ANNOUNCER: Tonight on NOVA, a river rages out of control. Along its banks, people brace for catastrophe.
DAVE MUELLER: It just became like a monster that you couldn't catch up to. And it just kept coming!
ANNOUNCER: It was the biggest flood fight in U.S. history. But the battle to contain the Mississippi was doomed to failure.
DAVE MUELLER: You know how you always figure hard work and determination will take care of everything. Well, you can't beat Mother Nature sometimes. It was a real cruel lesson to learn.
ANNOUNCER: The drama—and the dilemma—of the FLOOD!
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HAL HOLBROOK: It is the summer of 1993. Record amounts of rainfall are drenching the Upper Midwest. Farmers fear the loss of their crops as fields, already saturated from a year of wet weather, turn into lakes. But the rain keeps coming. Rivers throughout the Midwest rise dangerously high. These swollen tributaries pour into the mighty Mississippi, which begins to press against her levees. Running along the river's edge, these large earthen walls prevent the river from flooding adjoining farms and towns. But by early July, the levees are beginning to weaken. Evacuation orders are issued while there is still time to escape. Unfolding in slow motion, a flood is unlike any other natural disaster.
DREW RICHMOND: Earthquake, boom, sudden impact. Flood? A leisurely disaster.
HAL HOLBROOK: The river's caretakers, the Army Corps of Engineers, are thrust into a state of emergency.
US ARMY CORPS OF ENG. STAFF MEMBER: I hear they got two to three million out there at Camp Dodge.
US ARMY CORPS OF ENG. GENERAL: Get rid of some of that water.
US ARMY CORPS OF ENG STAFF MEMBER: Yes, sir.
HAL HOLBROOK: By mid-July, National Guard units from around the country are sent in to help in what is becoming an all-out war against nature.
DAVE MUELLER: It just became like a monster that you couldn't catch up to. It was like trying to grab the wind. I mean, every day, they'd change the rules on us. And it just—We could never catch up to it. It just kept coming.
HAL HOLBROOK: By August 1st, the river appears unstoppable. LAW ENFORCEMENT OFFICIAL: This is a mandatory evacuation.
HAL HOLBROOK: Tens of thousands of residents are forced from their homes. Livestock scramble for high ground. And some people narrowly escape with their lives. Uprooting entire communities, destroying property, disrupting life over a nine-state area, this was the most costly flood in U.S. recorded history. It all began when a freakish weather pattern over the Midwest produced an unusually wet summer. Meteorologist Paul Douglas.
PAUL DOUGLAS: To be honest, meteorologists were baffled. We were perplexed with this situation. During a typical year, the jet stream is constantly on the move. The jet stream is a high-speed river of air, the superhighway for storms. It's always in motion. And so you may get flooding for a week or two, but then the jet stream shifts and a drier pattern moves in. During 1993, we had a major shift in the pattern. For some strange reason, we had a giant blocking high-pressure system over the Southeast, a heat-pump high. And this roadblock in the atmosphere forced the jet stream to take a more or less continuous detour across the Midwest. That produced wave after wave of storms. Now, this is a three-dimensional representation of what the storms looked like, moisture flowing north from the Gulf of Mexico, converging when it reaches cool Canadian air, consistent storms over the Midwest, not just for a week or two, which would be typical, but for month after month after month. And this was the result, nine states experiencing the worst flooding in history, thirty inches of rain in a six-month period. Not only was there river flooding, there was flash flooding, where farmers' fields turned into ponds and then lakes. Literally, meteorologists referred to Iowa as the sixth Great Lake for about a six-week stretch. There's no way the ground can absorb that volume of water. It had to run off into streams and rivers. And the result was the worst flooding our nation has ever seen.
HAL HOLBROOK: No one could have predicted the flood of 1993. Most years, the Mississippi flows peacefully within its banks, enticing millions of Americans to live and work along its shores. The Mississippi Valley is one of the most fertile in the world, providing food and jobs for millions. The river is also a superhighway for commerce, moving some fifty billion dollars worth of industrial and agricultural goods through the nation's heartland every year. Beginning as a modest river in northern Minnesota, the Mississippi flows nearly twenty-four hundred miles south to the Gulf of Mexico. Along the way, it draws water from thousands of tributaries across thirty-one states and two Canadian provinces. Floods are nothing new for the Mississippi, which has overrun its banks countless times for tens of thousands of years. But in the early part of this century, as more people began to live along the Mississippi, these upheavals of nature turned into human tragedies. In the 1930's, on the heels of massive flooding, the federal government directed the Army Corps of Engineers to take on the task of taming the mighty Mississippi River.
