I was fascinated by news articles last weekend about the flood of 1993 and lessons since learned.
The question was whether we had learned anything at all. I wonder.
It seems I am hearing now the same things that I heard 25 years ago when I was a reporter driving around Southern Illinois talking to residents in the flood plain. No reason to worry about a flood. The levees will hold, is what nearly everyone seemed to think.
True, flood protection has been restored and, in some cases, improved since then. But I remember the confidence people had back in ’93. In July of 1993 I wrote about how the Valmeyer school district had moved furniture and supplies to the upper story of the high school building, just in case of a flood.
But school officials assured me that it probably was a waste of time and effort because nothing was going to happen. Then they were scrambling to get a temporary school set up in trailers at the Monroe County Fairgrounds.
Before the flood, an official with a local bank told me that the problem with Valmeyer was that it couldn’t grow because no one who wanted to build could get insurance because of the fear of flooding. But that was ridiculous because that levee never would break.
I have to admit, the levees were impressive. I don’t know how high they were but you could drive on top of them on gravel roads and if you made the slightest mistake, there was a long, long drop down to the ground. You could look out on a tame Mississippi River on one side and seemingly endless acres of farm crops on the other side.
They sure looked sound. But that was before torrents of rain and water from up north came flooding through, tearing up the barriers and creating an indelible image of the Gummersheimer farm buildings near Columbia being carried away by the flood. Television broadcast that over and over, and it became part of the opening tape on some stations.
All through the American Bottoms in Illinois, there are signs high up on buildings indicating where the water reached.
A few months after the water finally receded, I was driving along a roughly repaired Bluff Road in Randolph and Monroe counties. I saw dried clumps of grass hanging from the telephone wires, temporary marks of high water for me.
Now levees are bigger and better. There are some areas along rivers where temporary flooding is allowed to relieve pressure on downstream areas like where Interstate 70 crosses the Missouri River in central Missouri.
Experts throw around terms like 500-year floods and 1,000-year floods which would seem to suggest big floods won’t happen again for a long while. But the reality is that a 500-year flood could occur in any year.
Others suggest that taller levees just mean there will be taller floods and the people who will suffer are those with the shorter levees.
I believe in the words of Nicolas Pinter, geologist and associate director of the Center for Watershed Science at the University of California -Davis, who said in a recent National Public Radio story, “There are two types of levees: those that have failed and those that will fail.”