'The mess was indescribable': It's been 20 years since the Great Flood of 1993

News-DemocratJuly 27, 2013 

More than 250 communities in the Midwest were affected 20 years ago by the worst Mississippi River flood in recorded history.

Water at the St. Louis riverfront reached a record level of 49.58 -- more than 6 feet deeper than the second-largest flood recorded in the area dating to the late 1700s when river levels began to be kept.

The Great Flood of 1993, as it came to be called, inflicted almost $15 billion in damages. It caused 50 people to lose their lives and thousands were displaced for months -- or in some cases, years -- when the raging waters breached more than 100 levees across the Midwest, according to National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration statistics.

As bad as it was, the loss of life and property could have been worse. Much worse, according to Gerald Allen, a civil engineer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers who was part of the effort 20 years ago to hold back the rising river waters.

"The fact that the flood protection in the metro area is so high saved it," Allen said. "But not by much. The levees are 52 feet on the St. Louis riverfront and 51 feet on the metro east side. Before the southern levee failed and we got relief we were within a foot in some places of over-topping the levees here. Maybe half a foot in places."

Had the water been just a little bit higher, Allen said, everything below the bluffs in the metro-east would have been under water. That includes East St. Louis, Cahokia, Caseyville, Granite City -- towns where more than 100,000 people live.

A place that didn't avoid the wrath of the river in the metro-east, however, was the little village of Valmeyer. Nestled between the bluffs and the river's edge in Monroe County, the community was home to 900 people, a grocery store and several mom and pop businesses.

Some residents there felt like they were a sacrificial lamb for the more populated areas. They believed that the levee was intentionally allowed to break to keep the water from over-topping the barriers to the north.

Corps of Engineers civil engineer Dennis Gilmore, who also was working as a flood fighter in 1993, said the levees weren't sacrificed on purpose. He said there is only so much they can take and they broke under the stress.

"We watched the weather every day and the forecast just wasn't changing," Gilmore said. "It was raining and raining every day. And it was not just localized. We were getting the runoff from up north. It's not just the pressure on the levees. But when they're soaked with water for long periods of time they start to break down."

When the southern levee broke, Valmeyer took the brunt of the river's blow, former village Mayor Dennis Knobloch said.

Knobloch, who was paid $60 a month to be the part-time leader of the small community was suddenly pressed into service for three months as a 24-hour-a-day emergency manager when the levee gave. He's currently working on a book about the flood which he hopes to release later this year.

"It was the ultimate helpless feeling," Knobloch said of the day the levee broke through and flooded his town. "One day we had a peaceful, little community. The kind of place where everyone knew everybody. The next day it was, for all practical purposes, part of the Mississippi River channel."

Allen Stafford had lived in a split-level home in Valmeyer since 1970 with his wife, Shirley, and their four children. The family loved the ideal community. Their house was paid off and they'd just completed remodeling it. They thought they were set for life. But then the water started to rise.

"We'd never had any problems with flooding before and we'd talked to people who lived in town in the 1940s and '50s and they told us the water never got up that high," Stafford said. "But my wife didn't believe it. She had a bad feeling and suggested we get a detailed appraisal just a few days before the town flooded."

Shirley Stafford's intuition paid off when the levee broke during the early morning hours of Aug. 1, 1993.

"When we heard the levee broke, we headed down Highway 156 at about two in the morning to go to the old part of town," Allen Stafford said. "When I came down the hill I saw people parked everywhere along the side of the road. It was total darkness."

The flood waters had knocked out electricity to Valmeyer and the streetlights were all out.

"You couldn't see anything," Allen Stafford said. "But you could hear the water running. It was a sickening feeling. We were in total disbelief."

Knobloch said the water was 8 feet deep in parts of town and 5 feet deep over a set of railroad tracks that cut through the middle of the community.

"It was like a nightmare that wouldn't end," Knobloch said. The water didn't just come up and then go back down. It stayed from the first week of August into the middle October. It would go down a little bit and then come up. All the homes and buildings in town had about 15 stripes on their walls, all a different color based on whatever scum was in the water at a particular time."

When the water finally receded and the Staffords got a chance to get into their house, they were horrified by what they saw.

"We kicked in the front door and the mess was indescribable," Allen Stafford said. "There was mud and silt everywhere ... There were snakes. The wooden floors were curled up. The cabinets were junk. It was heartbreaking."

Like most of their neighbors, the Staffords ended up living for two years in a trailer home provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Their kids, whose school was devastated by flooding, attended classes in temporary trailers set up in the Monroe County Fairgrounds in Waterloo.

"My youngest daughter was 5 years old at the time and I remember taking her to school at the fairgrounds," Allen Stafford said. "She was a little bit scared after everything that happened. So I would always have to stay with her for the first hour every day."

As rough as things were, residents were grateful for the help they got from the state and federal government.

"I know you don't hear this too often," Allen Stafford said. "But the government really took good care of us. They made sure we had a place to live, that we had clothes and food and the things we needed."

As soon as the water went down, it was obvious that Valmeyer was never going to be the same again. Many of the buildings in town were beyond repair, Knobloch said.

