After Great Flood of '93, Valmeyer, Ill., retreated to the bluffs and found its future
This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 30, 2013: Lush, green soybeans now populate the plot of good earth where Dennis Knobloch’s house once stood on Main Street in Valmeyer, Ill. -- before the Mississippi River busted through a levee and swallowed the town whole during the Great Flood of ’93.
On this hot July afternoon, he has parked on what used to be his front yard and is recalling for visitors the grueling ordeal of his community’s flood fight. Knobloch, who was mayor at the time, has been telling this story for 20 years. He willingly shares what he knew then -- and what he has learned since -- with media, researchers, politicians and policy-makers because he believes the village’s experience can help other communities navigate the aftermath of disasters.
The village of 900, in Monroe County about 20 miles south of the Jefferson Barracks Bridge, lost its battle with the Mississippi River big time that summer of ‘93, but the residents found a place in river history due to the quick action they took in the weeks afterward.
Rather than returning to their homes that had soaked for weeks in a dirty, stinking concoction of river water, mud, chemicals, sewage and debris, Valmeyer’s residents abandoned the floodplain and built a new community atop the towering, thickly wooded bluffs that bordered the eastern edge of their old village.
Pre-flood Valmeyer was home to about 325 one- and two-story houses of assorted ages and styles, 25 businesses, three churches and a school. About 95 percent of the properties were substantially damaged, Knobloch said. Within two years, most of the flood-damaged buildings had been bought and torn down, and the new village was under construction on a 500-acre tract of farmland about a mile and a half east -- and nearly 400 feet above the old town.
The new Valmeyer, located on Illinois 156, is a modern, planned community of nearly 400 homes that has the look of a large suburban subdivision with its own post office and school system, senior apartments, three churches, one restaurant and a couple of bank branches. About 1,260 people live in the community, which includes the remnants of the old town below. Village officials estimate that about half of the current residents lived in Valmeyer during the flood of ’93.
Two decades since the deluge, the story can have a tidy feel, but Knobloch stresses that nothing about the relocation came easy for Valmeyer’s homeless, flood-weary residents who were scattered about the county and living in FEMA trailers or relatives’ basement while they waited for their new town to be built. He credits their commitment, dedication, perseverance and blind faith that the move would happen.
The rebirth of Valmeyer also took a hefty financial investment of federal, state and local dollars to buy out the old and build the new. Local officials scrambled to find the $22 million it cost to buy the site and build the infrastructure, including a new school. The buyout of properties cost another $23 million.
The relocation was never about preserving the old village but was about building a community with a flood-free future, where development wouldn’t be stymied by floodplain restrictions, said Knobloch, who is now the clerk of Monroe County but still holds the title of village administrator.
"When we decided that we were going to move the town, we knew we were not going to recreate Mayberry on the hill. We knew that physically, it’s not going to be the same. All you can do is hope that the heart of the community is there,’’ he said. "People need to be proud of what they’ve done.”
Disaster on the horizon
During the worrisome days of July 1993, Knobloch’s two-story home on Main Street served as a bellwether for worried residents trying to decide whether to go or stick it out.
The village, about three miles from the Mississippi’s main channel, had survived bouts with flooding since its incorporation in 1909. A series of floods in the 1940s preceded the present-day levee system built by the Army Corps of Engineers. Residents had confidence in the levees, completed in 1950, that protected the western edge of Monroe County -- about 60,000 acres of farmland and Valmeyer. For 60 years, the levees had successfully kept their place dry.
"Most of the people who lived in Valmeyer knew the river was there, but they were detached from it,’’ Knobloch said. “It’s not like you saw it every day or were involved with it every day. We were part of the river network but more detached. ‘’
That lack of awareness ended in early July when the bloated Mississippi, which had been tormenting river towns in the upper Midwest since spring, turned its attention on the St. Louis region. As sand boils popped up along the levee in Monroe County, crews began sandbagging and round-the-clock monitoring.
