On Aug. 1, 1993, the Mississippi River crested at 49.58 feet in St. Louis, nearly 20 feet above flood stage, breaking previous records. At the flood’s peak, more than a million cubic feet of water passed the Gateway Arch each second.
In west St. Louis County, the entire Chesterfield valley, then known as Gumbo Flats, was under water as the Missouri River overflowed its levees. On the east side of the Mississippi, the entire town of Valmeyer, Illinois, was destroyed, and rather than rebuilding, the citizens moved to a new location.
As a result of the Great Flood of ’93, residents were evacuated, homes and businesses were lost, and people all over the region joined in the sandbagging efforts to prevent further devastation.
On Monday’s St. Louis on the Air, host Don Marsh and his guests discussed memories of the flood alongside a crowd of listeners who called and wrote in to the show.
Joining Marsh in studio were St. Louis Public Radio reporter Mary Delach Leonard, UPI photographer Bill Greenblatt and videographer Paul Schankman, who was a reporter at KTVI-TV during the flood. Dave Busse, chief of engineering and construction for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ St. Louis District, also participated in the discussion.
The conversation on air and online touched on a wide range of vivid moments, memories and lessons from that time exactly 25 years ago – including the following 25 takeaways.
- Marsh opened the discussion by summarizing the flood’s astounding impact. He noted that, all told, “it was a five-month calamity – killing 50, causing some $15 billion in damage and inundating about 30,000 square miles.”
- For Greenblatt, the propane-tank situation in south St. Louis stood out. “The tanks were actually bubbling, leaking, and a great area of south St. Louis was evacuated for a long time. … I remember flying over it every day to take pictures of that.”
- Schankman said he’ll never forget just how hot it was. He also recalled a story about a National Guard couple getting married at a church in Festus, Missouri, despite the major flooding. “They knew each other before, but they had been on duty, as I recall, at the same time [in that area] and just decided to go ahead and get married at the church. I don’t know if they left by boat – it’s been so long – but I know it was still flooding down there.”
- Leonard remembered standing on the steps below the Gateway Arch, watching the river flow by. “For anybody who doesn’t or can’t remember or was too young to recall, or wasn’t born yet, I would suggest [you] go to the Gateway Arch and find the plaques on the stairs, on the grand staircase, and those plaques on either side of the steps will designate how high the river was.”
- Max, on Twitter, shared his memories of working downtown during the ’93 flood. “I was walking along Market Street towards the Arch and noticed that the riverboats you normally couldn’t see unless you walked to the top of the hill above the river [were] now at eye level. The Mississippi was that high.”
- Busse said his most vivid memory is that the flood was “all summer long.” “It was just a pure duration of that event, which was so much different than anything we’ve experienced before or after.”
- Ron, a listener who called in to the show, said he was a commander in the Missouri National Guard at the time. “We worked the last three weeks of the flood of ’93, so we worked all the way from Bellefontaine Neighbors to Crystal City [MO], and one of the last things we did was [reinforce] the levee in Crystal City, which we believe helped save Kimmswick from going under.”
- Sandra, calling from Ste. Genevieve, recalled the major effort to preserve her town. “Really people came from around the world to help sandbag in Ste. Genevieve … and, of course, Ste. Genevieve was saved. A big part of that impetus were the irreplaceable homes and properties that are here that date to the 1700s.”
- Steve, in St. Louis County, sent an email recalling how the example set by St. Louis’ professional athletes inspired him to get involved with the sandbagging efforts. “One afternoon, as I was watching the TV news, I saw a couple of St. Louis Blues players helping with the sandbagging in the Lemay area, not far from where I lived in ’93. I was jolted out of a feeling of helplessness by a couple of guys from Canada, Nelson Emerson and Kelly Chase. The next day, I went down by the old [bank headquarters] and pitched in. For hours, I filled and stacked sandbags in the July or August heat. In spite of the ultimate failure of our massive effort, I have always been proud of that effort. I also wish to thank Chase and Emerson for goading me into action that summer.”
- Jacob, on Twitter, said he was 6 years old at the time. “My dad lost his house along the River Road in Grafton [IL]. His church was also heavily damaged. The flood came just weeks after he remarried. Lots of wedding presents were ruined. I still remember the awful smell. Suffocating.”
