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A tale of two cities: Chesterfield and Valmeyer took different ways back from Great Flood of '93

This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 30, 2013: Most springs, nature sends a reminder to the residents of the St. Louis region that they live at the confluence of the Mississippi and the Missouri, two major American rivers that have the potential to rise up and storm the levees.

Sometimes, it’s a gentle but firm reminder, as when the Mississippi crawls over Leonor K. Sullivan Boulevard on the St. Louis riverfront. Sometimes it’s a panicked plea delivered on the morning news for volunteer sandbaggers to help out in St. Charles or West Alton or other towns at river’s edge.

It is during these periods that residents who live and work inland become conscious again of river vocabulary: floodplains and levees, flood stage and crests -- and terms like 50-year floods that are difficult to understand but, gosh, they sound scary.

For St. Louisans in their late 20s and older, the point of reference is the Great Flood of ’93 -- a disaster that made national headlines for weeks because, at times, it appeared that the Midwest was drowning.

The flooding in ’93 stretched from May through September, precipitated by a wet fall, followed by heavy spring rains, according to the National Weather Service. The flooding affected thousands of people and hundreds of towns across nine states: North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Wisconsin and Illinois. The flooding killed 50 and inflicted $15 billion in damages as it overtopped levees along both the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. At least 10,000 homes were destroyed, another 40,000 damaged.

The rivers reached historic highs throughout the St. Louis region.

The Mississippi climbed halfway up the grand staircase to the Gateway Arch when the river crested in St. Louis at a record-breaking 49.6 feet on Aug 1, 1993. That was 20 feet above flood stage and just 2 feet from the top of the city’s 52-foot flood wall. There are plaques that mark the spot on Arch stairs, though most days it is impossible to envision the Mississippi that deep.

In Alton, the Mississippi crested at 42.72 feet on Aug. 1; the flood line painted on the Con Agra grain elevator has become a reference point for flood watchers to gauge the seriousness of the river’s encroachments.

At St. Charles, the Missouri set a new record, cresting at 39.6 feet on Aug. 2; the river was at flood stage there for 94 days.

The summer of 1993 was one of sandbagging and sweltering heat. Thousands of volunteers answered the calls of the region’s river towns and did their good turns during the hottest month of the year. On July 25 -- at the height of the area’s flood fight -- it was 95 miserably humid degrees.

Breached levees, watery streets and exhausted evacuees headlined the local and national news. Some of the images became iconic:

  • The farmhouse of Virgil and Darleen Gummersheimer swirling in the torrent before busting to pieces after the Mississippi breached a levee near Columbia, Ill. on Aug. 1.
  • Caskets unearthed from a cemetery in Hardin, Mo. -- a dastardly deed of the Missouri.
  • Dozens of propane tanks set free and bobbing in the Mississippi, prompting the evacuation of 5,000 people in south St. Louis and Lemay.

After the disaster, floodplain dwellers throughout the Midwest had to make tough choices over where – or whether – to rebuild. In the St. Louis region, two communities landed on either end of the spectrum:

  • Valmeyer, Ill., an old farming town of 900 that was submerged by the Mississippi River, chose to pick itself up, dry itself off and move out of the floodplain, to the bluffs 400 feet above.
  • Chesterfield, which had incorporated just five years before the Great Flood, strengthened its levees and redeveloped the Chesterfield Valley after it was inundated by the Missouri. The valley, home to 240 businesses in 1993, has more than 800 businesses today.

Starting today, the Beacon will be profiling these two communities in a series of stories, looking back on the Great Flood of ’93.
A watershed moment

This summer marks the 20th anniversary of the Great Flood of 1993. While the flooding began in May and stretched into September, the Mississippi River crested in St. Louis at a record-breaking 49.6 feet on Aug. 1. St. Louis wasn't alone; many communities along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers experienced record crests and devastation. In a series of stories from reporters Robert Koenig and Mary Delach Leonard, the Beacon looks at the impact of the flood on floodplain management as well as two communities that suffered extraordinary damage.

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.