As flood of '93 recedes, anguish comes to surface Big cleanup, damage estimates under way

August 10, 1993|By B. Drummond Ayres Jr. | B. Drummond Ayres Jr.,New York Times News Service

ST. LOUIS -- In its two-month rampage, the great Midwest flood of 1993 cut an awesome, destructive swath. It took 50 lives, left almost 70,000 people homeless, inundated an area twice the size of New Jersey, caused an estimated $12 billion in property and agriculture damage, and stirred anew a debate over the nation's flood-control system and its policies.

The crest of the mighty flood, probably the worst ever to wash over the United States, roiled down the Mississippi past Cairo, Ill., yesterday, and from there south the swollen waters will steadily lose their deadly potency as the river bottom widens drastically.

The worst is over in the great flood of '93, and the end is clearly in sight. Now come the damage estimates and the big cleanup, both certain to have their own anguish.

Still to be added up are how many little towns were drowned, how many homes and businesses destroyed and how many roads, bridges and stretches of rail swept away.

But enough is known to consider it devastating: About $200 million in damage was done to the nation's rail lines and bridges; 500 miles of highway were scarred; and farmers had about $8 billion in crop damage.

In the wearying effort to fight back the relentless waters, some 75 million sandbags by some counts were piled, though in the end at least 800 of the region's 1,400 levees were topped or breached.

But for now it is reassuring to the inhabitants of the upper Midwest to know that the most serious threat -- along with the record crests -- has subsided.

"The worst is past and the river is beginning to fall nicely," said Gary Dyhouse, the chief hydrologist here for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

There is an epitaph, of sorts, to the flood of '93 on the St. Louis levee in front of the soaring Gateway Arch. It is a thin drying line of river detritus, now a full five feet above the Mississippi.

Five full feet.

That is how much the great river, the Father of Waters to Indians, has fallen since cresting a week ago at its highest level on record, 49.5 feet.

And the retreat is similarly under way all over the nine-state disaster zone. Everywhere the marauding waters are pulling back, back from sodden houses and stores and cars and fields and barns, back toward the ripped levees and the big oaks and cottonwoods that mark the normally languid edge of the region's rivers.

"She's pulling out," said Cliff Coppedge in St. Charles, Mo., as he hosed a pile of muddy debris back into the receding Missouri.

A month ago, satellite pictures found so much water covering the Midwest that the region resembled a sixth Great Lake. The latest pictures show that lake is steadily shrinking.

To be sure, it is a grudging, rear-guard retreat, not a rout. The Mississippi is still well out of its banks and still pressuring soggy levees. So is the Missouri.

"The worst is definitely over but people need to stay on their toes," said Jim Brown, a spokesman for the Corps of Engineers. "We're dealing with what probably is the worst flood man has ever witnessed in this country, certainly the Midwest. Some levees could collapse even as the waters recede. The sun has to keep shining. Don't get complacent."

There are still plenty of places where another month will pass before the waters totally fall back. One of them is a 20-mile stretch of rich bottom land north of St. Louis that extends eastward from the outskirts of St. Charles all the way to Alton, Ill., near the point where the the Missouri and the Illinois rivers join the Mississippi.

"The water's been where it's never been before," said Barb Margherio, whose house in Hardin, Ill., went under when the Illinois, Missouri and Mississippi combined record crests the first couple of days of this month.

Flood experts agree with Ms. Margherio. Some call the great flood of 1993 a "500-year flood," meaning that statistically over the centuries a flood of its magnitude should hit only once in every 500 years, though, of course, there is no guarantee that a similar or even worse flood will not occur again next spring.

This has been the kind of flood that at its absolute worst, when it was cresting in St. Louis, was sending 7.5 million gallons of water past the Gateway Arch every second, six times the normal summer flow. Every 24 hours, enough topsoil slipped by in that brown turmoil to cover five 1,000-acre farms a foot deep.

But that was last Sunday. Yesterday, all over St. Louis -- and places like Marshall, Minn., and Manhattan, Kan., and Des Moines -- the great cleanup from the great inundation had begun.

It is work with its own trauma, hard on the body, hard on the nose, hard on the pocketbook and, worst of all, hard on the mind and soul.

"God, I just hate it," Rachel Carlson lamented as she mucked out her basement in St. Charles, heaving up what looked through a layer of river goo to be a table leaf. "We worked so hard to have a nice place. Now it's like a sewer. Oh, Lord, how I hate it."

Then, somehow managing a mud-speckled smile, she bent back, this time heaving up what looked like a crushed picture frame.

Try as he might, "Old Man River" never managed in this summer of drowning human creations to drown the human spirit. The cleanup is under way with a vengeance.

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