Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Flood of 1993, 20 years later

By Col. Christopher Hall

Commander, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers St. Louis District

St. Louis flood wall during the '93 flood.
Twenty years ago today the Mississippi River reached its highest point in recorded history on the St. Louis gage. The river was only a few feet from the top of the St. Louis flood wall, and had already overwhelmed many smaller levees throughout the region. The Flood of 1993 claimed dozens of lives, incurred billions of dollars in damages, and forever changed many communities along the river.

In our collective memory, the unprecedented flood has come to represent the risk we live with along these dynamic rivers. The Flood of 1993 is a shared experience of people coming together in a crisis, a motivation to lower our flood risk, and a historic lesson of living along the Mississippi River.

Corps of Engineers employees after the flood wall breach.
For some, the Flood of ‘93 calls to mind long hours of working tirelessly to save towns, businesses and homes. The St. Louis District had nearly 400 employees in the flood fight, including 143 people deployed to the field. They spent weeks working shoulder-to-shoulder with local communities to shore up levees as the river kept rising. For some, the crest represented a hard-won victory as the river slowly receded off the levee. For others, no amount of fighting could keep the river back.

I joined the St. Louis District in 2011, and in that time I’ve seen a few floods. In June of this year, we reached the fourth highest recorded stage since the Corps put a river gage on the Eads Bridge more than 150 years ago. Most of today’s Corps leaders in St. Louis cut their teeth on the Flood of ’93. When I visited our flood fight teams in the field in June, I was consistently impressed with the passion and professionalism they put into their mission. They put everything into a flood fight.

Lock 24 during the '93 Flood.
To this day we are invested professionally and personally in serving the region improving safety, economy and quality of life. The 13 million sandbags may be long gone, but the lasting partnerships built with the communities and states we serve stands as a lasting real impact of the flood fights.
For others, the Flood of ‘93 is a daily motivation twenty years later. The greatest flood has made some communities reexamine how they can lower their risk of flooding by reducing the chance as well as the consequences.

The St. Louis District has been tackling the monumental task of rehabilitating the Metro East levees, replacing aging infrastructure and addressing the underseepage that arose during the ’93 flood. These Illinois levees, from Alton south to Columbia, protect thousands of lives and billions of dollars of property, industry and infrastructure. The Corps of Engineers has invested more than $120 million towards this effort, and is nearing completion of the effort to withstand a flood even greater than what we saw in 1993. Many other communities have also reinvested in their flood infrastructure, fixing or upgrading levee systems.
City of Alton during the '93 flood.

Lowering flood risk is a shared responsibility and has as much to do with preparedness in our communities as the levee itself. Responsible land use, emergency planning and education can all help reduce flood risk to a community.  No matter how high we build a levee, the risk remains. We continue to find ways with our partners to lower that risk at the federal, state, and local levels.

During every flood since, the question is invariably asked, “Will this be another Flood of 1993?”
The river will come up again, and that record flood will be exceeded. What is most important when remembering the Flood of 1993 is what we’ve learned since. The last two decades have seen major advances in technology, giving us faster ways to track, communicate and respond in an emergency. Technology has helped reshape how we prepare for, respond to and recover from floods.

We have also learned from personal experience what to look for when the levees are put to the test. Our engineers have experience and shared knowledge to draw from fighting the greatest flood in our region’s history.

The Corps of Engineers has been in St. Louis in one form or another since the 1830s. We not only have experience in the extremes of the dynamic Mississippi River; we are a part of the region’s history and its people. I consider myself privileged to be a part of that tradition, serving the people of the St. Louis area and the nation.

When the river rises again, the Corps of Engineers will be prepared to work with our neighbors and partners, to bring our resources and expertise to bear, and to continue fulfilling our commitment to the safety, economy and quality of life of the region and the nation.

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