NEWSREEL NARRATOR: The engineers went to work and devised a master plan.
HAL HOLBROOK: The scale of their projects was enormous, and including the construction of some of the largest civil works projects in the world: reservoirs, dams, and thousands of miles of levees were built to control floods and to make the areas safer for people to live and work. Once in place, these flood-control structures projected an aura of invincibility and gave people confidence that nature was under control. Development thrived in an area that was once the exclusive domain of the river. But the Mississippi, like other rivers that flood, would not be so easily controlled.
SCOTT FABER: The Egyptians, in the Book of the Dead, warned us that "Thou shalt not hinder the waters of inundation." They recognized that in order for those bottom lands to remain fertile, that the river had to regularly interact, and that there had to be this regular flooding to keep those bottom lands healthy. The Mississippi has to interact with its flood plain in order to collect the leaves and debris and other organic material that form the base of the river's food chain. Most of the time, the flood plain of the Mississippi is available to people, but every so often, whether it's this year, or next year, or ten years from now, the river re-occupies its flood plan. It's something we know will happen. It's not a matter of whether the river will re-occupy its flood plain, but when.
HAL HOLBROOK: In late June, in 1993, the Mississippi threatened to flood a farming community outside Quincy, Illinois. Lynn and Alex House own fourteen hundred acres along the river.
LYNN HOUSE: I remember when we first started—Well, Alex actually first started coming down here on a daily basis, the first week of July. And he had come home one night, and I was asking him, you know, "How serious is this? I mean, I know that you're down there and you're shoring it up. Is that going to be enough?" And he shook his head and he said, "Levees are going to break like guitar strings, up and down the Upper Mississippi River Valley."
HAL HOLBROOK: At stake for land owners in the Quincy area were one hundred and ten thousand acres of fertile farmland with crops ready to be harvested. This broad sloping levee called the Sny was designed to hold back a moderate flood, one that occurs, on average, every fifty years. But that summer, the levee, made of sand and clay, would face a five hundred-year flood. The trouble began when six inches of rain pummeled the Quincy area, causing the river to rise perilously close to the top of the fifty-two-mile Sny levee.
ALEX HOUSE: It was coming up, at one point, an inch an hour, and that's very, very fast. It's extremely fast, especially when you have so many miles of levee to protect.
HAL HOLBROOK: Within forty-eight hours, the river was expected to rise a full two feet above their levee. The community now faced the Herculean task of raising the levee an additional three to four feet along most of its fifty-two-mile length. Volunteers, the National Guard, even prisoners from the local correctional facility, pitched in to help. A flood fight isn't merely a battle of height, but a battle of time, since a waterlogged levee becomes vulnerable to collapse. As the river rises, it bears down on the walls with the force of hundreds of pounds per square foot. Inevitably, the water will find its way through any weak spot. At the base of the levee, the full weight of the water makes the pressure even greater. Water seeping through the ground below poses a threat to the entire structure.
LYNN HOUSE: You feel that the levees are these immortal structures, that they won't fail. And just the thought of them failing was very far beyond my imagination.
HAL HOLBROOK: But every levee in the Quincy area did fail, except the Sny. Hundreds of thousands of acres were flooded, and the river continued to rise.
ALEX HOUSE: Historically, when a levee would break, you could go home. I mean, it was the end of the flood. But in 1993, it just didn't make any difference at all. You knew the water was coming back up.
US ARMY CORPS OF ENG. STAFF MEMBER: Yeah, and the crest seems to be in the Quincy-Hannibal area someplace.
HAL HOLBROOK: Working around the clock, the Army Corps of Engineers tracked the river's relentless rise.
US ARMY CORPS OF ENG. STAFF MEMBER: We've got two interesting hydrographs there, and you want to put Quincy up, please? Quincy, this morning, was 30.95. What we're seeing here is the effects of levee breaks. Here, we hit a stage when we broke a levee and then the river dropped as the levee district fills up. It comes up again. Another levee broke. Here, a levee broke. And here we are today. It's recovering from that.
ALEX HOUSE: A crest historically has always been a singular event. in 1993, we had multiple crests, you know, all of them potentially fatal to a levee district. I mean, the levee's not a perfect structure, especially when you push it up with bulldozers and you're throwing sandbags. I mean, three or four inches—All it takes is just one little depression, and you're a goner. And ultimately, that's what happened.
