The village of Valmeyer, rebuilt on higher ground after the Great Flood of '93, is now moved to sing
Let the river rise. Let the heavens fall.
Let the storm make soldiers of us all.
A community chorus stood shoulder to shoulder, 30 members strong, on the sanctuary steps of St. John United Church of Christ in Valmeyer, Illinois, on a recent Monday evening. Sopranos, altos, baritones — their voices blended as one — rising and falling with lyrics inspired by the Great Flood of '93.
The words weigh heavily on those in the group who experienced firsthand the Valmeyer flood. They remember as if it were yesterday, that steamy, chaotic summer spent shoveling sand into thousands of bags and heaving them onto earthen levees that had protected their little town for half a century.
Tie it off. This one's ready.
Keep 'em comin'. Faster now…
This time, the Mississippi River won.
On Aug. 1, 1993, the swollen river beat down a levee near Columbia, Illinois, and washed across the American Bottom floodplain, swallowing Valmeyer whole.
The century-old farming town of 900 — 25 miles southeast of St. Louis — was submerged for weeks. One-story buildings were up to their rooftops in water. Afterward, residents left their ruined homes and banded together to build a “new” Valmeyer atop the river bluff, about 2 miles to the east.
They sing about that, too. And about determination and resilience.
We start again with something new.
We start again. What else is there to do?
No matter how many times the chorus practices those words, some eyes still fill with tears.
The chorus has been rehearsing since May to sing with a professional theater group in New York that is staging a concert in September to mark the anniversary of the disaster that wrought anguish in nine states, including Missouri and Illinois.
The words are intense for people who lost their homes 25 years ago, said director Marcia Braswell, 67, a retired music teacher who taught at the old Valmeyer High School that was lost in the flood and the new school that replaced it.
“It's been difficult for them at times to get the words out without crying — me included," Braswell said. “But it's prompted lots and lots of good experiences and discussions. I think it's helping to resolve some issues 25 years later."
The songs are from “The Flood,” a 2001 musical by Peter Mills and Cara Reichel about the fictional town of Meyersville. They visited Valmeyer after the flood and based their script on the village’s experience.
Chorus members belong to the Valmeyer Community Chorus, along with other organizations of the Monroe County Arts Alliance. Some members of the traveling chorus will also participate in performances of “The Flood” by the Monroe Actors Stage Company Theater in nearby Waterloo in September.
Braswell believes the music is therapeutic.
“A lot of times, people don't want to talk about it at all," she said. “But I think, at times, we need to work some of the things out that we've been holding back for a long time. And the nature of music does that for you."
On this mid-July day 25 years ago, Braswell would have been helping to pack up books and supplies at the old high school — just in case. At the time, most residents believed the levees would hold, she said. The village had not experienced major flooding since 1944.
She will never forget seeing Valmeyer buried in water.
“I don't ever want to see it again," Braswell said. “And, you know, on the other hand, it's in my mind always. It's not going to go away."
'The house that my dad built'
One hundred years.
We've handed down this tiny town for one hundred years.
Some of “The Flood” songs are harder to sing than others, said Anna Glaenzer, 64, a lifelong Valmeyer resident.
For Glaenzer, it’s the selection titled “One Hundred Years.”
“Because it brings back a lot of memories of sandbagging and having hope," she said. “And then it was over. It was gone. And you couldn't do anything about it.”
On a recent afternoon, Glaenzer showed visitors around a now-empty plot of grass on the floodplain where her house stood before the flood. The Federal Emergency Management Agency purchased damaged structures, like Glaenzer’s house, in a buyout program and tore them down.
Little remains of the original village that was incorporated in 1909 and named for the German immigrant who first farmed the valley: Val-Meyer, “Valley of the Meyers.”
All that’s left of Glaenzer’s old homestead are two tall maple trees, planted by her father, and a weathered wooden post sticking up from the ground where her children’s tree house used to be.
Her late father, a carpenter, built the small white ranch house with green shutters when she was a young girl in the late 1950s. She said her brothers also lost homes in the flood, but losing this one was the hardest on everyone.
“It was the house that my dad built," she said.
Glaenzer and her husband built a home in “new” Valmeyer when it was being developed in the mid-1990s, but she still misses her old life below the bluffs.
“We've been in our house up there for 20 years, and it's home, but it's not home," she said.
As she talked, a freight train rumbled along the bottomlands to the west, its whistle echoing for miles. That’s the sound of home, Glaenzer said, and her husband didn't want to leave it behind.
“When we picked out our lot, we picked one that we could hear the trains," she said, smiling. “And then we were pleasantly surprised in the fall when all the leaves fell off the trees. We could see part of the old town from where we lived."
Valmeyer still hold its Fourth of July celebration in the old village, and it’s become a tradition for families to set up their lawn chairs on the lots where they used to live to watch the parade or fireworks display.
Glaezner said her children, now 33 and 41, still think of the “old house” as home.
After the flood, she and a friend used to come back to the empty lot and sit and chat like they did when they were kids. One night, they decided to take home the street signs that had been damaged by the flood. She said a village police officer asked what they were doing.
“I said, ‘I’m taking my street home.’ "
'The people rolled up their sleeves'
Will tomorrow morning never come?
Take the night away.
Make me feel nothing's really wrong.
I would be okay if only day would break.
In July 1993, then-Mayor Dennis Knobloch led the fight against the flood.
He spent his evenings patrolling the levees checking for weak spots. On the night of Aug. 1 — after the Fountain Creek levee was breached north of Valmeyer — he made the final call to turn out the lights before the water came.
In the following months, Knobloch also spearheaded the effort to relocate the village.
