Earlier this year residents of northwestern Illinois watched with concern as a far-away weather event threatened their communities. As a few days of abnormally warm weather settled in over the state of Minnesota, the late spring snowmelt revved into high gear, sending river gauges spiking and unleashing a rapidly-rising Mississippi River on downstream communities.
As the sandbags started getting filled and as nervous eyes turned toward earthen levees, residents of many Mississippi River communities throughout Illinois might have reflected on the river’s rise as another fact of life on the river. And for many, memories of 30 years ago might have come to mind, for no one had seen anything like the Mississippi River flood of 1993.
Illinois’ original state capital was forced out of Kaskaskia in part by the threat of flooding. The town itself was moved after a flood in 1844 and another flood in 1881 changed the course of the river and cut off the town from the rest of Illinois. To this day it remains the only Illinois town located entirely west of the Mississippi.
But 1993 brought something new. That year the remaining portions of Kaskaskia found themselves under nine feet of water.
And Kaskaskia was not alone.
By the time the flood was over, more than $15 billion in damage had been done. Hundreds of levees had failed, 10,000 homes were destroyed and more than 50 people had lost their lives. Commerce on the river came to a halt for two months. Road and rail traffic was interrupted. Evacuations lasted for weeks and one entire Illinois town even picked up and moved to higher ground inland.
The flood was not localized to Illinois, or even to the banks of the Mississippi.
As the primary route for water flowing from the central United States to the Gulf of Mexico, the Mississippi drains an enormous geographical area, spanning from Pennsylvania to Alabama to Montana. It just so happens that some of the Mississippi’s greatest tributaries join together in or directly opposite Illinois.
Like many river floods, this one was caused by an usually large amount of rainfall in a short amount of time. Early that summer rainfall records were already being set across the upper Midwest. More than 12 inches of rain fell in what is normally a dry season from the Dakotas to Indiana. One station in eastern Iowa measured 38.4 inches of rain between June and August. It rained on more than 20 days in July, more than double the average.
And all this water had to go somewhere.
Soil became saturated. Creeks and streams reached their capacity. Runoff continued to flow, and the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers began to rise.
Quincy had seen floods before, most recently in 1986 when the river hit 25.3 feet on the gauge. The all-time record in the Adams County seat was 28.9 feet set in 1973.
But in July 1993, the Mississippi blew right through the record at Quincy, climbing more than three feet above anything anyone had ever seen, and cresting at 32.13 feet on July 13.
Downstream at Grafton, near the meeting of the Mississippi and the Illinois, the river surged past the old record of 33.12 feet from 1973 and hit an all-time record crest of 38.17 feet on August 1, more than five feet above the previous high-water mark.
State Representative Amy Elik (R-Alton) remembers first-hand the rise of the water in her hometown.
“In the summer of 1993, I was 19 and home in Alton for the summer from college, working at an ice cream store,” Elik recalled. “When the water plant was overtaken by water on August 1, we lost water throughout the entire city and many surrounding areas. Water stations were set up at Alton Square Mall. Everyone went there to fill water bottles to get them through, and we didn’t know how long it would take to get water back. Our town was on the national (and even international) news daily, not just for the loss of our water system, but also for the sandbagging-which volunteers did day and night to build a flood wall to save anything we could.”
In town after town, up and down the western edge of Illinois, catastrophic flooding struck. From Rock Island and Gladstone in the north to Chester and Thebes in the south, the Mississippi unleashed a torrent not seen in decades. Thebes is especially notable because the record set on August 7, 1993, eclipsed a high water mark not reached since 1844.
As the news reported flooding in places upstream, Illinoisans farther downstream could only watch and worry, knowing the floodwaters would move inexorably toward their homes and farms.
Governor Jim Edgar mobilized the Illinois National Guard on July 4. Before it was over, more than 7,000 National Guard personnel were activated and assigned to flood duty from Oquawka to Murphysboro. Hundreds of Department of Corrections inmates were organized into work details, filling sandbags and reinforcing levees up and down the state’s western edge. They were joined by thousands of local volunteers, all working together in blazing summer heat to save their towns.
Elik remembered the National Guard members coming to Alton and the way the community pulled together.
“The National Guard was stationed throughout the city and we became used to them being there,” she said. “Friends from college would call assuming we were all under water, but really it was just the downtown area and closer to the river, not up the ‘hill’ where I lived. There was a spirit of camaraderie throughout the town as we suffered together without water, but I definitely remember neighbors helping neighbors and people working together for a common cause during this time.”
Few places saw a more ferocious battle with the floodwaters than did the Monroe County town of Valmeyer. Downstream from St. Louis, Valmeyer and the surrounding area were protected by the Fountain Creek levee. But after weeks of historic inundation, Fountain Creek joined more than 1000 other levees throughout the Midwest in finally giving way.
Levee failures proved to be a double-edged sword. While a break in one place threatened that local area, it also relieved pressure at other points on the river possibly saving other communities. It was speculated that the failure of the Fountain Creek levee might have saved much of downtown St. Louis, but the results were catastrophic for Valmeyer, where waters rose as much as 16 feet in some areas and destroyed 90% of the structures in town.
As the summer went on, the effects spread beyond just the riverfront communities. Five days after the Governor called out the National Guard, President Bill Clinton issued a major disaster declaration for 39 counties in Illinois – more than double the number of Illinois counties on the banks of the Mississippi. The river became so hazardous to navigation that barge traffic was halted, leaving farmers in every part of Illinois with no way to ship their harvest to market.
Gradually the flood began to ease in mid-August. Rivers began to crest and then to slowly recede. But the operative word was “slowly.”
At St. Louis the river stayed above flood stage for more than 20 weeks. It took 152 days for the river to fall back below flood stage at Quincy, 195 days at Grafton and 186 at Chester. Governor Edgar’s National Guard mobilization lasted six weeks for most of the troops, but others remained on duty until November. FEMA officially declared an end to the “incident period” on October 22, 1993, after 193 days.
Left behind in the wake of the floodwaters was utter devastation. Buildings had been torn down, streets and highways had been washed away. Chemicals had been picked up by the floodwaters and left behind in farm fields and communities. Damage had to be repaired, thousands of square miles of fields had to be reclaimed and lives had to be put back together.
Just as importantly, levees had to be repaired as everyone had acquired a newfound respect for the power of the river.
In Valmeyer, local leaders were faced with a terrible choice: stay or go. The fight for the town had garnered national headlines for more than three weeks, but the river had ultimately won this round. Now the residents considered an audacious plan to utilize federal disaster funds to relocate their entire town, moving to higher ground two miles inland. It took two years to complete the move and the rebuilding of the town, but it remains a point of pride in the community.
It is with no small sense of irony that decades after the flood the city continued to brag that it is “Rising to New Heights!”
People still live and work along the Mississippi, and the river continues to rise and fall, jumping out of its banks again in 1995, 2008, 2013, 2016 and 2019, just to name a few. But in most Illinois communities, nothing compares to the summer of 1993, and the terrible flood that struck Illinois 30 years ago.