They're raging elsewhere right now, but Belleville is no stranger to natural disasters

Belleville residents view the damage inflicted by the March 15, 1938, tornado that ripped through town.
Belleville residents view the damage inflicted by the March 15, 1938, tornado that ripped through town.

Belleville hasn't experienced a natural disaster as devastating as Hurricane Katrina, but it's had plenty of severe weather in the past 150 years.

Among the worst: A tornado killed 10 people in 1938. A flood left another 10 dead in 1957. A winter storm buried the city under 18 inches of snow in 1982.

Residents sweated through 110-degree heat on July 14, 1954. They shivered through 21-below-zero cold on Feb. 10, 1982.

The National Weather Service didn't start keeping records in Belleville until 1944, but Illinois State Climatologist Jim Angel assumes residents suffered in July of 1936.

"It was just unbelievably hot in Illinois," Angel said. "By today's standards, we would have thought it was the end of the world."

St. Louis temperatures ranged from 100 to 108 degrees for 16 days and 90 to 99 degrees for 10 days that July.

Most of Belleville's big weather stories have resulted from heavy rainfall and flooding along Richland Creek, which helped bring settlers to the region in the first place.

Richland Creek was essential to the city's water-powered mills, distilleries and soap factories in the 1800s, but that came at a price.

"The first recorded (flood) was in 1848, when the water became so high and swift that all existing bridges were swept down to the Kaskaskia River," according to a 1979 study by the late Delta Masterson, a Southern Illinois University Edwardsville researcher.

The creek overflowed its banks every few years throughout the late 18th and 19th centuries. Property losses rose with the values of residential and commercial development in the floodplain.

A 1946 flood damaged hundreds of homes, businesses and the city's sewage-treatment plant. It closed major roads and sent water lapping at the door of St. Elizabeth's Hospital's boiler room.

City, state and railroad officials tried to solve the problem with a series of bridge replacements, but that didn't stop the flood of 1957.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposed a major flood-control project for Richland Creek in 1960s. It was shelved when Belleville voters turned down a $1.5 million bond issue to cover a portion of the cost.

For the past 10 years, Belleville has been using Federal Emergency Management Agency funds to buy and demolish homes in the floodplain. Workers keep the creek free of obstructive debris and maintain a walking and biking trail along its bank.

"We took a problem and fixed it, and then we turned the land into a very useful piece of property for the city and its residents," said Gary Hopfinger, director of parks and recreation. "If it floods, the worst that can happen is that mud will come over the trail and we have to clean if off."

The metro-east has never been a hotbed of seismic activity, but residents are shaken every 20 or 30 years by earthquakes centered in other areas.

Tom Larson, a geophysicist with the Illinois State Geological Survey, has no record of major earthquake injuries in Belleville.

"The big one was on Nov. 9, 1968," he said, noting the earthquake measured 5.5 on the Richter magnitude scale. "(It) was centered in Hamilton County, but it was felt in Belleville. There were reports of overturned chimneys, ceiling lights removed and loud rumblings."

Fires caused by lightning strikes aren't very common these days, but they were in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

The News-Democrat and other Belleville newspapers blamed lightning for several deaths and injuries. Naturally ignited fires led to damage or destruction of a grain elevator in 1896, a water-bottling plant in 1902, an ice house in 1903, a printing company in 1910, churches in 1910 and 1917, a brewery in 1913, a telephone switchboard in 1916, a mine tipple in 1922, a school in 1923, a stove factory in 1924, many barns and several homes over the years.

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