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Generation Flood recalls growing up during the Great Flood of '93

LaShana Lewis poses for a portrait outside her old home in East St. Louis. Lewis initially didn't realize the extent of the flood's damage because her neighborhood often flooded during heavy rains.
Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
LaShana Lewis poses for a portrait outside her old home in East St. Louis. Lewis initially didn't realize the extent of the flood's damage because her neighborhood often flooded during heavy rains.

For people who were children and teenagers during the Great Flood of 1993, memories come like the river did then — murky, and in waves.

As the 25th anniversary approached, we asked followers on Twitter: If you were a child in 1993, how did you learn about the flood? Some said they heard their parents talking about evacuation plans. Others saw a news report on television. Many couldn’t remember exactly, but they had vivid recollections of the flood itself: water engulfing buildings, generators whirring in the dark, shovels scraping through sand and gravel.

We asked four people who were between the ages of 7 and 17 when the Great Flood of 1993 hit to share their stories.

West Alton, Missouri

Elizabeth Eisele was 7 years old and her mother was 8 months pregnant when the flood forced her family to move across the Missouri River to Florissant, where her grandparents lived.

“The water was coming, and we needed to get out,” Eisele remembers.

The flood destroyed the trailer — with only a single wall and the swing set remaining upright. “There was an Elmo poster on the wall, and my mom had said that was the only wall that was left standing,” Eisele said.

“Elmo survived.”

The first time Eisele returned to her former home, she looked for the swing set that had also survived. But it wasn’t there.

“It had been taken,” she said, “which is something kind of jarring as a kid. You wouldn’t think that someone would take your stuff after a disaster like this.”

East St. Louis, Illinois

For students in East St. Louis, it was nothing new to have life disrupted because of flooding. In the 1980s and ‘90s, officials repeatedly canceled classes after sewage overflowed into the kitchens, bathrooms and basement.

“So when the '93 flood came, we knew something was wrong because it backed up more than usual,” says LaShana Lewis, who turned 17 years old just before the flood started.

The now-defunct Martin Luther King Junior High School flooded after every rainfall, Lewis remembers. But the rains of 1993 were different. “We could barely see the top of the school because it had flooded so badly,” she said.

As summer ended, Lewis’ high school reopened but still had entire rooms that were unusable.

“We had to combine classrooms a lot,” Lewis said. “It was a little bit of pandemonium, but we kind of all just dealt with it.”

The high school auditorium was closed for nearly the entire first semester after the flood. Lewis remembered that workers had to disassemble the chairs to clean out all the silt.

“They had drawn the curtains closed, and there was just this visible line at the bottom of the curtains where you could see, that’s how far up the water had gotten into the auditorium,” Lewis said. “We were just kind of amazed. The auditorium had flooded before, but it was always something where we just couldn’t go in there for a few weeks. And this time we really got the grasp of how bad the entire thing was.”

The water line on the auditorium curtain was still there in 2008, when Lewis went back for a reunion, she said. “They cleaned them the best the could,” she said. “I remember them saying they were expensive to replace, which, given the size of the stage, I could understand.”

The Flood of 1993 interrupted life in East St. Louis the way it did in numerous other Midwestern riverside towns, but Lewis said her neighbors were already used to dealing with disruptions they couldn’t control.

“The unfortunate thing is because we were so used to things being deteriorated, we took it as you know this is just a new thing we have to deal with.”

Somewhere near the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers

Bob Blaskiewicz was 17 years old when the Great Flood of 1993 hit, but he didn’t let that stop him when the National Guard came recruiting adult volunteers to sandbag. “I think I may have signed something that said I was 18,” Blaskiewicz says sheepishly. “I told a tiny fib, a wee tiny one.”

Blaskiewicz lived in Richmond Heights, so there was no risk of flooding in his neighborhood. Still, he wanted to help.

“I drove up to the confluence with a shovel hoping to fill sandbags or do something productive,” he said. “I went up without a final destination in mind. I figured I’d eventually get to the river and I’d find something to do.”

National Guardsmen put him in the back of a truck with older volunteers, who pointed out water lines still visible from flooding in the 1970s as they drove. “I remember thinking as a kid, why do you rebuild in these low-lying areas? But you know, I was a kid.”

By the time they pulled up to the sandbagging site, Blaskiewicz had no idea where he was; the truck had driven through so much water that it seemed like he was on an island. Disoriented but determined, Blaskiewicz joined the lines of volunteers tying sandbags and passing them from one end to the other.

“I remember standing on this big sand pile where people were filling bags,” he said. “Somewhere, someone either told us or there was a sign up that said, ‘Don’t take off your shoes when you’re standing on the sand because you might lose a toe.’”

As the hours passed, guardsmen brought bright lights and powerful generators to keep the darkness at bay.

“I never saw the water we were fighting except for once,” Blaskiewicz said. “You couldn’t see beyond, into the dark. At one point, I stepped out of the light, and when my eyes adjusted, I could see the water was creeping up slowly.”

Holt’s Summit, Missouri

Adam Flores was in third grade when the flooding reached his home in Holt’s Summit, Missouri, and made the bridge to nearby Jefferson City impassible.

“Everyday, we would drive across the river to go to school or church or the store or anything like that,” Flores said. “The river was an ever-present part of our life.”

Twenty-five years later, Flores will never forget the pounding rain that cut him off from the town across the river — and from his father.

“Was my dad even going to be able to make it home?” Flores remembers thinking. An Air Force Reservist, Flores’ father was scheduled to return from an overseas tour. “He was supposed to come home in a few days, but then the bridge was closed. How is he going to get home to us? He can’t cross the river.”

There was no time to wait for his return. The waters were rising toward the sloped driveway, which would send water into the house. Flores’ mother and younger siblings got the shovels and dug a trench in the gravel driveway while Flores spent an hour carving a channel into the yard to divert water around the garage.

As he dug, the then-8-year-old worried about damaging his most prized possession: the tie-dye Mickey Mouse shirt he was wearing. “I was very worried that it was going to get ruined and get messed up,” Flores remembers. “I didn’t know how it would take getting this wet.”

But he kept digging, even as the sky got darker and his shirt soaked through. Without his father at home, Flores knew he had to step up and help his family.

“There was this sense of being the oldest child, the oldest boy, the oldest son, like, this is what you do: You dig your family out of the rain.”

Follow Lindsay on Twitter: @StLouisLindsay

Marissanne Lewis-Thompson contributed reporting to this story.

Lindsay is the senior engagement producer at St. Louis Public Radio.