HAL HOLBROOK: On July 25th, the levee collapsed, after defying the river for nearly a month. More than fifty-five thousand acres were inundated, wiping out the season's crop in one of the largest agricultural losses of the flood.
LYNN HOUSE: It was very depressing, because the Sny had held out the longest of any of them. And you really—If we had made it one more week, I think we would have been out of hot water. A friend of mine called, and I said, "Do you know where it broke?" And he said, "Yes, it broke at the barn." And so I knew then, it had broken right on top of our farm. And I just remember, I mean, I just burst into tears.
ALEX HOUSE: To be honest with you—It sounds funny, but I was almost a little bit relieved. I knew we were going to go through quite a ride, because the river did break on our farm. But it was almost a relief at that point. It wasn't really depressing, I don't think, until the water went down, and we saw all the sand. You know, just nothing but sand, just for acres and acres and acres. I mean, that was tough.
HAL HOLBROOK: Nearly one million tons of sand from the broken levee were dumped on their farm. Although their home was safely located up on the bluffs, Lynn and Alex lost over one hundred and forty acres of prime farmland. And this was just the beginning. Surging south, the flood waters were now working their way from Quincy toward the heavily populated city of St. Louis. Here, most of the city's residents felt they had little to fear. This large, urban area had armed itself with the best protection money could buy, a flood wall designed for a massive flood, one that the law of averages predicted would occur only once in five hundred years. But on the night of July 22nd, the city's fortress of protection began to crumble. A leak had developed on the flood wall's northern end. Overseeing emergency operations in St. Louis was the Army Corps of Engineers' Emmett Hahn.
EMMETT HAHN: What you have to visualize here is, if in fact, this panel fails here and falls, you have fourteen to sixteen feet of a wall of water that comes rushing through here, and is going to take out everything in its way. And it's going to go from here to the north leg of the arch, and inundate everything that's in its way. And nothing is going to stop it. And it scared the living bejesus out of all of us, because of the implications of what you could have happen if, in fact, it failed and we weren't able to hold it.
HAL HOLBROOK: Working at the base of the failing concrete panel, engineers and city workers struggled to control the leak with one hundred tons of fine rock and sand. Meanwhile, in South St. Louis, a desperate battle was being played out. The River des Peres, an underprotected tributary, was filling up with excess water from the swollen Mississippi. Days earlier, several city blocks disappeared beneath the river, but now the floodwaters were creeping toward an area where fifty-one propane tanks sat, each holding thirty thousand gallons of the highly volatile liquid.
NEIL SVETANICS: So, on the day that the river rose to just unbelievable heights, the first tank started to raise. The water started to raise the tank and broke the cable. And the inspector at the site said it sounded like a rifle shot, and pretty soon, it just kept repeating itself over and over again, until all of the tanks had broken all of their cables. And that's when everybody got concerned.
HAL HOLBROOK: A few of the tanks were leaking, creating the horrifying possibility that a spark could set off a fireball one mile wide over south St. Louis.
NEIL SVETANICS: We were sitting on a bomb that could go off at any time. Because I knew what the product was, I knew what the potential danger was. And usually, with propane, it always ended in disaster.
HAL HOLBROOK: Their hope was to dissipate the leaking propane with water, since it tends to hang like a fog in air.
NEIL SVETANICS: The worst danger about it is that it's heavier than air, unlike natural gas. Propane would lay along the ground and just creep along the ground in a cloud until it reached a source of ignition, at which time it would explode.
HAL HOLBROOK: Two hundred and fifty miles away, by a freak coincidence, a propane explosion rocked Kansas City. It showed what just a few hundred gallons of liquid propane could do, compared to the million and a half in St. Louis. And still, no relief from the flood was in sight.
NEIL SVETANICS: We went from the river where we had the river boats break loose. Part of the flood wall was failing. The river was going to an unprecedented record high of forty-nine feet, for sure, we knew then. We had the propane incidents. The Corps of Engineers was telling us, "We're not sure how much higher the river is going to go." All of our levees and our makeshift sandbag levees were failing all at one time. And then, all of a sudden, it was just like God decided we had enough.
HAL HOLBROOK: On Sunday morning, August 1st, an event took place thirty miles south in Columbia, Illinois, that spared St. Louis. As the river broke through the Columbia levee, it immediately relieved pressure on the propane tanks.
