subsequently arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced to life in prison for "causing a catastrophe" by allegedly removing sandbags from the top of the West Quincy levee.

"That was a very sad time, in my thinking," Haerr said. "The Bible says you've got to forgive, and I have forgiven him for doing that. But you can't forget. It is just there."

‘I understand you've got some problems'

The West Quincy levee break caused all sorts of personal and economic upheaval that lasted for weeks.

One of the biggest areas of concern was the impact on jobs and local commerce. Since more than 30 percent of Quincy's labor force was coming from Missouri at that time, local officials scrambled to find ways to help people get to and from work while keeping businesses operating. Officials also were concerned about maintaining  access to emergency medical services while the bridges were closed.

Chuck Scholz, who became mayor of Quincy two months earlier, got the city involved early in the regional flood fight. He realized keeping Quincy's bridges open was vital for local business operations.

Once the West Quincy levee broke, Scholz said, city officials "went to City Hall and started getting on the phones" to make arrangements to transport workers from one side of the river to the other.

Boats, planes and helicopters were used as transport vehicles while Quincy's bridges were out of service. In addition, many people drove around through either St. Louis or Burlington and then spent the work week staying in local hotels or with friends or relatives before driving back home at the end the week. Commutes like this were made a little easier once the bridge between Hamilton and Keokuk, Iowa, reopened.

However, Scholz's priority was to launch a boat shuttle between Quincy and Taylor.

Scholz initially had trouble getting the necessary authorization and assistance from the federal government, so he sought help from his good friend and Democratic political ally, U.S. Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois.

Thanks to Simon's intervention, Scholz one day got a call from the White House and was patched through to President Bill Clinton, who at that time was flying with Simon in Air Force One.

Clinton told Scholz: "Mayor, I understand you've got some problems out there."

Clinton assured Scholz that help would be provided.

The next morning, a contingent of U.S. Army personnel arrived in Quincy to help expedite preparations for a boat shuttle. The lead officer arriving with the team told Scholz: "We'll have it going tomorrow."

The boat shuttle initially landed in Taylor, but because of navigation concerns, the landing was eventually shifted to LaGrange, Mo.

The shuttle system continued until the bridges reopened Sept. 25, 1993.

Scholz noted that Quincy received a slew of positive attention from national news media outlets during the flood crisis. He said visiting journalists and camera crews reported on the massive community effort that went into the local flood flight, with images sent around the world showing volunteers of all ages pitching in at a community sandbagging operation at 18th and Sycamore.

That willingness to help others resonated with viewers across the nation.

"It was like a commercial for Quincy," Scholz said.

Devastating Alexandria

Numerous homes, dozens of roads and thousands of acres of farmland were engulfed in floodwater after levees failed along both sides of the Mississippi River in 1993.

Niota, Meyer and Hannibal. Mo., were among the towns seeing significant damage, but one of the hardest-hit communities was Alexandria, Mo., where 120 homes were under water after local levees gave way July 8, displacing about 400 residents.

Some homeowners ventured into Alexandria by boat and found more than 14 feet of water in their homes.

John Winkelman was president of the Des Moines-Mississippi Levee District in 1993 and still heads the district. He also at that time was president of the Mississippi Fox Levee District, which also experienced a levee failure in 1993. Winkelman said both districts tried to hold back the Mississippi and its tributaries, but incessant rains and saturated soils meant there was no place for water to go but up.

"We began shoving up the levees as a last-ditch resort, but the water got so deep that it finally overtopped," he said.

Winkelman's healthy corn crop was destroyed in a flash, but his home, about seven miles south of Alexandria near Wayland, only got water in the basement. It didn't have nearly the damage that many other homes saw that summer.

Winkelman said his heart broke when he saw all the houses in Alexandria under water.

"It was a difficult thing to see," he said. "It was a tragedy. A lot of people lost their personal belongings."

About 40 of the town's 120 homeowners decided to take buyout offers from the federal government. Once that happened, sites previously used for houses or mobile homes became empty lots that nobody could build on.

Winkelman said Alexandria's population has dwindled from about 420 in 1993 to about 220 today.

He said many flood victims simply didn't want to return to Alexandria after the 1993 disaster.
"They had seen enough, and they just wanted to go to higher ground," he said.

But many people remain in the Alexandria area, including farmers like Winkelman who want to keep trying to make a living off the rich soils.

Winkelman is involved in efforts to seek better flood control for levee districts up and down the Mississippi. He is on the board of the Upper Mississippi, Illinois and Missouri Rivers Association, which has been trying for years to convince Congress to implement a comprehensive plan to guide flood-control improvements.

"We do an annual trip to Washington, D.C., and try to lobby our legislators from the states of Iowa, Illinois and Missouri. It's an ongoing task," Winkelman said.

But little progress has been made.

"It's frustrating," Winkelman said. "It's hard to believe that we've gone 20 years and really have made no progress as far as a comprehensive plan."

Volunteers from around the country

Dixie Ward still finds it hard to describe the angst she felt upon learning the Sny Island Levee and Drainage District levee had failed July 25, 1993, and water was rushing toward her home in Hull, Ill., about eight miles from the Mississippi.

"It's almost hard to put into words what it was like," she said. "Right up until the end, we thought we'd be able to hold it. And when it happened, I don't think any of us were ready for the devastation that occurred."

It took two days for floodwater to fill the 40,000 acres that were made vulnerable after one section of the Sny levee was breached. By the time the surge was over, the towns of Hull, East Hannibal and part of Fall Creek were under water. In Hull alone, 235 homes were awash in floodwater.

Ward's home — elevated three feet — had another eight feet of water inside. But most of her personal possessions were safe because she had moved nearly everything out ahead of time as the flood threat worsened.

She finally got inside the house in August, but it took months after that for all the needed repairs to be carried out.

"There was still water in the basement — almost up to the ceiling of the basement — until October," she recalled.

Ward said she received help from at least 300 good-hearted volunteers from all around the country who journeyed to Hull and other flood-ravaged communities.

Hull leaders worked out a great system to coordinate the volunteer-assisted repairs. Ward said any flood victim could go to a central location known as The Trailer and sign up for whatever they needed to have done. This might have involved hauling muck out of a building, sanding woodwork or doing some plumbing. As groups of volunteers arrived to help, they could look at the help-needed board and "immediately knew where they were going and what their job would be," Ward said.

Ward's home gradually got back in order.

"You just worked along the best you could, and finally it was OK," she said.

Ward said some people didn't return to Hull after the flood, but most did.

"There were some homes that had to be destroyed because they were too far damaged," she said.

Ward was determined to come back because Hull is her home, and many of her friends and relatives still live there.

"I guess you have to be an old sentimentalist like I am," she said. "I grew up in this area, and I had a wonderful, wonderful life here. I know how good it can be."


Laundry still hangs on the line after floodwater took over the town of Hull during the Flood of '93. (H-W File Photo)


Landsat Thermatic Mapper satellite images show the Mississippi River before and after flooding. The left was taken May 17, 1989; the right on July 25, 1993, before water from the Sny levee break filled in East Hannibal, bottom right corner. (AP Photo)