1993 Flood - Flood Page Link with Title

View our Flood Timeline Page for a history of flood-related events.

In early January 2016, devastating flooding occurred within Missouri on several rivers. Flood height reached record levels on the Mississippi at Cape Girardeau, MO and Thebes, IL and at other locations near records were recorded. The flood closed highways, destroyed homes, and took at least 20 people lives in Missouri and Illinois, The levee in St. Mary failed and many more levees were threatened and likely damaged. The consequences of flooding are dire. MCE is responding by providing you with access to the historical information you need to know about flooding in Missouri, current flooding threats, and how we can prevent future devastation by removing barriers and reconnecting our floodplains to rivers.

This page will be our flood information distribution center linking to articles, data and information regarding floods.

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Sign the petition to veto the New Madrid Levee and protect over 53,000 acres of wetlands in the bootheel, home to the Mississippi River’s last natural connection to its floodplain in Missouri.

Panorama-UMR at St. Louis-Reduced, 1-1-16, BAW

Why is devastating flooding continuing to happen in Missouri and Illinois?

There exists an immense library of information regarding flooding that goes back many decades. Typically, the conclusion reached by most studies is to not build in floodplains. Because  floodplains are easy and less expensive to build in, our society generally ignores this important message; at least until the next major flood hits and we banter it around as an option. Then for a short time some people push for change. Elected officials offer varying levels of lip service to them, and depending upon how impactful and damaging the flood had been, even make some small efforts to change are pursued. But it is never enough and soon we are building strip malls and other expensive and vulnerable infrastructure  in the floodplains and the last flood is forgotten. Here is what we can learn from this library of flooding:

Rivers were here long before man, and for untold ages every stream has periodically exercised its right to expand when carrying more than normal flow. Man’s error has not been the neglect of flood-control measures, but his refusal to recognize the right of rivers to their floodplain… Engineering News-Record, 1937

Floods will continue to cause damage as long as we build upon flood-prone lands. And despite the lessons of the past, that is precisely what we continue to do. We continue to compete with streams and rivers for land that is historically, albeit intermittently, theirs – the flood plain. Flood Plain – Handle With Care!, US Army Corps of Engineers, March 1974, page 6

No sensible and realistic national policy for the proper use of flood plains now exists. An Overview – The Water’s Edge National Forum on the Future of the Flood Plain, Minnesota, 1974, page 1

Most flood problems occur because man has chosen poorly in deciding where to build.  Floodplain Management Handbook, US Water Resources Council, September 1981, page 3

Over the last 30 years the nation has learned that effective floodplain management can reduce vulnerability to damages and create a balance among natural and human uses of floodplains and their related watersheds to meet both social and environmental goals.  The nation, however, has not taken full advantage of this knowledge.  The United States simply has lacked the focus and incentive to engage itself seriously in floodplain management.  The 1993 flood has managed to focus attention on the floodplain and has provided the incentive for action. Sharing the Challenge-Floodplain Management into the 21st Century, Interagency Floodplain Management Review Committee, June 1994, page v

For years the Government spent billions of Federal dollars trying to keep water away from people. Missouri woke up and started moving people out of harm’s way… Governor Mel Carnahan of Missouri, 1995

Despite the billions of dollars invested by federal, state and local governments for structural flood control projects, we find overall that flood damages have not, in fact, decreased but have increased at an alarming rate during the period of greatest federal spending. In the past five years, flood damages in the United States have exceeded $40 billion, significantly surpassing any similar period. Higher Ground: A Report on Voluntary Property Buyouts in the Nation’s Floodplains, National Wildlife Federation, July 1998, page 125

Despite spending $25 billion in federal levees and dams, national flood losses continue to rise. The reasons are clear; at the same time more people are building their homes and businesses in floodplains, farmers and home developers are increasing the rate at which water moves off the landscape, into feeder streams, and towards riverside communities. Poor land-use decisions have put more people at risk by allowing development in harm’s way and by eliminating the natural flood control functions of wetlands and floodplains. In Harm’s Way: The Costs of Floodplain Development, American Rivers, July 1999, page 3

Despite the successes of the NFIP (National Flood Insurance Program), many people continue to ignore flood risk and choose to build in the floodplain, perpetuating the continuous cycle of build-flood-rebuild. Report of the Floodplain Management Forum, FEMA, June 2000, page 2

A Flood Risk Question: If we continue to do what we have always done, why would we expect different results? Presentation: Assessment of Conceptual Nonstructural Alternative – Levee Setbacks along the Missouri River (After 2011 Flood), US Army Corps of Engineers, May 2012

Unfortunately, it does not seem that the most recent floods have as yet motivated us to change our relationship with floodplains.  Dr. Robert Criss of St. Louis Washington University is an outspoken voice for reform. Check out some of the Recent Flood Articles in the sidebar.

