Receding rivers leave changed lives in their wake THE GREAT FLOOD OF '93

August 15, 1993|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,Staff Writer

ALONG THE MISSISSIPPI RIVER -- Donald Lucas keeps dreaming the same dream, engulfed by a river. The hackberry trees in Ellyn Miller's yard are yellowing in mid-summer, dying from too much water. His factory still flooded, Rob Kemper will be out of work three more weeks.

And the river recedes.

Candi Kendall worries that her unborn twins have been affected by this summer's anxious moments. Extension agent Bob Dodds encourages Iowa farmers to plant winter wheat in their now ravaged cornfields. Raised on a creek, Mary Leffler is retiring to a house on higher ground.

And the river recedes.

The floodwaters of the Midwest have changed landscapes, lifestyles and livelihoods. They have provoked debates on taming the rivers, flood-control policy and the Mississippi's bustling commercial channel. Billions have been lost in a fight waged across nine states. And billions will be spent to compensate those vanquished by Mother Nature.

Questions have been asked of men and of God as the rivers steal back to their banks, leaving a muddy, slushy mess in a Missouri town, an acres-wide lake in an Iowa river bottom, an oil slick in an Illinois village.

A farmer's daughter asks why she can't continue her ballet lessons. A barber wants to know how the government can make it so tough for him to get a loan to rebuild his business. An elderly woman wonders aloud what will become of her, now that she is homeless.

"Life as you knew it was plain washed away, and it may never be the same," says Cheryl Pieper, whose family farm in Wever, Iowa, remains underwater.

'You have to trust God'

"You trust God when people [die]," Mrs. Pieper says. "You have to trust God now. But still you stand back and wonder, 'What did I do?' "

The questions go beyond the personal to issues that may have as lasting an effect on the Midwest communities as the floodwaters retreating from them: Will an early frost destroy the immature corn crop that remains? How has the environment fared? Should communities be permitted to rebuild in a flood plain? When will levee reconstruction begin?

Twice now, Philip J. Gersmehl has heard the flood discussed as "a once-in-500-year event." And that worries the University of Minnesota geography professor.

"However it is described is going to influence the perception of what should be done about it," says Mr. Gersmehl, who specializes in rural land policy.

Farmers who plant crops in flood plains -- a rich yet risky environment -- should not be fully compensated for their losses, he says. "To say you can reap benefits of this risky environment nine years out of 10 and society as a whole will cover those losses in the 10th year will just encourage people to move into those environments," Mr. Gersmehl says.

America's public and its policy-makers witnessed the flood's wrath in nightly news broadcasts: acres of cornfields shorn by water, whole towns submerged, fuel tanks bobbing like buoys in sewage-strewn rivers. Here's what they haven't seen: silt-filled backwaters, the loss of erosion-controlling river vegetation, dozens of stricken wastewater treatment plants.

'Constant evolution'

"A constant evolution along that river is what you're going to see," says Thomas D. Glanville, an extension agricultural engineering professor at Iowa State University.

Although the raging Mississippi spread far and wide this spring and summer, it cut no new river channels, says Ron Fournier, an Army Corps of Engineers spokesman in Rock Island, Ill.

"The profound effect is mostly in people's minds more so than a geographic reality," he says. "It caused everyone to reassess flood control."

And well they should, says Scott Faber of American Rivers, a Washington-based river conservation organization.

"There is no comprehensive flood-control policy for the upper Mississippi River, like there is for the lower Mississippi," says Mr. Faber, who directs the group's flood planning program.

"We think the engineering of the Mississippi, the dams and the levees, has made the flood damage worse by cutting it off from its flood plain," which acts like a sponge, he says.

The 1993 flood, Mr. Faber says, has left "permanent imprints in the geology of these areas; the balance within local ecosystems has changed."

But many of the changes wrought by this flood will never be discussed by policy-makers or politicians. They have occurred in the hearts and minds of folks who live on the river -- farmers and factory workers who can't imagine living elsewhere, receptionists and correctional officers who aren't sure they want to go back.

Listen to the stories of Illinois, Missouri and Iowa river towns. Hear how this summer has changed their lives.

Mementos have been lost in the flood of 1993, but new keepsakes have been found.

Kevin Siemen's dog Blackie learned to swim. Illinois state Rep. Laura Kent Donahue can explain a thing or two about levees. A tea rose bloomed in Nadine Bonar's garden.

And yet heartache remains, even in the presence of small joys.

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