Thirty years ago, water came barreling down the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, as well as their tributaries, flooding massive swaths of cropland, causing billions in property damage and setting records for flooding heights and duration.
The great flood changed landscapes, caused entire towns to move and knocked loose coffins in rural river bottom cemeteries. Three decades later, those affected by the flood still have vivid memories.
The Flood of ’93 tested flood control structures across the Midwest like no flood before it, and it led to efforts to strengthen them in the years that followed. It also was a reminder to be prepared for anything, as the flood peaked deep into the summer, well after the typical high waters, and flood conditions persisted into October in many locations.
Dave Busse works as chief of engineering for the Army Corps of Engineers office at St. Louis, and he has been there for 42 years.
“When we were in the summer of ’93, our frame of reference was the 1973 flood,” he says. “That was the big one — that was the one everybody talked about.”
Busse says that flood crested at 43.2 feet on the Mississippi River at St. Louis. The 1993 flood broke that mark by more than 6 feet. The floods surged in the spring, seemed to wind down, then rose again in the summer as relentless rains drenched Iowa, Missouri and Illinois.
“The skies opened up, basically, in July,” Busse says. “It seemed to rain heavily every day, mostly in Iowa, but also in Missouri and Illinois. It just pounded and pounded and pounded and pounded.”
He says he knew as summer rolled on that new records were coming.
“By July it became pretty obvious, not only were we going to break the ’73 record, we were going to break the record for months,” he says.
Busse recalls the tension as the rolling floodwaters tested levees and flood walls like never before, and the flood crests moved well higher than ever before.
“It was high stress at the time because it was into the unknown,” he says.
The river eventually crested at 49.8 feet on Aug. 1, coming within a few feet of topping the St. Louis flood wall. A levee south of the city failed around that time, providing some relief. Busse says the immediate St. Louis area saw the levees mostly hold, albeit with some repairs for seeping water, but many other areas saw levees over-topped.
“There were a lot of people who sustained significant, catastrophic type of flooding,” he says. “A lot of people ended up suffering because of that.”
Danny Kuenzel, who farms in Franklin and Gasconade counties in east central Missouri, says the Flood of ’93 was the most challenging flood he’s faced.
“’93 was by far the worst,” he says. “Our bottoms sustained several thousand acres of sand in fields.”
After a wet fall in 1992, heavy, widespread rains during the spring and summer of 1993 produced one of the biggest and longest floods in Missouri history. The Missouri River at Hermann, near where Kuenzel farms, was above flood stage for 77 days, according to the National Weather Service. Some towns along the Mississippi River in Missouri and Illinois saw flood stage water levels for nearly 200 days.
According to the NWS, “On the Missouri River it was estimated that nearly all of the 700 privately built agricultural levees were over-topped or destroyed.” Navigation on the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers closed in early July, costing $2 million a day in lost commerce.
The floodwaters deposited sand across the fertile bottom ground fields, 18 inches in places, or as deep as 8 to 10 feet in spots, Kuenzel says.
“Some of that land was abandoned,” he says.
Some of the land became publicly owned, used for wildlife preservation and other purposes.
Kuenzel and others have spent years working to bring the fertile soil back up above the sand deposits.
Historian Sean Rost, with the State Historical Society of Missouri, says the flood set records in many places.
“’93 in a lot of communities is the highest flood level mark,” he says.
Rost says the duration of the flood was part of the challenge.
“In many communities, all summer long the river was at flood stage,” he says.
While summers see thunderstorms, those months don’t usually see rain day after day, but 1993 saw exceptional rains in the summer, after above-normal rain in the fall of 1992 and the spring of 1993.
“It rained over half the month of July in many communities,” Rost says.
Rost also remembers the dramatic flooding in his hometown, Jefferson City, where the Missouri state capitol building on a bluff was surrounded by water, and the part of the community on the north side of the river was cut off from the rest of town.
Busse says after the flood, communities worked to raise money, and the U.S. government allocated money, to improve and update flood control structures.
“It was an opportunity to see where the weaknesses were and then do something about it,” Busse says. “… I would say overall in this area that the flood control systems are in much better shape than they were going into ’93, and a lot of that is because of ’93. A lot of people saw what was possible.”
The flood was a reminder not to assume anything about the Midwest’s major rivers and flooding.
“The only month St. Louis had never recorded flood stage was August, and now Aug. 1 is the all-time high for the Mississippi in St. Louis,” Busse says.
He says terms like “100-year flood” can be confusing. What it means is a flood that in any given year has a 1 in 100 chance of happening. He says statistically, the Flood of ’93 was a 300-year flood. But he says these distinctions are only as good as the data, and he says 100 years or so of weather and flood data is a relatively short time.
“Is it historically wet or historically dry or average?” Busse says of the last 100 years.
In addition to impacting flood control strategies, Rost says the devastating flood was the “knockout blow” for many rural communities in the major river bottoms, as some people relocated and never moved back.
“There was substantial population decline in a lot of these river bottom communities that never recovered,” he says.
Other communities such as Pattonsburg, Missouri, and Valmeyer, Illinois, opted to move their entire towns to higher ground after the 1993 flood.
This summer, the Missouri and the Mississippi are low and the Midwest is gripped by drought. But memories of the opposite conditions 30 years ago remain vivid.