NEIL SVETANICS: It created such a suction on the Mississippi River, it drew the water away from St. Louis. It was unbelievable how fast the river dropped on the St. Louis side, when the levee on the Illinois side broke.
HAL HOLBROOK: But in Columbia, the break was a disaster. Three generations were born and raised in this house. In less than an hour, Virgil Gummersheimer and his wife lost everything.
VIRGIL GUMMERSHEIMER: Yeah, we had just seen that we were going to lose it. So then we left, and then I went about a mile north, and stood on the levee and watched things wash away. It was really—It was so spectacular, I didn't realize it was my stuff that was washing away.
HAL HOLBROOK: From St. Louis, the Mississippi had shifted its assault down the stream to Columbia, Illinois, threatening other river towns further south in a domino effect. The tiny village of Valmeyer became the river's next casualty. These two losses, Columbia and Valmeyer, were a painful defeat for Dave Mueller, who had been heading up the Army Corps of Engineers' flood fight here for over a month.
DAVE MUELLER: It's like getting kicked in the gut. And you know, it was probably the worst day of my life. I don't know how else to say it, because we—You know, you get to know the people after that long. I mean, we worked night and day with them. And I don't think we ever really—And even in our faintest imagination, we never thought the levees were going to fail. We always thought we were going to beat it. You know how you always figure hard work and determination will take care of everything. Well, it's not necessarily so. You can't beat Mother Nature sometimes. It was a real cruel lesson to learn. Like I said, it probably was the worst day of my life.
HAL HOLBROOK: The river swallowed up fourteen thousand acres of farmland, and the rampage had just begun. Heading south, the renegade waters rushed over a pair of levees near the town of Valmeyer. The floodwaters were then free to spread over a forty-seven thousand acre valley before running up against their next obstacle, a second set of levees just north of Prairie du Rocher. Designed to hold the modest flows of Rocher Creek, these levees would now have to serve a new role, protecting the town from the full force of the encroaching flood waters from the north. People living in this unprotected valley were helpless.
CAROL DUFRENNE: It was like waiting for two days to have a terrible tragedy hit you. You knew you were going to lose your home, and the two of us were able to get back in here. Even though we weren't supposed to, we were very determined to try to save more of our things. And we came out here, and you walked through your house and looked at each other, and you knew it was gone. You know, you'd lost it. And you know, a fire is terrible, but it's over. This was like torture that didn't—wouldn't quit.
HAL HOLBROOK: All that separated Prairie du Rocher from disaster were two slender levees running along either side of Rocher Creek, but after Valmeyer, this line of defense could not be counted on.
DAVE MUELLER: Once it breached up above Valmeyer, I knew Valmeyer was going under. Like I said, I went into the emergency operations, basically, with tears in my eyes, saying, "I can't do this again."
HAL HOLBROOK: With only forty-eight hours before the floodwaters reached Prairie du Rocher, the corps and local officials had to come up with a strategy to outsmart the river.
GILBERT DINAN: Early on in the flood fight, we had talked about, you know, just what if. You know, what if the levee breaks at Valmeyer, and you know, what do we do down here? Do we try to hold it, or do we let it out? And the answer from the corps was, "We build levees, we don't tear them down." But Dave Mueller was the one who said, you know, he went back to his superiors and told them that, "If that does break at Valmeyer, we have to open it and let it out. There's no other way. It's going to find its own way out, and we will have no control."
HAL HOLBROOK: The plan was to fight water with water by deliberately opening a hole in the levee along the Mississippi's main channel. This incoming water would create a backflood, a wall of water that would meet and cushion the force of the flood waters coming from the north, reducing their impact on the levee. Even more important, the hole would allow water pouring in from the flooded valley to drain back into the Mississippi River.
GARY DYHOUSE: Well, most Corps of Engineers projects are well-designed, well thought out. And it might take several years to go through the design and construction. During a flood, you don't have that luxury. You have to make a lot of decisions on horseback, as it were. And in the case of that Prairie du Rocher decision, we found out at first light that the levee was broken upriver, and we had to make a decision that day as to what to recommend.
HAL HOLBROOK: By noon, the plan went into action. Equipment was brought in to cut open a four hundred-foot hole in the levee. Meanwhile, the encroaching flood waters were transforming the valley just north of Prairie du Rocher into a sea. Hundreds of people flocked to Prairie du Rocher to shore up its defenses. A patchwork of sandbags, clay and rock, the levee hardly seemed up to the task. But the odds did not deter the volunteers.
