Remembering the Great Flood of 1993
Thirty years later, risk improvements have been made but there is still work to do
The spooky, skeletal remains of the Renz Correctional Center near Jefferson City are a grim reminder of the danger that lurks in the nearby Missouri River. Thirty years ago, the former women’s prison was ravaged by the Great Flood of 1993 and abandoned in its wake. Today, what’s left of the vine-covered building continues to deteriorate as soybeans grow around it.
The decaying prison is only one visible victim of the 1993 flood, which still persists as the most costly in our country’s modern history. As we enter the fall of 2023 with much of the Midwest still in some stage of drought, it’s hard to imagine that, three decades ago, this region was reeling from unprecedented flooding. More than 20 million acres were inundated that year, roughly twice the size of New Jersey. So much water covered the Midwest that it resembled a sixth Great Lake when viewed in satellite pictures.
Adjusted for inflation, the flood caused $36.9 billion in damage across nine states. Missouri was the hardest hit, and 30 years later, the 1993 flood is still the worst natural disaster ever for the Show-Me State in terms of property losses.
Like this year’s drought, the 1993 flood developed over many weeks, officially lasting from May through September with record-breaking flooding along the region’s major waterways. Thousands of homes were flooded or swept away. Nearly all of the agricultural levees on the Missouri River were breached or destroyed, according to the National Weather Service. In Mokane, Mo., where my kids go to school, the Missouri River engulfed the community for six weeks. And some towns, such as nearby Rhineland, decided to relocate to higher ground after the water receded.
For those who lived through it, the flood left an indelible mark. Sometimes those marks are literal. I’ve seen high-water lines from 1993 recorded on structures in river-adjacent towns, farms and MFA facilities, the gauge by which all future floods are measured.
The Great Flood of 1993, though, is notable for more than just its staggering toll. The disaster provided some tough lessons about flood risk. In the past 30 years, tremendous efforts have been made to repair levees, install gates and floodwalls and even move entire communities from the river bottoms. The Army Corps of Engineers’ position on levee operation has also changed. Now, if a flood challenges any levee, the Corps can provide flood-fighting support.
Born from the 1993 flood, the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program has helped thousands of homeowners move to safer areas to eliminate the “flood-rebuild-flood” cycle. Under this program, once properties are purchased, the land must be dedicated to open space, recreational or wetland uses.
Another example of positive change is the Kansas City Levees Project, a $529 million improvement plan to reduce flood risk along the Missouri and Kansas rivers. The project will raise levees and floodwalls, strengthen old infrastructure and improve water pumping stations. Construction should be complete by 2026.
I wasn’t here in Missouri to experience the 1993 flood, but I was here in 2019 and covered that year’s flood for Today’s Farmer. Though devastating, the 2019 flood didn’t cause anywhere near the damage as ’93, attributed, in part, to better floodplain management.
But do these improvements foster a false sense of security? I wonder that every time I drive through the Chesterfield Valley, which was underwater in the summer of 1993. Today, the St. Louis suburb along the Missouri River is overflowing with restaurants, hotels, shopping centers, apartments and entertainment venues. Some say this development is possible because area levees have been improved over the last 30 years. Others say these changes only amplify flood risk.
How to better manage our state’s floodplains is the topic of constant debate and analysis. In fact, a study is now underway by the Corps to reduce flood risk and damages and improve resilience along the lower Missouri River. The study should be complete in 2027.
Are these endeavors enough or are we fighting a losing battle? There have been several major floods since 1993, and the rivers often win, despite our best efforts. Nonetheless, we have to make sure that the lessons of the past are not forgotten. After all, we never know when the next Great Flood will be, just that it will likely happen some day. Let’s hope we’re better prepared than we were 30 years ago.
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