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As Rivers Swell In Missouri, A Look Back At The Great Floods Of 1993


More than 20 years ago, I covered those record floods in Missouri and Illinois. In that summer of 1993, levees failed along both the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. The damage was estimated at almost $15 billion, and 50 people died. Some of the questions I remember from that summer were whether earthen levees could withstand the amount of water they were subjected to, or should more River cities build high floodwalls like the one I saw in Hannibal, Mo.? And would people stop building vulnerable homes in flood-prone areas? Well, Steve Ehlmann is county executive of St. Charles County, Mo. It's northwest of St. Louis. It's in danger from both rivers. But he says what happened back in 1993 was worse.

STEVE EHLMANN: Well, this is an entirely different type of situation. In '93, it was basically a river flood, and we were having to deal with water from Iowa, Nebraska and Oklahoma and Kansas. This flooding situation is due to a storm that was much more local. There was tremendous amount of water that was dropped in a very short time, whereas in '93, we had weeks to prepare and sandbag and try to do what we could. This thing happened so quickly, and the predictions were so dire, we really haven't even bothered to sandbag except in (inaudible) places.

SIEGEL: Well, apart from the sandbags that aren't there, are people who live near the river better protected from flooding today than they were in '93?

EHLMANN: Well - and the Consolidated North County Levee has been working for almost 25 years now to get protection in place with a better levee system. Right now, the best they've been able to get is a 20-year level protection. That's not because they can't afford to do more. It's because all of the federal regulations on floodways and wetland protection and things like that have limited how high you can build your levees.

SIEGEL: Now, when you say 20-year, you mean to protect against a 20-year flood, is what you're saying, as opposed to a 50-year flood or a hundred-year flood.

EHLMANN: Yeah. And this is very good farmland. And the people who have lived there for 150 years - they understand that part of the price of the farmland is that they're periodically going to have to deal with flooding. The problem is, we've probably had five or six floods like this in the last 40 years. But of course, the problem right now is keeping it out of people's houses.

SIEGEL: Yeah. Well, what about people's houses? People, if they're living in a floodplain - have they built elevated houses so that they can withstand a flood?

EHLMANN: Since 1978, county ordinances have required that any new buildings that are built to be above a hundred-year flood level, and everything built since that time has been elevated and, in most cases, is not impacted by these floods. But what you do have is older homes that were built in the '50s and '60s which oftentimes are now lived in by low-income families. They're the ones who are hit the hardest because their neighbor in the newer house might be high and dry, but they've got a foot or two of water in their home.

SIEGEL: Mr. Ehlmann, before you go - I know you're out and about in your county in St. Charles County - where are you now, and what does it look like to you?

EHLMANN: Well, I'm looking right at the Missouri River right now. I was over in Alton, Ill., on the other side of the Mississippi, kind of doing an inspection tour of the Mississippi. But again, when you have two giant rivers like that coming together in one county, it's a challenge.

SIEGEL: Well, thanks for talking with us today, and good luck to you.

EHLMANN: Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: That's Steve Ehlmann, county executive of St. Charles County in Missouri. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.