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By MICHAEL BOYD JR.
STE. GENEVIEVE HERALD
The Flood of 1993 was one of the most tragic times in the city of Ste. Genevieve, yet one of the most heroic times as well as it brought together the entire community.
Around the Fourth of July – 30 years ago – the Mississippi River itself decided it wanted to tour this historic town and stayed several months. It did not care what it destroyed in doing so.
Mother Nature was drowning this historic town – the oldest permanent settlement of the Show Me State – and many devastated residents who lived along Big Muddy’s reach watched as they forever lost their homes and belongings in the process.
The river reached a historic 49.67 feet according to a gauge at the Chester Bridge 30 years ago this week, severely damaging or wiping out a row of houses along North Main St. and heavily threatened the historic buildings in downtown Ste. Genevieve.
The rising waters forced every available person, local and visitors, to help save the town. Even fellow river towns Bloomsdale and St. Marys were in jeopardy.
Old teenage adversaries ended longtime grudges, best friends had new reasons help one another, and rival schools joined forces, all to fill sandbags and dig to help put a halt to the river’s rapid invasion.
“It was kind of amazing what we went through and what all we did,” said Vern Bauman, president of the Levee District 3 since its formation in 1973. “Just amazing. I remember it all to well. It was just a massive effort and people from all over helped save us.”
Massive indeed as the river kept rising and rising.
“We figured we could hold out at 40 feet, but the water ended up going to 50,” Bauman added. “We just kept adjusting, kept digging, kept stacking (sandbags). (The flood) lasted so long and ruined the whole summer.”
How long? The flood stayed well into the start of the school year.
“It seemed like forever,” said SGHS ’94 graduate Dawn (Dallas) Boyd, a senior at the time whose former home on Third St. was just two blocks from the flood. “(The water) didn’t get to us, but it was scary seeing all those houses around the corner and down the street under water. We were getting ready ourselves because the river kept going up.”
The first wave on July 1 came and went so it was business as usual for a town sitting on a major waterway dealing with several floods in the past.
Bauman said there was not many people in town at that time due to vacations and other summer activities.
However, the second wave just after the July 4 holiday is where the nightmare really began.
“The main thrust of water came around the Fourth of July and a lot of people were on vacation,” Bauman said. “At the time, we lost the north part of Main Street. The water was coming across Main and around the houses. We were way behind on getting started. So we lost them row of houses along North Main. For anyone on vacation, it was too late when they got back. We tried to help them, but.”
The rising water forced evacuations of those occupants who lost a lot, if not everything, in a matter of days.
At first, many people built their own sandbag levees around their houses, many to no avail.
Although their efforts saved the next lot of houses up on La Porte and Second Streets, both just one block over from Main Street, downtown was hit hard as North Gabouri Creek, which runs through this town, flooded as well.
All the annual summer events downtown were canceled, including the conuty fair and Jour de Fete. Even the latter part of baseball and softball were either moved elsewhere or were canceled.
The town had seen much better times as it was not even a full year since “Title Town,” when the varsity football teams at Ste. Genevieve and Valle Catholic high schools had both had won their respective state championships on the same day, itself a historic event.
But, that was an afterthought now.
“The big thing that sticks in my mind is that we place about 1,100,000 sandbags in Ste. Genevieve and another couple hundred thousand in St. Marys and Bloomsdale,” Bauman said. “The helpers really helped with the effort. The effort was ongoing, around the clock. It was just a marathon, a continuous struggle. Every day was a new adventure with new problems. We just solved one after the other and kept plugging away.”
The volunteers were few at first due to the holiday, but then they grew to hundreds, then thousands.
Betty (Winston) Seibel, who was working at Ste. Genevieve City Hall during the ’93 Flood, remembers so many people showing up to help, including the National Guard.
Someone had placed a sheet at City Hall to sign, as well as a book to help keep track of all volunteers.
That book also helped keep track of where volunteers where stationed throughout town so officials knew that everyone was accounted for.
“It was a heck of a time,” Seibel said. “Everybody was meeting every morning at 10 o’clock. People like ‘Vernie’ and several others he had set up at different places would report things such as somebody needed to move furniture out of their house because the river was getting pretty close. It was just every day things that happened and so many people who helped fill sandbags and things like that.”
Bauman and Seibel both mentioned people and volunteers came for all over the United States, including Sylvanus, the Ste. Gen. Building Stone and the Frank Uding Group just to mention a few.
Volunteers from 38 states arrived as the Flood of ‘93 gained national attention. They all signed the sheet.
Those volunteers got the levee up to 51 feet, which was just enough to hold off the Mississippi. But it took five weeks of nonstop work to do so.
“We’ve held off 40 feet before, we could do that again, so we got started on the second round,” Bauman said. “The water got to 40 feet, then 41 feet, 43 feet. Many of nights we were only inches ahead of the water. The higher the water got, the longer the levees got, so we took more sandbags. So the mayor said lets get the levee to 50 feet and that’s where the river crested. We went to 51 just be sure.”
The record flood also led to the building of urban design levees by the U.S. Congress.
The threat to Ste. Genevieve’s historic buildings is what eventually prompted the federal government to provide funding for the levee.
Bauman had previously stated that area congressman Richard “Dick” Gephardt, the former U.S. House of Representatives majority leader, was instrumental on getting it done.
Both Gephardt and the late Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan, who later died in office during a plane crash in Pevely while campaigning for re-election, had visited Ste. Genevieve and its level several times during the flood year.
Seven years later, after a back-and-forth over the amount of funds needed, Ste. Genevieve had its federal levee as Congress declared a declaration that there is no way to put a value on all the historic buildings in Ste. Genevieve.