Wednesday, July 17, 2013

20 Years Ago: The Great Flood of 1993

St. Genevieve, MO

St. Louis, MO -- (June, 1993)  After 2 months of unending Spring rains, Old Man River finally rebelled. Runoff from storms in Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois forces the Mississippi well over its banks. The same river that left behind fertile valleys after hundreds of previous floods, reclaimed the land with savage fury.  Along the Mississippi River in St. Louis, the waters were so high, that they nearly reach the base of the Gateway arch, 5 stories above flood stage.

In the aftermath, experts called it the most devastating flood in US history. During the Great Flood of 93, fifty lives were lost and property damage exceeded $40 billion, making it the third most costly US disaster ever. (as of 1993)

Weather forecasters blamed it on a stalled Bermuda high pressure system, but locals simply referred to it as bad luck. With floodwaters rising at a rate of 1 foot per day, The US Army Corps of Engineers were able to provide adequate warning to communities along each affected river. Some families were forced to evacuate -- others chose to relocate -- but many decided to remain and stand their ground.

In early July 1993, as flood waters crept into low-lying areas, many residents began a race against the clock. But holding back steadily rising rivers wouldn't be an easy task. To be successful, communities needed help.

During these early stages of the flood, hundreds of sandbagging operations were taking place throughout the St. Louis metro area. It was a scene that was repeated in communities throughout Missouri and Southern Illinois. In river towns all along the flood plain, citizens prepared for the worst.

Spanish Lake, MO

 On July 6th, I was given a long-term assignment with a simple mission statement – videotape and photograph the flood. But it wasn't long before word leaked that I had some disaster experience and I was drafted to serve as an aide to Captain Vince Wright (STLFD Squad-2).  It was my job to serve as a liaison between emergency services and FEMA as well as the Salvation Army.

I knew very little about the area, which extended from Hannibal to the North, to Cape Girardeau in the South, roughly the distance between Los Angeles and San Francisco. FEMA provided me with a fire department Suburban, a few old ESSO maps and a cellular phone. I was told to report back on conditions in the field.

Everywhere I drove -- everywhere -- folks were sandbagging. Children, the elderly tourists -- anyone who could fill a bag and toss it onto the levee. On the first day it took me 14 hours to make my rounds. On the second day I was able to shave-off an hour. By the third day, I was assigned to tour the area in a helicopter.

From the air, the Great Flood lived up to its name. It was still early July, but it was clear to emergency personnel that within weeks the Mississippi, Missouri and Illinois rivers would overflow their banks in a very big way.

Chopper Pilot Rich Barkledge and I decide to make this our first stop, and he eases the unmarked Jet Ranger onto a landing zone prepared by local firefighters. Soon after we land, the leaders of this renegade band of baggers stop us cold dead.

"We need sand! We need bags! We need food and cool drinks!” And one final plea, “We desperately need porta-potties!"

Fire service and law enforcement were serving in their best capacity. Keeping the homes secure and the sandbaggers safe. If OSHA or NIOSH were here, though, they'd close this site down in a nanosecond. I made some quick calculations, and noted that the 1000 plus sandbaggers were working in polluted waters on a haphazard dam some 10 feet below the water line.

If a "blowout" were to take place, it would take at least 100 emergency personnel to make rescues and safely evacuate the area. I glanced over at the standby emergency team -- a 4-man engine company, 2-person medic unit, 2 deputy sheriffs, and a retired Salvation Army captain. I shook my head, and never allowed that thought to enter my mind again.

 Wall of Wonder
During the next few weeks, Spanish Lake was to be our "first" and "last" stop each and every day. Like so many, we were convinced that the folks here could hold back the river.

Building the sandbag wall was a monumental task: Hundreds of truckloads of sand were used to fill nearly 2-million sandbags. Medics gave out hundreds of injections to protect volunteers against hepatitis. Relief agencies served thousands of meals. It was a Wall of Wonder, with its own designer, a retired bridge engineer.

The town became the gathering place for international media. In fact, there were more satellite uplink trucks than dump trucks -- more camera crews than firefighters or police officers -- and enough still photographers that a local camera shop was selling film from the back of a rented van.

 There were volunteers from throughout the world, many devoting their time while vacationing in the Gateway city. One couple in particular, newlyweds from Bradford, England, had arrived directly from Lambert-St. Louis International. Another family from Auckland, New Zealand claimed a certain section of the wall for the folks down under. Everyone who worked at Spanish Lake signed their own bag, and that section remains as a memorial to all of the volunteers, who devoted their time and energy to holding back the 500 year Flood.
Three generations of the Scott family, who lived in these homes, kept a constant vigil around the clock. I know, they'd page me at 3 AM to ask for shovels, sand and bags. During the course of 4 weeks, I signed for tens of thousands of dollars in emergency resources, and this was just one location out of dozens.

Losing The Battle

But the floodwaters just kept rising and rising, and the wall couldn't be built strong enough or fast enough. Leaks developed, and the super saturated ground prevented volunteers from working safely. Finally, during the last week of July, the town's Fire Chief gave the order to abandon the effort

To say this was an emotional moment for the volunteers and families is an understatement. After 30 long days, time and hope had run out. No one questioned the decision, though. Instead, volunteers retreated to safer, higher ground, popped open beverages donated by the local brewery giant, and celebrated a victory of the human spirit.

A few days later the river won and floodwaters overran the wall, inundating the church and all of the homes. Over 6,000 people had come here to assist the Scott family, and each year, on the anniversary of the flood, the Scotts send out thousands of cards of thanks.

 Onto Other Problems

This scene was repeated every day for weeks. Grafton, West Alton, Potage des Sioux, St. Charles, Valmeyer – they were all inundated by flood waters, some 20 feet deep.On August 3rd, Captain Vince Wright, Pilot Rich Barkladge, and I were surveying areas downstream of St. Louis from the helicopter, which had become home.

I hear the pilot's voice through the headset, “Guys, we can make it in 15 minutes.”

 As news choppers circled, we dropped down to 100 ft. for a closer look. I stepped onto the skid, and shot that evening's lead national story. The levee had been breeched, and the 24 square mile island was filling so fast, that many residents were trapped.

 Along with a helo from USCG Station St. Louis, we began picking up trapped residents and flying them to the relative safety of the West levee, where the Army had set up an evacuation ferry. It didn't take long for floodwaters to fill farmlands and the town itself. Kaskaskia was gone in less than two hours.

We landed on Main Street to check businesses for any strays. No one in sight. But as we were about to lift-off, we noticed a lone woman with three Holsteins in tow. As was our routine, Vince tossed the coin. And as usual, I lost and got to stay behind.

As the crew lifted the farmwoman to safety, I led the cows to the safest (and highest) place I could find -- the Catholic Church. As we walked down the aisle together, all four mooing, I tied the bovine churchgoers to the main altar. The Coast Guard led them out a few weeks later. They survived the flood, but I doubt that they survived the slaughter house.

Later that day, while returning to the St. Louis Fire Department helipad, we watched as another levee had been breeched, and was quickly overrunning a nicely kept farm. As the owner sat on a nearby hill, he watched as the river swept away his home, furnishings, farm buildings and heavy equipment. I can never forget that scene, nor the lethal blow that Mother Nature dealt that man and tens of thousands like him.


Posted in memory of my partners during the Summer of 1993, Captain Vincent Wright and Pilot Rich Barkledge

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