RICHARD GUEBERT: They were reluctant to even leave, because the water was rising so fast that the sandbags that they had put down, they had to hold down with their foot in order to grab another one, because the water was going to knock it out. And they were just terribly tired. I mean, they were exhausted. And yet, I told them to go home. I mean, what's the use? They turned right around and went right back.
HAL HOLBROOK: To make matters worse, the hole being cut in the levee was too small to drain water into the Mississippi fast enough. They resorted to a dangerous last option, blowing open a second hole with dynamite.
RICHARD GUEBERT: There was no more options. That was it.
GILBERT DINAN: The only concern, I think, that we had about the dynamite—and this was rightfully so—not so much that our levee would liquify, but we didn't know what the concussion would do to the delicate situation at St. Genevieve, just a few miles to our south. They were fighting a battle under, you know, tremendous odds. They had rock levees around the town, just reinforced with sandbags twenty feet high. And you just don't hold the Mississippi River with twenty-foot rock levees.
HAL HOLBROOK: St. Genevieve's makeshift levees were protecting some of the earliest French colonial architecture in the nation. Although their neighbors' homes were at stake, and a prized piece of American history, Prairie du Rocher was desperate.
DALE CURTEN: I really didn't expect it to survive the night, and I was worn out. And it looked to me like it was hopeless. And I finally went home, and I told my wife, "It will all be full of water in the morning. I think it's going to go." That was the first time, I think, that I had thought that it was going to be inevitable. Well, then I heard blasts about, whenever the first blast went off.
GILBERT DINAN: Nobody's had any experience blowing up levees. Let's put it that way. So, they kind of had to learn as they went, too. But the second one did the job.
DALE CURTEN: Well, I got up at daylight, and I flew the levee again. And I broke ground. We will had a levee that was holding.
HAL HOLBROOK: Prairie du Rocher's levee remained in tact, as did St. Genevieve's just five miles away. The townspeople of Prairie du Rocher could hardly grasp their good fortune.
DALE CURTEN: I think we've been visited with a miracle. I've got no other explanation. Lots of hard work, but in the end, it was unbelievable. You had to be here to witness it, and the feeling is marvelous.
HAL HOLBROOK: Keeping Prairie du Rocher safe was a precious victory for everyone involved.
DAVE MUELLER: And I guess it did work. At least, we saved Prairie du Rocher, which was our main goal. As I say, it was our only win, so we had to have something.
HAL HOLBROOK: There were few victories in the long summer of 1993. At the peak of the flood, an area the size of Indiana had been inundated. Although most federally constructed levees stood up well, the majority of privately built levees succumbed. Overall, the Army Corps of Engineers viewed the 1993 flood as an engineering success.
GARY DYHOUSE: It's not surprising that most of those levees were overtopped and filled up, because they simply weren't designed for that kind of flood. All the levees that were designed for a flood like 1993 did their job, just what we expected them to do. It prevented literally billions of dollars in flood damages. The big urban levees around St. Louis, further downriver at Cape Girardeau, upriver at Hannibal, all of these structures were designed for floods greater than the 1993 flood. And they did the job they were supposed to do.
HAL HOLBROOK: But it was the less populated areas, unable to afford such costly protection that suffered the greatest losses. Valmeyer was one of those communities. After being overcome by the flood, it lay underwater for nearly two months. When the floodwaters receded, residents were shocked by what they saw. The current had gutted most of their homes, leaving them uninhabitable.
MAYOR DENNIS KNOBLOCH: Due to all of the current and mud that came along with the water at the time of the flooding, we had ninety percent of our homes in town that were considered, by FEMA standards, substantially damaged. So we knew that because that many buildings were in that category, we would have to come up with a different solution for the people here.
HAL HOLBROOK: Like other Valmeyer residents, Glenn and Mary Rohlfing had to make a tough decision: stay and rebuild, or move to higher ground.
MARY ROHLFING: I don't want to stay. No. I'm afraid that the water's going to come again, and higher this time. So, we decided. I don't want to live there anymore.
GLENN ROHLFING: Well, I was born in Valmeyer, and raised in Valmeyer, and lived there all my life. And I just wanted to stay here, you know. That's about all I can say. Like I say, I loved the home down there. It was right on the lake, the kind of wildlife back there, ducks and fish and frogs, birds. It had everything just about the way I wanted the house.
HAL HOLBROOK: When the river swallowed up Valmeyer, it nearly broke apart the community of nine hundred.
