The Mississippi’s ruinous deluge

Midwesterners battle the flood of the century

July 26 1993

The Mississippi’s ruinous deluge

Midwesterners battle the flood of the century

July 26 1993

The Mississippi’s ruinous deluge



Midwesterners battle the flood of the century

The flood of the century has changed Larry Morgan’s daily routine—but only a little. The 46-year-old mechanic still leaves his neat redbrick home in rural St. Charles County, Mo., before sunrise to commute to work at one of aircraft maker McDonnell Douglas’s several factories in nearby St. Louis. But now, instead of driving,

he steps from his tiny cement front porch into a 16-foot aluminum skiff. Since July 9, Morgan’s house has been a solitary island amid the steadily rising flood waters of the Mississippi River, America’s longest waterway, which meanders 2,500 miles from Lake Itasca, Minn., to the Gulf of Mexico. By the middle of last week, the nearest passable road still above the brown floodwaters was VA miles away across submerged fields. Pausing one afternoon before climbing back into his skiff for the return trip home, he explained nonchalantly how, early each day, he and some other stranded neighbors “boat over to

Well, the rails are washed out north of town; We gotta head for higher ground. We can’t come back till the water goes down. Five feet high and rising. —Johnny Cash

the road and get in our cars and go to work.” Some of the hundreds of thousands of midwestern Americans battling one of the greatest floods in the country’s history have been less successful at maintaining their humor. “I can’t take it any more,” sobbed 24-year-old Christina Hein last week, as she stood briefly in the arms of President Bill Clinton during his inspection tour of Des Moines, Iowa. The city of 250,000 people has been without drinking water since July 12, when a swollen tributary of the Mississippi overflowed into the water-treatment plant. Tempers frayed in several of the five worst-hit states, as almost daily thunderstorms accompanied by torrential downpours threatened to push already record-level currents to even more damaging levels. And as brown water boiled over dozens of levees protecting communities and farmland along both the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, the $3.2 billion in federal disaster aid that Clinton promised during his Iowa visit seemed certain to fall far short of a damage

toll that some observers predicted could top $13 billion.

“The Hundred-Year Flood,” as many people were already calling it last week, had its beginnings in heavier-than-normal rains last November in the upper Mississippi River valley. That was followed by above-normal winter snowfall in the area—twice the size of British Columbia—that is drained by the upper Mississippi and its largest tributary, the Missouri. With spring came more rains, double the average for May and June in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa. By late June, rising water had carried away so many navigation markers on the Mississippi that the U.S. Coast Guard closed a 425-mile stretch of the river north of St. Louis to shipping— stranding an estimated 3,000 river barges.

By last week, officials had declared Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri and Iowa federal disaster areas, and blamed the flooding for at least 25 deaths. Along one 260-mile stretch of the Mississippi above St. Louis, only one of half a dozen bridges across the river remained open—and only to local and emergency traffic.

Flooded railway lines through the heart of the country snarled as much as a quarter of U.S. train traffic. And at many spots along the affected rivers, including Hannibal, Mo., the boyhood home of author Mark Twain, residents piled sandbags atop strained levees and prayed for divine protection.

But nowhere was the battle to protect life and property more dramatic than in St. Charles County. The area, with a population of 212,000, lies just north of St. Louis, forming a narrow peninsula between the Missouri and Mississippi at the point where the two great rivers meet and are joined by the smaller Illinois River. Placed in triple jeopardy by the confluence of the three waterways, the county has seen floods before: locally famous inundations occurred in 1973 and 1986. But last week, Gary Schuchardt, the white-haired director of the St. Charles Emergency Management Agency, estimated that more than a third of the county, an area about the size of Metropolitan Toronto, was under water. Said Schuchardt: “We have broken all records.” As rain contin-

ued to fall locally almost every day last week, and with the flood crest on the upper Mississippi not expected to reach St. Louis until early this week, Schuchardt added: “We don’t see any relief in sight.”

For residents in the eastern third of the county, the view was of water—everywhere. The flood produced some jarring images. On July 14, U.S. Coast Guard Reserve petty officer Steven Daugherty used a partly inundated highway intersection as a makeshift launching ramp to put a 17-foot motorboat into the water. Dodging half-submerged road signs, Daugherty nosed his craft through a gap in the trees, where a smaller road joined the highway, and took the boat out onto a broad lake that in normal times is cropland quilted in rows of corn and soybeans. The vast expanse of water stretched to the horizon, the view broken only by green treetops and the angular roofs of submerged homes and barns.

