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Residents recall Missouri River flood of 1993, hope history doesn’t repeat

Jerry Friedrich remembers what 1993 did to Levasy.

The levee shielding his town from the Missouri River burst. A torrent of water surged through, ruining homes and burying farmland in thick layers of silt.

"It took 30 days for the water to go down," said Friedrich, an alderman and business owner in Levasy, about 30 miles east of Kansas City. "The town has never recovered."

Now, nearly two decades later, officials are preparing for what looks to be one of the region’s worst floods since 1993 -- but that doesn’t mean it will be a repeat of a year seared into many Midwestern psyches and record books.

"This event is different in many different ways," said Josh Marx, the natural disaster program manager for the Kansas City office of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Still, according to Army Corps estimates, riverside towns from Nebraska through mid-Missouri will see several feet of flooding, some flirting with the record crests set in 1993. Some levees to the north have already broken and farmland is under water.

Officials shied away from making comparisons to 1993, which evokes memories of gutted houses, buried farmland and boats trawling down main streets.

At the time, officials estimated that a quarter of the farmland in Missouri had been damaged or ruined. The waters wrought up to $20 billion in damage, ran 54,000 people from their homes and swamped 75 towns -- some of which never were rebuilt.

And then there was the immeasurable emotional damage.

Consider the town of Hardin, about 50 miles east of Kansas City, where the relentless waters ripped more than 700 graves out of a cemetery and cast the remains downstream, bringing an extra measure of heartbreak to families who had to rebury their loved ones. Not all of the remains were recovered, let alone identified.

The good news is that Army Corps officials, for now, don’t expect floodwaters to reach the crests they did in 1993 -- as long as the weather holds.

In 1993, the lower Midwest was swamped by a monsoon of rainfall. The U.S. Geological Survey noted record or near-record amounts of precipitation in several states, engorging the rivers in Missouri and Kansas that would soon overwhelm small riverside towns such as Elwood, Kan.; Missouri City; Parkville; and Orrick.

This flood will work a little differently, said John J. Grothaus, plan formulation manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Kansas City office.

This year, it starts with Montana and the Dakotas. Over the span of a few weeks in May, that region received a year’s worth of rainfall, adding to a thick layer of snow left over from winter. All that water has to go somewhere. Physics and geography dictate that it will head downstream, through a giant continental funnel known as the Missouri Basin -- a veiny network of rivers and tributaries sprawling through several states that eventually dump into the Missouri River.

After rushing through Kansas City, the water cruises toward St. Louis, where it feeds into the Mississippi River and, ultimately, the Gulf of Mexico.

In other words, the source of the flooding is not the clouds over Missouri, but the rivers to the north and west -- giving the Midwest the rare disaster that is relatively predictable.

"We have a little bit more certainty and a little more warning time than we did in 1993," Grothaus said.

In addition, the levees are in better shape than in 1993, he said.

The Army Corps can’t stop the Missouri River, but it’s doing its best to control it. The water from the upper Missouri Basin is being slowed and slowly released by six reservoirs.

The reservoirs are "holding back millions of acre-feet of floodwater which, if they weren’t there, would be down here," Grothaus said. Without them, he said, "You’d see water in the Missouri River Valley from bluff to bluff."

For the Kansas City area, the most important of these is the Gavins Point Dam along the Nebraska-South Dakota border, which is the last barrier for the water before it rushes downriver -- giving the Kansas City area about a four-day heads-up on when floodwaters arrive, which didn’t happen in 1993.

On Tuesday morning, Gavins Point reached its peak release of 150,000 cubic feet of water per second, officials said, more than twice the previous record set in 1997.

Parkville business owner Tom Hutsler was thankful it isn’t like 1993.

He remembered the weeks he spent sandbagging then, trying to protect the city’s downtown from becoming a lake, and ultimately not succeeding.

"The big difference between this year and 1993 was, in 1993, it rained 24/7 for 40-some days, and it was quite miserable," he said. Now, he said, the city is coordinating with the Army Corps and emergency response officials to keep businesses open "until we can’t get to the front door."

"We have advance warning this time," Hutsler said.

Downstream, back in Levasy, Friedrich’s take was a little more downcast.

"Some of the younger people who haven’t been through one of these floods are totally ignoring it," he said.

Others who remembered 1993 were deeply worried. "Some people are moving out completely and are going to be gone."

The National Guard is deploying 25 troops and has asked for 50 volunteers to help lay down sandbags in Levasy starting Thursday morning.

Friedrich remained skeptical of the Army Corps’ estimates, which he said had varied.

"If it’s the worst-case scenario, it would wipe out towns, homes, businesses and dreams," he said. "How in the world do you plan for something like this?"

HOW BAD WAS IT IN 1993?

Up to $20 billion in damage, 54,000 people evacuated and 75 towns flooded.

St. Joseph

2011 forecast crest: 27-32 feet

1993 crest: 32.1 feet

Atchison

2011 forecast crest: 30-34 feet

1993 crest: 29.8 feet

Leavenworth

2011 forecast crest: 27-33 feet

1993 crest: 35.3 feet

Kansas City

2011 forecast crest: 30-39 feet

1993 crest: 48.9 feet

Sibley

2011 forecast crest: 28-33 feet

1993 crest: 35.9 feet

Boonville

2011 forecast crest: 27-33

1993 crest: 37.1

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Engineers OK’d a planned levee burst near Hamburg, Iowa, that would slow the floodwaters’ approach to the town. Officials expected to have the backup levee there reinforced by midday today.

Army Corps officials plan to attend a public meeting at 6 p.m. today at Parkville City Hall, as well as a 7:30 p.m. Thursday meeting at the First Baptist Church in Orrick.

Army Corps officials said small water releases from a few Kansas lakes were under way as water from Gavins Point was taking longer than expected to reach Kansas City. They plan to cut back the Kansas releases when the peak Gavins Point flows arrive.

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