This is another installment of “Into the Archives,” a series that looks back on stories from the Belleville News-Democrat archives.
Leaders in the Southern Illinois town of Valmeyer said they had “no textbooks” showing them the way to move their town from the river bottoms to the top of the bluffs.
In the summer of 1993, Southern Illinois experienced one of the most costly and devastating floods in U.S. history. According to the National Weather Service, the flood crested on Aug. 1, 1993, when experts estimated 1 million cubic feet of water passed the St. Louis Arch every second. It did an estimated $15 billion in damages and is considered the most devastating flood in the history of the United States.
On the same day, a levee broke near Columbia and flooded Valmeyer, a village about 30 miles southwest of Belleville. The Mississippi River at St. Louis crested at 49.6 feet — nearly 20 feet above flood stage.
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Photos record the devastation to property. In the school gymnasium, banners hung limply from the wall. The mud left behind showed how high the water rose inside structures.
Dirt and debris coated floors. A lone footprint in the cracked and dried mud memorialized, what some called the 500-year flood.
Pictures couldn’t capture the emotional cost of the destruction — or the smell.
Howard Heavner, Valmeyer’s current mayor, said, “It smelled dead.” He said the grass was gone, everything was covered with mud.
“The cornfields were pretty much gone, just brown and dead,” Heavner said.
The small village rallied its citizens, acquired land and moved Valmeyer, almost in its entirety, to the top of the river bluffs. Valmeyer did not just recover, some residents say they thrived.
“What the flood did was provide us with a lot of opportunity,” Heavner said. “That needs to be noted.”
The scars remain but the new generation of Valmeyer residents speak of the fighting spirit and staying power of “valiant Valmeyer.”
According to Dennis Knobloch, who was mayor in 1993 and is now village administrator, about 900 people lived in Valmeyer at that time of the flood.
“We had a lot of problems in our area with sand boils,” Knobloch said. “That’s when the pressure of the water from the river tries to work its way under the levees that are protecting the area. If those aren’t monitored, they’ll cause sections of the levee to blow out.”
Volunteers watched the problem sections around the clock. Knobloch described physically raising sections of the levees.
“We were staying ahead of things until the morning of Aug. 1st, Sunday morning,” Knobloch said. “The levee was breached at the Gummersheimer farm near Columbia. That was about 10 to 12 miles directly north of our town.”
“Then, our last line of defense, which was a double levee system called the Fountain Creek levee, began over-topping as a result of that Columbia breach,” Knobloch said.
He described abandoning the levee in the middle of the night because the situation had become “dark and dangerous.”
The first floodwaters entered Valmeyer on Aug. 2. After the floodplain on the west side of Monroe County filled, the water levels reached about 16 feet on the west side of Valmeyer.
“The elevation decreases as you go west in town,” Knobloch said. “On the far west border of town, we had about 15 or 16 feet of water over there.”
“Since the levee had been breached, we pretty much became part of the main channel of the Mississippi River,” Knobloch said. “We had very swift current and a lot of floating debris.”
He said it was several days before the Corps of Engineers felt comfortable bringing in their boats because of the level of the current. The situation continued to change rapidly.
“As the level of the river increased or decreased, it would do the same thing in town. It was up and down quite a bit because there was a lot of rain coming through,” Knobloch said.
“We had people on the east side of town where the water wasn’t deep where they could get in and start doing clean up but then the river would rise again and do more damage to the homes that had been cleaned out,” Knobloch said.
On the west side of Valmeyer, some of the homes were underwater until mid-October.
“It didn’t take long for us to realize that we were going to have substantial damage to a lot of our properties,” Knobloch said. He described the emotional cost as a “major psychological blow.”
‘A wild idea’
Some Valmeyer residents left. Others stayed and began to pursue what Knobloch described as “a wild idea.”
Someone suggested moving the entire town on top of the river bluffs.
“We started checking and couldn’t come up with a lot of information on what to do,” Knobloch said. “There’s not a lot of textbooks on how to move a town.”
Valmeyer officials formed planning committees and citizens from the village volunteered their time. Knobloch remembers saying, “We don’t care about your background. We want your raw ideas.”
“We had professionals there, architects, engineers, take the raw ideas and turn them into a preliminary plan for the town,” Knobloch said. “We gave them an aggressive schedule.” Plans were drawn up by early November.
Village officials acquired a tract of farmland adjacent to Valmeyer up on the river bluffs. Knobloch said he “knocked doors in Springfield and testified before Congress in Washington, D.C.,” for aid money.
“We got buy-in by the state and federal government,” Knobloch said. “They said, ‘We think what you’re planning here makes sense. We’ll help whatever we can do on this end.’”
By the second week of December, state and federal officials were on site for a ground breaking ceremony. Then, in early 1994, the town started coming together.
But all was not smooth sailing. Knobloch said an environmental review of the area revealed some shagbark hickory trees were a breeding ground for the Indiana bat.
“We had to steer clear of those,” Knobloch said.
Archeological sites nearly 5,000 years old were discovered and had to under go remediation.
Knobloch credits Valmeyer’s eventual success at rebuilding to the citizens and institutions, including three churches, that stuck around during the entire process.
“There was no-buy-in necessary. They were satisfied and wanted to be a part of it,” Knobloch said. “It’s great, 25 years later, to see that’s all still going strong.”
He still lives in Valmeyer. “I’ll probably have to be carried out some day,” Knobloch joked.
The town’s website and leadership looks forward rather than back: “Proven by the flooding in 1993, the people of Valmeyer, our business community, and village government are great examples of what can be accomplished with perseverance and a cooperative spirit.”
Heavner, the current mayor, said, “Saying we’ve made lemonade out of a box of lemons would be the case.”
“There’s some scars,” Heavner said. “One of the realities I’ve got to remind myself of is a large percentage of people that are here now, weren’t here then — whether they hadn’t been born yet or 5 years old or whatever it might be. So, that’s changed quite a bit.”
“Before that, everyone kind of knew about it,” Heavner said.
Though the flood was a disaster, Heavner said it provided the opportunity for growth and development in Valmeyer. “When we moved on top of the bluff, we had the opportunity to build everything new,” Heavner said.
In the town’s old location on the floodplain, no new homes were allowed to be built because of the chance of flood. “That was putting a stranglehold on the opportunity for the village to grow in itself,” Heavner said.
Maggi Rippelmeyer, one of the new generation of Valmeyer residents, shared her thoughts about the village in a post on Facebook about her hometown in light of the 25th anniversary of the flooding.
Rippelmeyer wrote, “I see the video footage and the pictures and I think of all the people in my life that worked so hard to keep the spirit of this town, old and new, alive and to them I owe a huge thank you still 25 years later!!”
“While I wasn’t old enough to help you all did what you needed to do and because of that I’ve made memories my entire life in ‘Old Town’ and ‘New Town’ and will continue to be able to do so for the rest of my life,” Rippelmeyer wrote. “I can’t imagine calling any other place my home so thank you for fighting on and rebuilding the best place in the world!”
“We will always be the Valiant Valmeyer Pirates!!” Rippelmeyer wrote.