During the months of June, July, and August 1993, the Mississippi River (along with many of its tributaries, including the Missouri River, the Skunk River, and countless others) experienced an unprecedented period of high water, cresting in many places in mid-July 1993.
I was a fourteen year old boy whose spirit felt it was growing far beyond the boundaries of the small town that held it when the waters came. I was probably best known as the "kid with the answers" to the other people of my approximate age in the town; I kept to myself and read a lot, but I managed to avoid being the target of abuse by being the tallest and strongest person of my age in the town.
June 10, 1993: The first major rainfall of the summer of 1993 occurs on this day, and is probably the first sign of events to come in the month. Between eighteen and twenty two centimeters of rain fell on the Dakotas, Minnesota, and Wisconsin; within these states are the sources of the Mississippi River and all of its major northern tributaries.
I had spent my childhood digging deeper and deeper into a shell of my own devising. I was the kid who always had his nose in a book of some sort, who would sit inside during recess. I was the kid who the other kids would often completely ignore; I was never really picked on, just simply forgotten about most of the time.
June 16, 1993: The first observable problems from a spring and summer of above-average rainfall start to appear. The Black River, a major tributary of the Mississippi River in Wisconsin, is the first to exceed a margin of two feet above flood stage along many of its points on this day.
The month of June was a wet one; most days found me inside, watching the rains of El Nino come down from the sky and make watery paths on the window. I was finding great solace in Kerouac and Lennon that summer, and I was in the beginnings of a downward slide that those two would bring me.
June 20, 1993: The problems begin to deepen, and warning signs are sent out. The first dam bursts in western Wisconsin on the Black River, submerging 100 homes to their rooftops. Due to the already high water, the upper 200 miles of the Mississippi River are closed to river traffic, and locks & dams are not operated, which essentially cuts the river off from all long distance transport.
The concern began in earnest on June 21, 1993 in my small town. That day, we received almost ten centimeters of rain; on top of the significant rainfall the month had already dumped upon us and the towns to the north of us, the ground was simply unwilling to absorb more water. The raindrops ran off the oversoaked fields and down the embankments into the murky Mississippi, and it began to grow and rage.
June 26, 1993: Several northern states (including Illinois), in conjunction with FEMA, provide emergency funding and personnel to the regions near the Mississippi; this would come to manifest itself in the form of institutional labor, Red Cross support wagons, and vaccinations for flood workers. These would be instituted rapidly, most effects were in place by June 30, 2002.
It was amazing watching my town spend the last week of June converting itself from a slow, lazy small town into an efficient flood prevention machine. People who you would often find on the front step after work, finishing off the small end of a six pack of Old Milwaukee would be carrying two fifty pound sandbags on their shoulders, running at a sprint across a muddy levee with the fear of a watery God in their eyes and hearts. People who you would normally find drowning their sorrows at the local watering hole were instead shoveling sand into bags as fast as their arms could move.
June 30, 1993:
Our town worked like a well-oiled machine for those weeks, springing up in a cloud of dust out of the summer heat. Men, women, and children all filled and carried sandbags; the state provided inmate labor to our town in those desperate days. I spent fifteen hour stretches loading sandbags into flatbed trucks, working side by side with people from another world, one that I barely knew existed. The air was a mix of fear and love; unity through desperation.
July 5, 1993: The bridge closes at Keokuk, IA, sparking a chain of bridge closings that would basically stop all cross-river traffic between Illinois, Iowa, and Missouri for much of the month of July.
The water kept coming and coming, like a madman that won't stop. It was like Robert DeNiro in Cape Fear; the townspeople were Nick Nolte hiding behind the dumpster, listening as the mighty beast shrugged off our every desperate defense and then had the audacity to taunt us and call us out. I watched the desperation in men's eyes turn to fear. I watched the exhausted tears of a seventy nine year old woman, attempting to carry fifty pound sandbags for hours on end, as she crumpled from the heat and wear. And I watched the water, as it began to roll over the top of our wall of dirt and sand, at first a trickle, but then a flood.
July 10, 1993: The bridge closes at Fort Madison, IA, which has experienced rain for 54 of 58 days. On this day, high water marks are set on the Mississippi, Missouri, Des Moines, Illinois, Iowa, Skunk, Rock, and Raccoon Rivers, as well as 140 additional tributaries.
On July 10, it all ended. I stood on the edge of town, watching the water flow into the town. National Guard helicopters whirred overhead and my town went away. Men who I believed held inside them great hardness and strength broke down in tears at the water flowing down the street. I woke up the next morning and took a boat ride down the main street of the town on which I grew up. I stood on the roof of a friend's house with water lapping over my toes as his father dove into the water, hoping to salvage a few family mementos from the upper recesses of the attic.
July 16, 1993: The last Quincy, IL, bridge is closed, leaving no bridge between Alton, IL, and Burlington, IA; this essentially cut the traffic flow in most of the upper Midwest. The bridge is closed due to the loss of West Quincy, MO; the flooding of this town created perhaps the most visually dramatic sight of the flood, as a tank of gasoline was breached and then, in the following moments, caught on fire as the layer of gasoline spread along the top of the water. The image of the fire floating on top of the water remains perhaps the most well-known visual memory of the events of the year. The Mississippi River spreads seven miles inland in many places, where the normal span was less than half a mile.
Our house was lucky; the water nearly reached our front step, but our house was spared on the edge of the town. The homes of many of my family members were lost, and for a time, our home became a refugee camp, with tents and other transportable living quarters dotting our property. And the water stayed for a while, rotting the boards and structures in the town, ensuring that the men and women of the town would have nothing to return to.
July 24, 1993: The river at Quincy, IL crests at a record 32'. North of this town, twenty seven of the nearest thirty two earthen levees had been breached by flood waters, causing untold property damage. The federal government declares all states surrounding the northern Mississippi River to be disaster areas and eligible for FEMA aid.
The water slowly began to leave, and as it did, buildings fell along with them. All of the houses in the town suffered irrepairable damage; no houses survived the wrath. People I had known for my entire life looked at their home, shook their head, and nodded to the bulldozer to level their home. And this time, the drops that fell on the streets of my town came not from the sky, but from the cheeks of my family and friends.
August 2, 1993: The river crests at 49'7" in St. Louis, MO. Eleven times the volume of Niagara Falls is flowing under Eads Bridge; enough to fill Busch Stadium every 65 seconds. tes turned fifteen years old.
I didn't know it then as I blew out the candles on my birthday cake that year, but my life had irrevocably changed. I knew the pain of loss on a large scale that I had never believed could exist before the flood. I watched everything I had known and grown up with washed away in a wave of water. I knew then that Mother Nature can take away what she gives. It scared me then, and it scares me now. But the intervening years added something to that lesson; now it has a silver lining. Because now I see what I should have seen in the story then: that every time there are people together, uniting against a single cause, there is hope. I lost sight of that then, and losing sight of the hope of life taught me some desperate lessons.
48 deaths directly attributable to the flood
150 primary and secondary levees failed
$12 billion in property damages
More than 26.5 million sandbags were used during the Flood of 1993
Approximately 927 million pounds of material, virtually all sand, was used to fill these bags
Countless lives were irrevocably changed
Countless tears were shed
The town would rebuild itself, but it would never be the same again. Some people moved far away, not wanting to remember their homes being washed away with such ease against their every struggle. Others moved to the hills away from town. A brave few remained and rebuilt their homes in the flood plain. They remain there still, with only the memories of another town that once stood there that the water took away.