Daugherty’s mission, to check on the condition of Larry Morgan’s neighbors in the small riverside community of Portage des Sioux, underscored the hazards facing rescue workers

and residents alike as they adapted to their altered environment. Several times, the 31-yearold reservist was forced to change course to avoid live electric power lines that hung to within three feet of the water. Floating debris, everything from children’s toys to household

heating fuel tanks still charged with pressurized propane, dotted the top of the water. Beneath the surface, submerged fenceposts, sheds and even fire hydrants posed additional dangers. The trip to Portage des Sioux, usually 15 minutes by car from the intersection where Daugherty launched the boat, took nearly an hour.

The community of 503 people, however, offered a striking example of local resilience. Although the water that covered more than half the town by midweek was chest-deep at some intersections, at least 300 residents re fused to leave. Some were staying “to protect their homes from looters,” said Sheila Griffith, 34, standing on the front porch of a mobile home with its floor barely above water. Others, like lifelong resident Moe Boschert, simply refused to be pushed out by anything as arbitrary as a flood. Declared Boschert, 56, as he sipped a beer in the town tavern, Red’s Again: “I’ll stay in this town until it floats me away.”

The cream-colored brick tavern is a focus of local determination to wait out the flood. As Boschert and several companions drank and compared reports about how high the water was upstream, co-owners Margie Daniels, 43, and Jo Ann Meyers, 36, passed around moralebuilding freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. For her part, Daniels said that she was undaunted by the water that had crept up to the tavern’s walls on two sides. To get to work that morning, she told Maclean’s, “I put on my boyfriend’s chest waders.” Unfazed by the flood, she said that she was collecting photographs to compare with earlier inundations. Said Daniels: “We already have the frame ready for our flood pictures.”

At the town’s library and its one grocery store, people planning to make the boat trip to the nearest road write down their telephone number on chalkboards so that other residents needing to leave can get a free lift. Blue portable toilets dot the streets to relieve the load on the community’s small sewage treatment plant, which by late last week was still functioning in more than three feet of water. “Our biggest concern is electricity,” said store owner and town alderman Donald DeLaney. “If it goes, the water plant goes.”

Still, some residents were beginning to show the strain. “It’s different when you’re a kid,” observed Martha Lopez, 34. “In 1973, we got out the floats and swam and played in the water and had I a great time.” Now, said Lopez, “when Í you’ve got three little kids and you m can’t flush the toilets, that’s a disaster.” Added Sharon DeLaney, a 24-year-old mother concerned about warnings from health officials that overburdened municipalities upstream were discharging raw sewage into the river: “I don’t want my daughter in the water.” Elsewhere in St. Charles County, feelings


about the rising floodwaters reflected the same mixture of dismay and dogged determination.

Orville Ohlms, 65, took the long view characteristic of a man whose family has farmed the area’s rich soil for more than a century. Although floodwaters have destroyed an estimated $50,000 worth of corn and soybeans on 160 acres of his land, he noted: “I’ve been farming here for 50 years and this is the first time we’ll lose it all. The river’s been good to us.” For her part, single mother Dianna Barnett, 35, who sought refuge with her five children at a Red Cross shelter, noted: “Everybody has pulled together. It’s like a bond.”

Those bonds were likely to be tested further before the floods subsided, however. A kilometre from the trailer park where thighhigh water rippled around Barnett’s mobile home, fireman Michael Morris, 44, kept a watchful eye on the levee protecting 400 other St. Charles homes from the swollen Missouri River. “Where the current comes

through and smashes against the levee, that’s where you have problems,” he told Maclean’s. “It’s broken here three times that I know of. If we get two more feet like they say, I don’t see the levee holding.” Less than 24 hours later, the levee gave way.

For St. Charles County, as well as the rest of the Midwest, most forecasters predicted that the worst dangers would pass by early this week, when the flood crest was expected to move downstream from St. Louis. And

once the surge of water reaches Cairo, 111., another 150 miles to the south, the flood was expected to dissipate: from that point on to the Gulf of Mexico, the Mississippi’s channel grows wider and deeper, capable of containing more than five times the volume of water that was causing so much damage on its upper reaches. Economists, meanwhile, said that the flood’s toll was unlikely to match the $23-billion cost of last year’s Hurricane Andrew, which devastated south Florida and the Louisiana coast.

Like many of his neighbors in St. Charles County, Larry Morgan concentrated on preserving his good humor in the face of disaster. Callers who reached his answering machine last week were greeted with a recording of Johnny Cash singing his ballad of an earlier Mississippi flood, ending with the chorus: “Five feet high and rising.” Midwesterners could only resolve that, once the waters eventually began to fall, they would emerge from the deluge of the century dampened but undefeated. □