At 66, Karen Bair has always wanted to learn to swim. But she is afraid. She remembers the agony of gushing floodwaters 25 years ago, feeling, she said, as if her skin would be ripped off.
Bair was one of thousands who suffered through what became known as the Great Flood of 1993, a summer-long stream of water that descended in buckets, killing over 50 people, 27 from Missouri. From May 16 to July 15 that year, it rained 40 out of 61 days.
“It was as if God had carved a new Great Lake in the Heartland,” the Kansas City Star wrote in its special September 1993 edition, “Trial by Water.”
And despite 25 years of flood prevention initiatives since, the bottom line is Mother Nature could still hurt us.
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“There is no such thing as absolute protection from a flood,” said Gerry Galloway, an expert in water resource management who led the White House study of the 1993 flood. “Floods can overtop levees; levees can fail.”
Jud Kneuvean knows that “you’re always just a few rainfalls away from flooding.”
“It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when,” said the chief of emergency management with the Kansas City district of the Army Corps of Engineers. “There will be another 1993 flood event.”
But experts also say the region will be better protected than ever before.
Earlier this year, Congress approved an additional $17.4 billion in funding for levees and flood control — including $453 million for the Kansas City Levees project along the Kansas and Missouri rivers.
“It’s a great story to celebrate as we commemorate the flood of ‘93,” said Tom Poer, president of the Missouri and Associated Rivers Coalition. “We’ve been making progress, moving things along, and boom, here comes this significant amount of money that is fully funding this project. It’s a huge win for KC and our community and will help lead toward economic growth.”
The money will go toward heightening levees and flood walls and improving the water pump system along three levees on the Kansas River, among other efforts.
Poer believes the progress Kansas City has made in the past 25 years was in large part due to the community’s collaboration and efforts to lobby for federal funding to prevent another Great Flood.
“Most people had no idea how close we were to really getting hurt,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, who was mayor of Kansas City at the time. Today, he says, flood control efforts are going well.
“We’re preventing this generation and future generations from experiencing the agony that past generations felt when the spring rains came.”
The flood affected nine states: North and South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri. Over 100,000 homes in the Midwest were soaked or washed away.
Coffins arose from a cemetery in Hardin, Mo. Jefferson City became an island.
In Kansas City’s West Bottoms, the American Royal flooded. The Downtown Airport had to be evacuated.
On July 27 that year, the floodwaters crested at 48.87 feet on the Missouri River. In North Kansas City, the river crested merely feet away from the top of a levee protecting the city’s water treatment systems.
Bair’s vivid memory takes us back to that summer.
A heavy rainstorm left about a foot of water on Bair’s route from work to her south Overland Park home in midsummer 1993. She thought her car would make it through.
And it likely would have, had not a gush of water from the overflowing Kingston Lake pummeled her car into a creek.
“Water hit me so hard it spun my car around,” Bair said.
Her car was carried 150 yards. Bair rolled down her windows, opened her moon roof and tried to grab onto trees in her moving Taurus — all this fast thinking from a woman who can’t swim.
Her opportunity for survival came when her car rounded a corner in the creek and was stopped by a tree. The water in her car was up to her waist, and by the time she climbed out, it was up to the windows.
She grabbed hold of a tree limb near her window and remembers planning to swing herself toward the center of the tree. But she can’t actually recall doing it. God had a role in getting her there, she thinks.
“It was like he picked me up and put me there,” she said.
Bair found a foothold, but water was still rushing at her.
“I just remember how much it hurt,” she said. “It was like it was peeling my skin off in one layer, top to bottom. I remember that so much, the current.”
She began to scream.
Some men heard her and noticed her purple T-shirt in the rushing water. They made a human chain and transported her over their shoulders to ground.
Her Taurus, which had only one payment left on it, was ruined.
The encounter left her more fearful of water than before. She and her husband live in Louisburg, Kan., now and have a beach house in Florida, but she’s nervous to go too far into the ocean. She will still go on boat rides, but she has a hard time and is “upset that it affected me water-wise for so many years.”
Kingston Lake has since been improved to better handle flooding, like many other spots in the Kansas City area.
Repairing and improving
The Turkey Creek project, along Interstate 35 and Southwest Boulevard in Kansas City and Kansas City, Kan., involved widening the creek, modifying the tunnel and relocating bridges. Southwest Boulevard was hit heavily by the 1993 flood, and Margarita’s restaurant still has a blue line on its wall marking the height floodwater reached. It nearly touches the ceiling.
“With the construction and everything they’ve done at Turkey Creek, we feel pretty confident that the high water will stay away,” said Jason Quirate, the owner of Margarita’s. The restaurant will be closing to begin a remodeling project Aug. 1.
“That’s how confident we are in the Turkey Creek Project,” he said.
The Blue River/Dodson Industrial project has included the construction of a levee flood wall along the north bank of the Blue River, from the Bannister Road Federal Complex on the southwest to U.S. 71 on the northeast.
One of the biggest projects has been the Kansas City Levees project. The levees, which run along the Kansas and Missouri rivers for over 60 miles, protect $20 billion in infrastructure and 20,000 residents.
“There was significant damage following ‘93 and it took a significant amount of time to get everything repaired back to the condition prior to the flood,” said Kneuvean.
Over the past 10 years, the Fairfax, North Kansas City and East Bottoms levees have been improved to reduce flood risk. A new levee, called the L-385, was constructed along the west bank of the Missouri River at Riverside. The levees that will benefit most from the new funding will be in the Central Industrial District (West Bottoms), Argentine and Armourdale. The Birmingham levee in Clay County did not need any improvements.
The money will allow the completion of the Kansas City Levees project so the levees are more reliable “for dealing with future floods from the Kansas River basin,” said John Grothaus, chief of the planning section with the Kansas City district of the Army Corps of Engineers.
But there are more things to do than build, flood expert Galloway said. Flood control is a federal, state and individual issue. Levees should be maintained, but individuals need to understand the risks of living in flood zones. States should avoid developing on wetlands that help soak up rainfall.
“You better understand your risk,” he said, “and be prepared to do something about it.”