On July 25, the village issued a temporary evacuation because of concerns over a potential levee breach to the south that would have caused water to back up into the village, Knobloch said. That was also the day his wife convinced him to allow the family’s furnishings to be moved out of the house.
When they saw the mayor’s house being emptied, even the most stalwart of the village holdouts knew it was time to pack up their possessions and head for high ground.
Only a handful would ever return to their homes in the floodplain.
'This is my home'
Valmeyer now encompasses “new town” on the bluffs and “old town,” in the floodplain, where about 25 houses either survived or were rebuilt after the flood.
Today, much of what gave the old village its character is gone. Properties that were part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) buyout were deeded to the city. The buildings were torn down, and the land designated as open space, much of it now leased to farmers.
As he takes visitors through the old town, Knobloch points out what used to be:
On that empty corner was the Corner Pub, which later reopened in the new town.
On this vacant spot was the post office.
Just across that open space was Schneider’s grocery, known throughout the area for its fresh meats.
And this narrow strip of pavement cutting through tall cornfields was the bus lane where parents would drop off and pick up their children at the Valmeyer school building, which housed the elementary, middle and high school.
"Driving through I can still see all the buildings,’’ Knobloch said. "It’s hard to not think of it as a town, even though the town is not here anymore.”
Knobloch, then just a few months into his second term of mayor, put his job as an insurance salesman on hold to lead the flood fight full time. He had lived in the village for 17 years, but had grown up nearby and had attended the Valmeyer school system.
"This is home,” he said.
Twenty years after the flood, residents have grown weary of retelling the tale. For some, the memories are still too painful. Knobloch said his wife will only visit “old town,’’ if he makes her get in the car with him. Their old house had 8 feet of water during the flood, and they were among the residents who took the FEMA buyout and built a home up the hill.
He recalled how that spring before the flood, he had been trying to decide whether to make the time commitment and run for re-election. His wife told him to go ahead.
"It’s not a big deal. Nothing ever happens in Valmeyer,’’ she told him.
The mayor who turned out the lights
Valmeyer began bracing for the worst on the morning of Aug. 1, 1993, when the levee was overtopped near Columbia.
Aerial footage of the breach quickly became the iconic image of the Great Flood: the Gummersheimer farmstead washing away, the two-story farmhouse swirling in the torrent until it broke into pieces. That was about 8 miles north of Valmeyer, as the crow flies.
As the Mississippi began filling the floodplain, Knobloch was out with the road crews attempting to shore up an interior levee north of Valmeyer that they hoped would hold back the river. They gave up the battle that night, when conditions became too dangerous.
The first water reached the village about 4 a.m. on Aug. 2.
Knobloch said that before the levee break, he had been tussling daily with a representative from Illinois Power who was charged with turning off the electricity in case of a flood. Eventually, they had agreed that the mayor would make that decision, should it become necessary.
"The night that the levee was overtopped we came back to town. It was about 1 o’clock, and we were standing up on the hill on the cemetery on the far east side of town with the emergency folks. The [Illinois Power representative] came walking up to me, and I told him what had happened. That water was coming in this direction, and it would be in town in about four or five hours. He said, ‘It’s your call.’ ‘’
Knobloch paused to collect himself.
"It was probably the toughest thing I’ve ever done in my life,’’ he said. "I said, ‘Go ahead and turn out the lights.’ And I stood on that cemetery hill and watched as he turned out the lights in town. And little did I know that it would be the last time the lights would shine on Valmeyer as it had been.’’
A watershed moment
This summer marks the 20th anniversary of the Great Flood of 1993. While the flooding began in May and stretched into September, the Mississippi River crested in St. Louis at a record-breaking 49.6 feet on Aug. 1. St. Louis wasn't alone; many communities along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers experienced record crests and devastation. In a series of stories from reporters Robert Koenig and Mary Delach Leonard, the Beacon looks at the impact of the flood on floodplain management as well as two communities that suffered extraordinary damage.