MAYOR DENNIS KNOBLOCH: Had we allowed people to go their own directions at the time of the flood, because of the damage to their property, it would have meant the end of the community. And I, along with many of the other community leaders at that time, were not ready to see Valmeyer die.
HAL HOLBROOK: To keep Valmeyer alive, the mayor needed to find a safe haven. Fortunately, he did not need to look far. A five hundred-acre site became available on this bluff, three hundred feet above the Mississippi, and just a mile and a half away from old Valmeyer. To support the relocation, the mayor had to negotiate his way through a maze of twenty-two state and federal agencies. His ultimate success demonstrated how far the federal government was willing to go to remove people from the banks of the Mississippi. But no one can move a town overnight. Ever since the flood, many people from Valmeyer had been killing time in these trailer homes, enduring delays and cramped quarters.
GLENN ROHLFING: It seemed like especially when you get to be my age—I'm ready to retire—and you think, this shouldn't happen now, you know? If you're younger, things like that, you can overcome it. Well, we will anyhow, as far as that goes. But it's just like three years, you know. It's just a big lapse in your life.
HAL HOLBROOK: With their new home on the bluff nearing completion, the Rohlfings and many others are thankful their nightmare is coming to an end. SCOTT FABER: The flood of '93 really changed the way people think about rivers like the Mississippi. There's a cost that people endure when they live in the flood plain that's much greater than the cost of a lost crop or a lost home. It's the cost of living in fear of a river. It's the cost of being dislocated for two months. It's the cost of seeing your wedding album or your other family heirlooms being lost and swept into the Gulf of Mexico.
HAL HOLBROOK: More than twenty thousand people have decided they no longer want to live with those costs. Surrendering their gutted homes to the demolition crews, they are moving to safer ground. The government has been eager to help out, in order to cut down on future flood losses. Nowhere is this more needed than in St. Charles County, precariously located at the confluence of the nation's two largest rivers, the Missouri and the Mississippi. The county is notorious for filing the third-highest number of repeat flood insurance claims in the country. By living here, people like Drew and Laurie Richmond take a gamble every time the river rises. The Richmonds were devastated by the flood of 1993, but they're reluctant to move away.
DREW RICHMOND: It's peaceful. Real tranquil out here. I mean, I can sit here at my picnic table over here, and we'll listen to squirrels' fingernails go up and down the bark of the pecan tree. You just don't want to give it up. That's it in a nutshell. I've got eleven acres back over there that were sort of a boat-club slash proud-to-be-here-property-owners club, you know? And I want my kids to play over there like I played. I want them to swim right here.
HAL HOLBROOK: But every time they get flooded, they can claim flood insurance payments, and in some cases, disaster aid payments, both subsidized by the federal government. This costly cycle is what county officials like Miriam Anderson are trying to break, especially since federal disaster dollars are drying up.
MIRIAM GRADIE ANDERSON: In the late 1980's and early 1990's, you just had a whole series of different disasters. You had earthquakes. You had fires. You had hurricanes. You basically had something that looked like it was going to be the Second Coming, in general. And every single time, the federal government, through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, would walk in and start handing out money. And with federal budgets being the way they are, there just isn't the money to spend anymore. And so the federal government just finally said, "We've got to look at some other alternatives. We just can't keep spending money like this."
HAL HOLBROOK: Anderson tries to buy out homes like this one. Because it's more than 50% damaged, it's been condemned by the county.
MIRIAM GRADIE ANDERSON: What we are doing, though, is we're forcing people to look at other options, and that they're not caught in the cycle of repetitively being flooded out, being damaged, having their personal lives just devastated, and then coming back and in a few years, having it happen again.
HAL HOLBROOK: For those determined to stay, there is an option, though not a cheap one. For the past sixteen years, Jerry Louvier has been raising homes along the banks of the Mississippi. A flood plain resident himself, he's weathered many floods in his own elevated home.
JERRY LOUVIER: Everybody says, "Well, why are you living out in the flood? Why do you live out in the flood?" It don't flood all the time. We just happened to have one big one that kind of just caught us with our pants down. We learned from that. The county's learned from that. The government's learned from that.
HAL HOLBROOK: Height is the only sure way to beat a rising river, so St. Charles County could turn into a community of tree-top homes. Over the years, Louvier has elevated one hundred and twenty homes, refining his flood-proofing skills along the way.