The former mayor is singing with “The Flood” choir — something he views as a duty, even though he worries that the words will get to him when it’s time to perform onstage.
He was asked to take the role of the Meyersville mayor in the local production of the play in September, but he turned it down.
“I said, ’No, I've done that once. I, for sure, don't want to do that again,’ " he said.
Knobloch works part time as the village administrator and frequently fields questions about the relocation project, which is regarded as a success by FEMA and has been well-documented by researchers.
He recounted the vigil held by village officials and residents after the town was evacuated. Many gathered at a local cemetery above the village to keep watch. The first flood water arrived in town about 4:30 a.m. on Aug. 2.
No one had seen anything like it, he said.
At the height of the flood, the river stretched from the Illinois bluffs to the Missouri bluffs.
At first, Valmeyer residents hoped for a quick rebound. They began cleaning up and rebuilding their properties as soon the water receded, Knobloch said. But a second round of flooding in September did additional damage and left many buildings beyond repair.
“It was kind of like a second punch in the stomach to these people," Knobloch said.
Displaced residents found housing where they could, throughout Monroe County and the surrounding area. Some lived in FEMA trailers in Waterloo. Others moved in with family members.
Once Valmeyer residents voted to relocate the village, officials acted quickly. They bought a 500-acre farm tract on the bluffs for $3 million and held a groundbreaking four months after the flood. Residents could pick out their home sites and make a down payment. The village used that money — about $500,000 — as its initial payment for the land, while it was negotiating for funding with FEMA and other government agencies.
Three churches committed to moving to the new village, and the school district agreed to build a new school. By 1996, the school opened and residents were moving into their new homes.
Knobloch credits the townspeople for sticking together.
“I think we achieved the success that we did because the people rolled up their sleeves from day one," he said. “They had been involved in the flood fight. When we asked them to come sit at the table and help us do the planning for this, they were involved. We had people from every walk of life who had no idea what was involved in planning a town, and we didn't care. All we wanted were their ideas."
Knobloch said he will be thinking about the flood on this milestone anniversary. But, he added, he thinks about it every day anyway.
“There's not a day that goes by that I don't get on my phone and check the river level," he said.
Knobloch worked with the writers of “The Flood" when they visited the town. He believes they captured the story, with one exception: Unlike the play, no one in Valmeyer died or was severely injured.
The flood gave Valmeyer a new life
On this day, we have come together to rebuild our washed out lives,
to ensure our town survives on higher ground.
On this plain, high above the river, underneath these cloudless skies,
from now on our future lies on higher ground.
Today, Valmeyer’s population is about 1,200. That includes those who live in about 20 homes rebuilt on the floodplain. Most of those were nestled along the base of the bluffs where the elevation begins to rise. They had minimal damage and were not eligible for the buyout.
“New” Valmeyer has the look of a planned community where most structures were built about the same time — in the mid-1990s. Homes currently on the market range in price from about $112,000 for a small ranch home to just under $300,000 for a two-story house.
Howard Heavner, the current mayor, estimates that about half of today’s residents lived in the community before the flood. A generation of older residents has died, and a new generation is too young to remember it.
“None of the schoolchildren were even around during the flood. So they don't know anything about it," said Heavner, a retired Valmeyer High School teacher.
Trying to compare “old” Valmeyer to “new” Valmeyer is like comparing apples to oranges, he said.
The community had little interest in planning a commemoration of the flood, he noted.
“Really, the big celebration we have in town is for July Fourth, which is the way it ought to be," he said.
Heavner is in “The Flood” chorus, and he believes the play in September will be good for the community, but he understands that, for some, it would be too painful to attend.
But the loss of “old” Valmeyer was, in many ways, a rebirth, he said.
Before the flood, new construction in the village was tightly limited because of floodplain restrictions and younger residents were leaving town to build homes.
Heavner said Valmeyer, today, is a quiet residential community, with affordable housing — within commuting distance of St. Louis. The village has its own post office, a convenience store, gas station and a bank, but is still trying to attract businesses, including a grocery store.
“We are living proof that you can make it”
Don't say this had to happen.
Don't say it's for the better when we've shed so many tears.
Tammy Crossin, 59, a lifelong Valmeyer resident, said she’s excited to be going to New York with the chorus, but she worries about the performance, itself.
“I think once we get up there and we do this music, I'm afraid there's going to be tears coming down," she said. “It's very fresh in my mind."
Most of Crossin’s family members lost their homes in the flood, and, for a time, they all lived in FEMA trailers at her brother’s farm.
The flood took much away, but it gave the village a fresh start, she said.
“We have newer houses, much nicer houses," she said. “Now, we all started over with mortgages, too, and that’s a little different story."
Although it was painful, people should find hope in Valmeyer’s story, Crossin said.
“We are living proof that you can make it," she said. “We had a lot of community support and that definitely helps."
The concert in New York will raise funds for hurricane victims in Puerto Rico — and that’s important to the Valmeyer singers.
“There are people out there that need your help sometimes," said Donna Mueller, 73, who lost her home in the flood.
Sometimes, people don’t know what to do or say after a disaster, but they should just offer to help in some way.
“I would like people to realize that disasters change people's lives — and not just overnight," she said. “It changes forever."
The Great Flood of ’93 claimed 50 lives, and Mueller remains grateful that no one died in Valmeyer.
“We were all OK," Mueller said. “We weren't home when it flooded. We didn't have to sit on the roof and wait to be rescued. We were all fine. Things can be replaced."
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Lyrics from "The Flood" are provided courtesy of Peter Mills and Cara Reichel.