Twenty years ago this Tuesday, the surging Missouri River burst through Chesterfield’s levee and drowned its commercial district in a muddy soup. The roiling rush heralded the climax of the long, destructive and wearying summer of the Great Flood.
Two months ago, the Missouri almost got within 6 feet of the calamitous crest of 1993. Hardly anyone noticed.
Commerce buzzed without interruption along Chesterfield’s 1.5-mile strip of new stores, from Culver’s to the Bentley dealership. Young athletes played on at the sports complex near the improved levee. Inspectors drove its earthworks looking for leaks, but there weren’t any.
The reason for all that confidence is the 11.7-mile Monarch-Chesterfield Levee, rebuilt at $70 million to protect Chesterfield’s revived and thriving retail district from a theoretical deluge worse than the Great Flood. The Missouri’s ho-hum crest on June 3 stopped 15 feet short of the levee’s high new crown.
At that same spot on July 30, 1993, the river overwhelmed the levee and poured across the commercial district and Spirit of St. Louis Airport. The Missouri combined with the Mississippi which, by grim coincidence, also was reaching its high mark for the summer. The combined flow — six times normal — rose exactly halfway up the 64-step grand staircase to the Gateway Arch. The Mississippi’s crest downtown on Aug. 1, 1993, was 49.6 feet, almost 20 feet above flood stage. It is the record at St. Louis.
The immensity of heartbreak and destruction inspired changes to the landscape — new or higher levees in places, land surrendered to the river’s caprice in others.
Building things along the path of such mercurial and immense power has its perils. Pierre Laclede wisely founded his village almost 250 years ago on a low bluff near the meeting of the great rivers. But ever since, people and commerce have migrated onto the wide, fertile flood plains — to be sundered, to rebuild and be sundered again.
For many people and towns, 1993 was too much. The loss across nine states was $12 billion, with $3 billion in Missouri alone; 55,000 buildings destroyed or damaged; 95,000 refugees in need of public aid. Two-thirds of the levees along the Missouri and upper Mississippi were overwhelmed. About 50 people died, mainly in vehicles driven into flood-swollen streams.
In Missouri and Illinois, government disaster money bought more than 7,700 properties, removing them from future residential use. When the rivers rose again in 1995, there were few heart-rending tales of dispossession.
In St. Charles, where the Great Flood chased 400 families from the Princess Jodi and other vulnerable mobile-home parks, the city plans to use those 110 fallow acres for a sports complex. In Lemay, a former neighborhood of 90 homes on the River Des Peres is a St. Louis County park. Grafton and Valmeyer moved most of their residents “up the bluff,” building all-new homes and streets away from the river.
Along the wide Missouri River bottomland from Iowa to St. Louis, where nearly all the levees failed, more than 35 square miles now lay unprotected, allowing floodwater to roll in. An additional 73 square miles has been set aside for conservation. Combined, that’s about 6 percent of the land between the bluffs.
Most of the damaged levees were rebuilt, and a few more were added. St. Peters, Festus-Crystal City and Ste. Genevieve, Mo., all have high new levees. A failed one at Maryland Heights was rebuilt and raised. The concrete floodwall protecting St. Louis’ industrial bottoms, which nearly failed, has been reinforced. The lower River Des Peres levees were raised.
Some people simply returned to ravaged land. Virgil and Darleen Gummersheimer built a new home on their farm near Columbia, Ill., where a levee break on crest day destroyed their home. Helicopter footage of its obliteration in rushing current is one of the most enduring images of that summer.
Gummersheimer didn’t like talking about it then, and still doesn’t. “I’ve put it behind me,” he said.
Does he think about whether it can happen again? “Nope,” he said.
USINESSES IN THE BOTTOMLAND
The most visible change in the bottomland — and, in the dissenting view, the most foolish — is the massive reinforcement of the Chesterfield-Monarch Levee. Promoters say the financial boom in Chesterfield Valley is its own justification. The old Gumbo Flats is home to 840 businesses, more than three times its pre-1993 trade, which shovel more than $7.5 million annually into Chesterfield’s treasury.
“Chesterfield Valley certainly has achieved success,” said David Human, lawyer and spokesman for the Monarch-Chesterfield Levee District.