- Dawn, also on Twitter, said it’s hard to believe it’s been 25 years already. She worked along the riverfront back in ’93. “We watched from our floors as the river rose, sat on the steps to lunch, grateful for those flood gates, and waited forever for them to recede … also drove through south St. Louis to reach fam[ily], through flooded neighborhoods. News showed houses floating away in Illinois. I worried about Elsah, IL, also hard hit. It was a sad and scary time for many and reminded me of Mother Nature’s power.”
- Another listener on Twitter recalled what they saw while flying in to St. Louis to help sandbag. “Seeing the river out of the plane window was crazy. I remember sandbagging and just seeing lines of sandpiles and sandbaggers along River Des Peres. Watching the farmhouse wash away on TV, live.”
- Ana, a caller from St. Louis, described following the floodwaters as she moved from California back to St. Louis in mid-July 1993. “When we got to Kansas City, we actually saw the crest of the flood on the Missouri River. When we got to Booneville the water was rising, and we looked over a bridge and saw all kinds of cars and tanks and all kinds of polluting things and animals floating down the river. My son and I actually stopped in a park and watched as water was coming up a road, and we rescued probably 100 or more earthworms that were seeking dry land.”
- Tony, on Twitter, wrote that he was struck by “the incredible length of time that the Mississippi was above flood stage. … And the community coming together to fill sand bags and help each other.”
- Art, who worked for the major airline TWA at the time, sent an email recalling what it was like to fly over the area and see “a vast inland sea that was shocking in its size and extent. Truly unforgettable.”
- Scott, who was moving back to St. Louis that summer to begin graduate school at Wash U, sent an email saying the biggest impact he experienced had to do with his driving route leading up to his arrival. “I wound up driving back I-70 instead of I-80 because of the closures on 80 due to flooding up there.”
- Aaron, who lived in Creve Coeur during the flood, wrote, “We saw a guy climb out his sunroof on the road behind our house – we were gathered that day to move our large 20-foot yard-bridge that had floated onto and almost completely over our neighbor's fence.”
- Mary Ann, in St. Louis, remembered that MetroLink was launching that same year. “The three days before Highway 64 flooded MetroLink had opened and offered [free] rides. Skeptics were still making dire forecasts. The day the levy breached was the first day MetroLink charged for tickets and the cars were packed full with paying passengers. MetroLink has thrived ever since.”
- Josh, on Twitter, wrote that he lived in Alton at the time and “watched the river rise and rise until it swallowed the downtown area, had no running water for a week or two, sandbagged with everyone else in town, worked at National and we couldn’t get jugs of water out fast enough. The river always wins.”
- Roger, a listener who called in during the show, said his parents lived in Prairie du Rocher, “which is just a little bit upstream and across the river from Ste. Genevieve. But this creek came down out of the hills, and then on the other side of the creek to the Mississippi were these levees. And so the river had gone up into that creek … and was flowing inside of the main levee, heading straight to Rocher. And what they did was blow up the upstream levee to allow the water to seep in from the creek side and inundate that part of the floodplain … what was incredible about it was their decision to do that, and of course it was filled with risk, that saved that town.”
- Anne, who called in from St. Louis, said she was moving into a new house along the River Des Peres right at the time that “that second batch of the flood came.” She recalled, “Everyone was warning me about moving there. And yet I’m way up north near the MetroLink station. And just south of me it was just so flooded that people had to move out. So I had some people over, and one man walked back to my fence, and he looked down at the water, which was way down from where I am, and he said, ‘Oh wow – waterfront property.’”
- David, in St. Louis, called in to say he remembers not only the ’93 flood but more recent ones, like that of 2015. “That later flood was directly tied to global warming. The mountains in the upper Missouri, up in Montana and Wyoming and what not, the snows melted so fast … there was a huge flood that not only endangered the two nuclear power plants near Omaha but [also] flooded the entire Missouri River.”
- Near the end of Monday’s conversation, Leonard pointed listeners to her new feature focused on residents of modern-day Valmeyer, which the ’93 flood swallowed whole. “I hope people might enjoy listening to some of the residents talk about 25 years ago and where they are now.”
- Schankman ended his comments by noting that St. Louisans “live in a city that’s almost surrounded entirely by rivers, so we can expect this will happen again.”
- Greenblatt got the last word in during the broadcast. “The thing I take away from the flood is [that] I didn’t know, and I don’t think anybody knew, how big the enormity of this flood was, because we do flood all the time. Going into West Alton and watching caskets float down the river was something I’ll always remember.”
For a deeper dive into many different aspects of the ’93 flood, explore St. Louis Public Radio’s newly published website devoted to the subject.
St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer, Evie Hemphill and Caitlin Lally give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.