JERRY LOUVIER: OK, here's another one of our houses. This is a typical twenty-eight by sixty-four modular home. And what we've done, we've made it flood-proof, and we got it up above the flood. And we put a little class to it and decorated it up, and we put a nice deck with a tree that grows through it. And there are several other things you have to remember during a flood, the force of the water. So what we have to do is make sure the water is equal pressure when the water is coming up. So what we did, we came up with. Instead of putting a solid wall, we put a breakaway wall. And what the breakaway wall consists of, and the currents from the river—Being right here on the river, they have a lot more current than the normal people do, so what they can do before the flood, they can come in here, and they can raise this whole wall up and hinge this up. And the water can flow through here real evenly, and there's no bunch of pressure on it. And if it gets extremely heavy, we use a single-pane glass that will break away. Another thing that we really like, and that's kind of like a superstructure that we designed. We put independent loading foundations. These beams look like they're just sitting on the floor. But what they do, they go down in the ground, and we have a thirty-six-inch auger that bores the holes. And we put them deep to kind of how high the house is. They're thirty-six, forty-eight, fifty-two inches deep. And what we do is, we pour the concrete and then we go on up here, and you can see the beam that holds the house up, and it's welded, and it's welded to the trailer house itself. And if it was a regular house, it would be metal tabs bolted to the floor joists. And then we put the turnbuckles and the cables, so we've got a superstructure. So what we do, if we have a house or a tree or a gas tank floating down a river and bouncing off this thing, it's not going to take our house. It might take our walls, which are interior non-bearing wall, but it's not going to take this superstructure that we've got. So this thing will withstand one of the big floods.
HAL HOLBROOK: Low-lying St. Charles County can expect at least minor floods every two and a half to three years. But every community along the Mississippi is vulnerable. Is there anything we can do to prevent these floods? Is there anything we are doing to make them worse? In 1937, this classic government film sounded an alarm. It warned that clear-cutting and agriculture were contributing to erosion, which causes rainfall to drain more rapidly off the land.
GOVERNMENT FILM NARRATOR: For the water comes downhill, spring and fall, down from the cut-over mountains, down from the plowed-off slopes, carrying every drop of water that flows down two-thirds of the continent: 1903, 1907, 1913.
HAL HOLBROOK: It's suggested that such heavy use of the land may have contributed to a string of floods in the early part of the century. This idea is now being studied with modern methods. Geographer Jim Knox, working in the uplands of southwestern Wisconsin, is searching for evidence that will show whether agriculture has had a measurable impact on small to moderate floods. Knox takes a core sample from unfarmed land and compares it to soil from an agricultural core to see how they differ.
JIM KNOX: The agricultural field shows the effects of a hundred and sixty-five to a hundred and seventy or so years of cultivation. And this cultivation, of course, has exposed that soil to the elements. And this has stripped off, at this site here, about a foot of sediment. Whereas we had a very porous, high-permeability kind of soil at the surface before, we now have at the surface, then, a rather impermeable soil. And this means that we're going to generate an awful lot of surface runoff which contributes to flooding in the valleys downstream and contributes to further soil erosion and the movements of sediment into the Mississippi River system.
HAL HOLBROOK: According to Knox, the loss of topsoil as a result of farming is causing floods to increase in frequency and magnitude.
JIM KNOX: There is quite a bit of evidence that even the moderate-magnitude floods have been increased and the magnitude of increase for a relatively small rainstorm of about two and a half inches would be to increase the flood magnitude as much as five-to six-fold during the worst period of agricultural land use in the early part of the century. Today, it's somewhat better, but it's still probably on the order of three times what it was under natural conditions.
HAL HOLBROOK: But is there a way to farm the land and still protect the precious topsoil that absorbs water and reduces flooding? Iowa state conservationist Leroy Brown.
LEROY BROWN: What I have here is crop residue from the past growing season. As this residue decays, it tends to form somewhat as a sponge, and the water that falls on this land will tend to soak in and not run off. Also, that same residue protects the bare soil. When a raindrop falls on bare soil, there's somewhat of an explosion that takes place. And this explosion dislodges soil particles, making it easier for these soil particles to run off. But when you have residue on top of that, it tends to protect that bare soil, and therefore, this residue helps to reduce the amount of erosion that occurs on farmland.
HAL HOLBROOK: These techniques may help to lessen the magnitude of floods, but even the best farming practices can't turn the land near the river back into what it once was, virgin wetlands. Unlike farmland, wetlands possess a sponge-like quality which allows them to absorb excess water in times of flooding. Spurred by the 1993 disaster, the federal government stepped up its efforts to restore wetlands along the river. Louisa County, Iowa became a focal point of this program, since this agricultural area has flooded fourteen times in the past sixty years. For sisters Martha Hawk and Mary Boysen, the persistent upheaval of floods has punctuated their family life.