What are the impacts of devastating flooding?

Floods are among the most damaging events that affect us and human development is exacerbating the damage.

There is no shortage of examples. The 1927 Mississippi River flood covered about 165 million acres of land, created 600,000 homeless refugees, and killed at least 246 people. The 1937 flood on the Ohio River Caused $500 million in damage and killed an estimated 400 people.

Probably the most studied flood is the Missouri and Upper Mississippi Rivers flood of 1993. Its extent of damages was at least equal in several respects to its above mentioned predecessors.

During a three month period in mid-1993, recorded rainfall was between 12 and 38 inches depending upon the area, more than two to three times normal. This inundation saturated the soils and filled streams and rivers in the region. Record flood stages were recorded in 29 locations. Over 1,080 levees were breached or over topped. About 70,000 homes were destroyed and more than 145,000 were damaged making about 74,000 people homeless. Thousands of businesses were affected, many completely destroyed. The total cost of damage ranged between $12 and $16 billion with agriculture being the most damaged sectors at about $7 billion including all forms of damages payments.

Two hundred water treatment plants were affected by the floodwaters requiring numerous people to have to boil their drinking water.

Nearly 13 million acres of corn and soybean farmland were unable to be harvested. Hundreds of thousands of acres of floodplain farmland was scoured in gullies or covered in up to 2 or more feet of sand or sediment, rendering most of them useless.

All  forms of transportation on land and river were severely affected and shutdown for up to several months until the water receded and damages were repaired. Damages and lost revenue were estimated at nearly $2 billion.

Other valuable resources were lost or severely damaged in the flood. For example, flooding can bury mussels resulting in high losses of mussels. When levees breech they can do massive damage to the land being protected. Directly behind the levee deep holes can be created by the turbulence of the high wall of water that moves from the river into the floodplain. The same movement of sediment that affects the mussels within the river also moves sediment, sand and debris onto the land, often damaging the farmland beyond reasonable economic means to repair and inhibiting access.

If essential and vulnerable infrastructure is located behind levees, the flooding of the area can cause shutdowns of utilities, reducing services. Flooded water filtration plants can disrupt potable water supplies to communities. In the case of sewage, chemical production, and energy facilities, the flooding can cause extensive pollution impacts. Roads, bridges and railroad tracks can be flooded and damaged, hampering transportation. During major flood conditions the impacts to the infrastructure can be long term and expensive to repair.

It is also important to note that flooding can present opportunities for both native and non-native species to increase production by altering habitats, providing them an advantage over competing species. Depending upon the situation, it can help or hurt native species.

How do we prevent future flood devastation?

Despite the fact that floodplains in their natural state are one of the most beneficial to humans and rarest ecosystems that exist, too many people believe that we have the right, and even  the obligation, to develop floodplains without restriction.

From both an economic and environmental perspective this is unsustainable. It is time to reevaluate our past decisions regarding the walling off of our rivers from their floodplains.

Using floodplains for any development other than farms is simply asking for trouble, asserts Criss. “Floodplain development should be recognized as geologically stupid, economically unwise, environmentally harmful, and pernicious to mankind,” he says. (Unnatural Disaster Human Factors in the Mississippi Floods, Environmental Health Perspectives, 9-08)

The 1928 Flood Control Act was a compromise between a levees only philosophy that completely separated the river form its floodplain and a philosophy that began opening up a small number of connections to the floodplain. The decision to accept the latter view resulted in many changes to the lower Mississippi River including the construction of three sections of the floodplain to act as emergency floodways to absorb flood waters. It was a step in the right direction, but despite enduring many subsequent floods, it unfortunately lulled us into a false sense of security thinking our engineering had “tamed” the river.

This overly confident attitude, along with supporting policies that assumed it, has motivated the construction of hundreds of billions of dollars worth of unsound development in floodplains behind levees. That development has inappropriately allowed the Corps to tout large dollar values of undamaged infrastructure after each flood that occurred, but ignores the fact that a more prudent society would not have allowed the risky development to occur in the first place. In too many instances one area of vulnerable development is spared because another area was flooded by a failed or overtopped levee; unfortunately in major flood events one community may be,  surreptitiously hoping for the failure of their upstream neighbor’s levee.

The much quoted FEMA adage that “there are only two kinds of levees: those that have failed and those that will fail” underscores the absurdity and cost of our current methodology of dealing with flood risk.

Additional Resources for Understanding Flooding

Flood Gallary CoverView MCE’s Flooding Glossary in both PDF and online versions
Read more in-depth reports about flooding from local and national sources:

FEMA Report on the Midwest Flood 1993

Environews Report on the human-made factors that impact disasters like flooding.