"We got together and had community meetings," Knobloch said. "FEMA was offering buyouts to people and a lot of people in town thought it would be a good idea to try to stay together. So a plan was developed to buy 500 acres from a dairy farm on top of the bluff and move the whole town up there."

Called Operation Fresh Start, FEMA leaders at the time were supportive of the plans to move the town lock, stock and barrel a mile away to the top of the bluff.

An agreement was struck to purchase the farm plot for $3 million. But almost immediately snags started to emerge which could threaten the deal.

According to Knobloch, FEMA discovered that a nearby limestone mine had purchased the mineral rights beneath the planned new town. Even though the mine was winding down and not expected to reach beneath the relocation site, federal officials insisted the rights be purchased from the mine to go forward. Sensing a chance to cash in before they shut down, mine operators insisted that if Valmeyer wanted the mineral rights, they'd have to buy the soon-to-be abandoned mine, too.

"It would never happen now, with the economy and things like that today," Knobloch said. "The village of Valmeyer would have basically been wiped off the map. But people wanted to stay together and we were able to get the deal done and move forward."

Not everyone went along with the plan, however. About 20 homeowners in the original part of town couldn't bear to leave the place where they or their kids grew up.

Bill and JoAnn Clark returned to their flood-ravaged home on School Street in the old part of town to rebuild.

"We liked it down here," JoAnn Clark said of the reason she and her husband didn't take a buyout and relocate. We didn't want to move up the hill. We moved here in 1972 and I've always lived in the bottoms."

Clark said it took about three years to gut her house and get it back to the point where it was when the levee broke.

"We took our time," Clark said. "We had another house to live in that was rent free. We stripped the whole house out. The only thing that was left was a shell. We put in a new furnace, all new pipes ..."

The decision to rebuild left the residents of the original part of town vulnerable because their coverage would be limited in case of another levee breach. They could lose everything they invested in rebuilding their devastated homes. But in the 20 years since the 1993 levee breach, the town has never flooded again.

"People who stayed are happy because that's where they wanted to be," Knobloch said. "And the people who moved up the hill were happy because they didn't have to worry about ever being flooded again. After what they went through, that peace of mind was very valuable."

Allen Stafford said his family couldn't watch as their home since 1970 was bulldozed. His wife wouldn't even consider putting their family in danger of the flood waters again. But he said it was quite a leap of faith to move forward in the new part of town.

"They put us on wagons and took us out to where the new part of town was going to go," Allen Stafford said. "We picked our lots off a map without really seeing it. When we went up there and saw the lot we got we took one look and thought we made a terrible mistake."

The family went to the Village Hall and found a different lot that was still for sale.

"It was like when you buy a car and you see something that catches your eye," Allen Stafford said. "We knew that lot was for us and made the switch."

When construction started on the first homes in the new part of town in 1995, there weren't even paved roads yet.

"It was like the wild, wild West," Allen Stafford said. "It was a little bit scary to build a new house when you didn't have any idea what the area around you was going to look like."

One of the best things about the new part of town, according to residents, is that there are no old or bad parts of the new village. Every home in town is 18 years old or newer.

But it's not perfect. One of the things that was lost to the flood was much of the community's business base. It was two years from the time that of the flood until the recreated Valmeyer became a reality, Knobloch said. And that was too long for business owners to survive.

"They either moved elsewhere while they waited for the town to be rebuilt or else they shut their doors," Knobloch said. "That's the one thing that really didn't work out with the new town. We planned a downtown, town square area. But it's never really taken off."

The downtown area has a pair of banks at one end and the village post office at the other. In the middle is a vacant public square that is ringed by unused parking places. A developer's sign urges potential business operators to call for information.

Village Clerk Laurie Brown said she missed Valmeyer's grocery store and shops. But she said other forces besides the flood were likely at work when it came to their demise.

"They built a Walmart eight miles down the road," Brown said. "It's hard for small businesses to compete with that."

The news isn't all bad for Valmeyer business, however. After investing in infrastructure, the village successfully remade the former limestone mine into a business park and warehouse space. Part of it is occupied by the federal government's archives where records are stored in the cool, dry underground space. The rest is filled by food distributing companies that save money on freezing their products by using the natural coolness of the former mine. All together, more than 200 people work in the park, called Rock City.

The residential population of the town has grown considerably since the flood. Today about 1,200 call Valmeyer home, an increase of 25 percent. Things seem to have recovered nicely for people living both above and below the bluff. But if you look hard enough, you can still see the scars.

In the middle of a cornfield in the old part of town the foundation of the old school building is hidden. Trees oddly stand in rows in farm fields marking places where homes once stood. Because of the buyout, nothing is allowed to be built on the former residential properties. But the land is put to use by farmers.

"Things are different," Allen Stafford said. "A lot of the people who live in the new part of town now weren't here when the flood happened. It was terrible at the time. But things have worked out for the best and Valmeyer is still a great place to live."

Contact reporter Scott Wuerz at swuerz@bnd.com or call 239-2626.

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