In the summer of 1993, flood waters from the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers broke levee after levee in the St. Louis region, covering large swathes of land, destroying property, disrupting lives and creating hazardous conditions.
The flood reshaped lives and communities in the St. Louis area and across the Midwest and it continues to inform decisions and spark comparisons today, with many in St. Louis holding gripping memories of walls of water, submerged propane tanks and floating coffins. Yet twenty years later, a generation is coming of age with vague or no recollection of it.
St. Louis Beacon reporter Mary Delach Leonard has written a series of stories marking the 20th anniversary of the flood. She focused especially on the impact of the flood on Chesterfield and Valmeyer.
"When you look at communities in our region, these two communities were very different communities in terms of their size and what they were made up of, but they were very similar in that they were in flood plains," said Leonard. "And after the flooding they took two totally different approaches to, what are we going to do now?"
"Valmeyer moved, picked up the whole community and moved up the bluffs," she added. "Chesterfield as we know, the former Gumbo Flats, is now one of the largest, major business retail complexes in the region. It is a driving force. It brings in tons of money in terms of sales tax and revenue for St. Louis County."
In 1993, Chesterfield was just five years old. Chesterfield Police Captain Ed Nestor remembers thinking the flood would be the end for the young town.
"We pretty much thought the area was done," said Nestor. "How were we going to recover from this?"
Yet the town did more than recover. It expanded. Before the flood, Chesterfield had 240 businesses. All but 80 returned after the flood, said Leonard. Today, Chesterfield has some 900 businesses.
There have been improvements made to flood walls and levees across the region, including the levee in Chesterfield. If flood waters were to reach 1993 levels again, the Army Corps of Engineers believe the Monarch levee in Chesterfield would hold, said Dave Busse. He is chief of engineering and construction division in the St. Louis district of the Army Corps of Engineers.
But there are no guarantees.
"There are no perfect levees," said Busse. "They're made of dirt and clay, they're topped with grass."
"We don't provide flood protection so much as flood management," he added.
Forty miles southeast of Chesterfield, the village of Valmeyer, Ill. chose not to rebuild. Instead, they relocated.
"After a lot of study, we realized we had two options. Either we made an attempt to move the town, or we would fade away into history," said then-mayor Dennis Knoblach.
So despite mounds of paperwork and the need to work with numerous government agencies, the town moved up the bluff. All told, the move took the village about two years.
Rather than fading into history, the village has actually grown in population. Today the population is around 1,20o. In 1993 it was only 900. What truly suffered was the business community, said Knoblach. By the time the townspeople were settled enough to support businesses again, most had gone under or moved to surrounding towns.