MARTHA HAWK: I'm not sure he ever said this, but it might have been Mom that said, you know, that they just got used to it. And they knew that they were going to lose a crop occasionally, like maybe once out of every five years.
HAL HOLBROOK: Louisa County's history of levee failures placed a constant financial and emotional strain on Martha and Mary's father, whose struggle with the river was not something they had wanted to inherit. So after the '93 flooding, when conservation groups and the federal government offered to buy out landowners in the flood-prone sections of Louisa County, the sisters were tempted.
MARTHA HAWK: Just with knowing that Dad had fought it, and fought it, and fought it, and that we had, even, in our past, I just hated to throw the towel in and draw the line and say, it's over. But the immenseness of the entire thing, like the largeness of that whole summer. The water was over the land for weeks and weeks. We had to come to reality. It was just so big, and there was so much damage, so many breaks. The financial end of it was going to cost so much money to get the levee fixed. It was hard to ignore those facts.
HAL HOLBROOK: The buyout program offered the sisters a truce with the river. But it was still hard to accept.
MARTHA HAWK: Yeah. Mom—During the buyout times, throughout the meetings, I think one day I said to her, "You know, I just don't know about this. This is just against everything that I ever thought of that would be happening." And she stated, "Well, your dad used say that one day, that land would go back to the ducks."
HAL HOLBROOK: Louisa County's thirty-three hundred acres are now being returned to their former pre-settlement state as a wetland.
SCOTT FABER: The federal government has an interest in acquiring flood-prone land, not only because it reduces the costs of bailing out people who are repeatedly flooded, but also because it reduces flood heights for other farmers who live around the area that's been acquired. It also helps solve some of our environmental problems by reconnecting the Mississippi River with its flood plain. As much as we can be opportunistic and acquire land from willing sellers, we can begin to restore the Mississippi. We don't need to reclaim all of the flood plain, or even most of the flood plain of the Mississippi River in order to have a biologically healthy river.
HAL HOLBROOK: The people of Louisa County reluctantly decided they could no longer face the threat of another flood like 1993. But others, like Lynn and Alex House, continue to live with the risks.
ALEX HOUSE: I'm the fourth generation of my family farming in the Sny Land drainage district. We have never had a failure. We have had threats certainly in the past. They've never had a failure in modern history. I think that the risk is very, very acceptable, considering the fact that this is the richest farmland, certainly, probably in North America. Certainly it's a risk. We had a failure in 1993. But is it something that is going to affect my day-to-day life? Absolutely not. Is it something that's going to affect my willingness to invest in this area? No. Land prices are higher after the flood than before. When I think of something risky, I think of maybe living in California, near a fault. So while it was very popular in the news media in 1993 that, "Oh, you're in a flood plain, oh my goodness, I mean, this is a recurring problem, it's something you constantly have to fight." That's really not the case. It's certainly not the case here.
HAL HOLBROOK: Although hydrologists classified this flood as a rare one hundred- to five hundred-year event, it is entirely possible that a flood of this magnitude could occur again in our lifetime.
GARY DYHOUSE: A hundred-year flood has a one-in-one-hundred chance of occurring. What that means is that you've got a one percent chance in any given year that a flood like that could occur. So in 1993, our number came up, and we had that happen. But what that means is, we've got the same percentage, one percent, happen in 1994, 1995, 1996, and so forth.
HAL HOLBROOK: Since 1993, about twenty percent of the flood's victims have retreated from the Mississippi, no longer willing to gamble with the river. Over a hundred years ago, Mark Twain cautioned us about the Mississippi, warning that we cannot tame that lawless stream, cannot save a shore which it has sentenced, cannot bar its path with an obstruction which it will not tear down, dance over, and laugh at. But the lure of the Mississippi is great. In the devastating wake of the 1993 flood, most river dwellers have chosen to stay—despite the certainty that some day, the river will return.
Is a flood always is a disaster? At NOVA's website, find out how people through the ages have dealt with a deluge. Log on to pbs.org.
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Coming up on NOVA, two killer quakes, exactly one year apart. In Japan, deaths in the thousands. In California, damage in the billions. Are these sizable hotspots doomed? "The Day the Earth Shook."
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