Human speaks cautiously of never saying never, but he lists reasons why the district considers another breach almost impossible. He said the levee was rebuilt with an additional 7 feet of height, above the fabled “500-year flood” that hydrologists calculate. The 1993 crest at St. Charles was rated as a 108-year flood.
Brad Walker, rivers director for the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, said that isn’t the point. Walker said people shouldn’t be building on the bottomland, which are the rivers’ own creation and where floods are supposed to go.
“We don’t really ever learn that lesson, and even if we do, we forget it very quickly,” Walker said. “Even if you build a bigger levee, all you do is move the flood somewhere else.”
Aldophus Busch, a board member of the Great Rivers Habitat Alliance, is more optimistic. Busch agrees with Walker on the purpose of flood plains, but said the removal of so many residential properties after 1993 “means that people are figuring it out. I believe the tide has turned.”
Busse, of the Army Corps of Engineers, said Chesterfield has a strong levee. He declined to discuss the wisdom of building such a structure, calling that “a policy question, not an engineering question.”
He has a “high level of confidence” that the area’s urban defenses could withstand another 1993 flood, except for the levees and concrete walls of the Metro East Sanitary District. That’s a big exception — the district runs from north of Granite City south to Cahokia and is home to 115,000 people, all or parts of 13 cities and many heavy industries, with potential for trouble in adjoining districts.
As for that district, Busse would say only that its system “likely would” hold against a 1993 flood, as it did 20 years ago. “I don’t feel as good about it as I do about (protection) in St. Louis,” he said.
The corps is working with a new agency, the Southwestern Illinois Flood Prevention District Council, to improve the defenses along the American Bottom. The council, created in 2009, has plans for tens of millions of dollars of work in the Metro East.
Les Sterman, the council’s construction chief, said the environmentalists’ theory of flood plain preservation is soundest, all things considered.
“That’s the ideal, but we’re dealing with a decision made by our ancestors,” he said. “Now we have residents, many of them with lower incomes, and vital industries along the river. You just can’t move them all.”
‘PEOPLE DON’T CHANGE EASILY’
Some people and communities choose to live with what the river brings. Beth and Gary Machens, who farm some of the rich land between the rivers at West Alton, had their ranch home raised onto stilts after the Flood of 1993 swamped it to the gutters. The 1995 flood put 2 feet of water beneath their dry living quarters.
Beth Machens said they stay to be near their farm, and like where they live.
“We take our risks,” Beth Machens said. “We have good neighbors and friends, people we can trust and count on. West Alton is a wonderful place when it’s not flooding.”
Clarksville, Mo., and lower Grafton don’t want levees because they depend upon tourists charmed by views of the river. Clarksville stacks sandbags every few years, as it did this spring. Grafton adopts a more passive defense, moving its “road closed” signs as the river rises and falls.
The people of Valmeyer, 20 miles south of St. Louis, chose to fight no more. The levee break that destroyed the Gummersheimer home also overwhelmed their town. Most agreed to use buyouts and other aid to rebuild from scratch uphill from their ruined town. The new Valmeyer, population 1,200, resembles a suburban community, with cul-de-sacs and new homes and public buildings. About 25 families remained on the bottoms, their homes scattered among vacant lots. A park and ball field remain downhill.
The Rev. Dave Riebeling, pastor of St. John United Church of Christ, has tended his flock since 1988. The old church, built in 1912, was demolished, replaced by a new one uphill three years after the flood. In between, the congregation met in a nursing home in Waterloo.
For a long time, he said, the congregation was scattered “in chaos and confusion. These were the days before cellphones. We didn’t know where some people were. We had families in tents. I’d see clusters of Valmeyer people in the Walmart in Waterloo, talking and hugging and crying.”
The congregation had more funerals than usual in the years just after the flood, which Riebeling attributes to the prolonged stress of dispossession. “People don’t change easily,” he said. As the new town was raised and life slowly took on new routines, “the flood remained the line in everyone’s minds — births, marriages, deaths were all before or afterward,” he said.
Today, people in Valmeyer are grateful they moved. When they drive down to the old park for gatherings, “it’s no longer a painful place to be,” he said.
“The memories are fond again, except for the flood.”