Mississippi and Missouri Flooding Brings Misery to Middle America Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Heavy rains and an unusually high snowmelt caused rivers throughout the Midwest to begin rising in the spring of 1993, and unremitting rainfall throughout the summer led to record flooding on the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, as well as many major tributaries, breaching or overtopping levees and causing major damage to agricultural regions and several urban areas over a six-month period.

Summary of Event

A confluence of weather-related events beginning in the autumn of 1992 initiated a chain reaction that produced one of the greatest natural disasters to befall the United States in the twentieth century. Unusually heavy fall rains followed by considerable winter snowfalls combined to create higher-than-average spring runoff into rivers and streams in the upper Midwest, swelling tributaries that fed into the country’s major midwestern rivers, the Missouri and Mississippi. Heavy spring rains throughout the region added to the problem. Unfortunately, although forecasters realized that rivers might rise to higher-than-normal levels, few predicted the magnitude of the floods that would cripple the nation’s midsection for nearly six months. Floods;midwestern U.S. Missouri River, flooding Mississippi River, flooding Disasters;floods Agriculture;floods [kw]Mississippi and Missouri Flooding Brings Misery to Middle America (Apr.-Oct., 1993) [kw]Missouri Flooding Brings Misery to Middle America, Mississippi and (Apr.-Oct., 1993) [kw]Flooding Brings Misery to Middle America, Mississippi and Missouri (Apr.-Oct., 1993) [kw]Middle America, Mississippi and Missouri Flooding Brings Misery to (Apr.-Oct., 1993) [kw]America, Mississippi and Missouri Flooding Brings Misery to Middle (Apr.-Oct., 1993) Floods;midwestern U.S. Missouri River, flooding Mississippi River, flooding Disasters;floods Agriculture;floods [g]North America;Apr.-Oct., 1993: Mississippi and Missouri Flooding Brings Misery to Middle America[08560] [g]United States;Apr.-Oct., 1993: Mississippi and Missouri Flooding Brings Misery to Middle America[08560] [c]Disasters;Apr.-Oct., 1993: Mississippi and Missouri Flooding Brings Misery to Middle America[08560] [c]Environmental issues;Apr.-Oct., 1993: Mississippi and Missouri Flooding Brings Misery to Middle America[08560] Clinton, Bill [p]Clinton, Bill;midwestern floods Espy, Mike Carnahan, Mel Edgar, Jim Branstad, Terry E. Witt, James Lee

By May, 1993, the Redwood River in Minnesota, the Arkansas River in Kansas, the Mississippi River, and the Missouri River were at flood stages in several areas. Officials in Kansas City and St. Louis were already expressing concern for the safety of individuals and businesses in those metropolitan areas. Constant rains continued to swell tributary rivers in South Dakota, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa, and as the crests along these rivers moved downstream, the waters in the Missouri and Mississippi rivers continued to rise. Many communities were forced to mobilize emergency efforts to sandbag levees in an attempt to prevent major flooding. Nevertheless, by June levees were beginning to break, and those living in areas immediately adjacent to the rivers were forced to begin evacuations.

Two bridges over the Mississippi River were washed out during the 1993 flood.

(FEMA)

As waters rose throughout the region, the economy began to suffer as well. As water swept downstream, levees were topped or breached, and land became flooded. River traffic was halted as major port cities along the Missouri and Mississippi began to feel the effects of rising water that swamped docks, breached levees, and flooded areas along the rivers’ banks. Highways and railways adjacent to the rivers became impassable, and bridges over key waterways were washed out. Crops could not be planted; as a result, costs for staples such as corn and soybeans rose significantly.

Many small towns were completely underwater, and even larger cities had to conduct evacuations. Limited evacuation occurred in St. Louis as well, where the water remained above flood stage for nearly three months. Several cities, including Des Moines, Iowa, were without potable water for weeks. An even more sinister tragedy struck Quincy, Illinois, where someone intentionally damaged the levee along the Mississippi, causing the entire city to become submerged.

The strain on state governments was significant. Governors Jim Edgar of Illinois, Mel Carnahan of Missouri, and Terry E. Branstad of Iowa were forced to call out National Guard troops, mobilize community emergency-preparedness units, and plead with federal officials for emergency assistance. They spent considerable time as well lobbying their own legislatures for funds to provide temporary shelter for those displaced by rising waters and to pay for resources needed by agencies fighting the floods. These governors, as well as those in other states, including Wisconsin, South Dakota, and Minnesota, which also suffered flood damage, were visible presences in the areas most damaged, as were federal officials, who, after some initial reluctance to recognize the seriousness of the problem, eventually mobilized the resources of the U.S. government to assist in combating the disaster.

Among national leaders who responded aggressively to the calamity was President Bill Clinton, whose administration was facing its first major natural disaster. Although initially slow to recognize the severity of the situation, the Clinton administration made the disaster a national priority once it became apparent that the floods would have significant impact on the country’s economy. Clinton made several trips to the region, including one on July 4 to give national visibility to the scope of the disaster. In Washington, members of the president’s cabinet worked with leaders in the House of Representatives and the Senate to pass legislation providing emergency funding to those whose lives were being disrupted.

Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy was also a frequent visitor to the affected states and led the federal drive to provide accurate estimates regarding damages to the annual harvest in the region typically thought of as the breadbasket of America. Although late in responding, the Federal Emergency Management Agency Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), under the capable leadership of director James Lee Witt, worked tirelessly throughout the summer to get relief supplies and other resources to stricken areas during the height of the flooding.

Government efforts had only limited impact, however, as nothing could be done to alter the weather. Fueled by continuing rain falling on ground that was already saturated, rivers remained at record flood stages throughout the summer and into the fall. From March to September, record flooding occurred along more than eighteen hundred miles of river in nine midwestern states, while another thirteen hundred miles were subjected to significant flood damage. When the waters finally subsided in September and October, thousands of individuals displaced by the floods returned to find homes and businesses that could not be repaired. Many were forced to rebuild farther away from rivers; in fact, in some locations entire communities were relocated on higher ground to prevent them from being wiped out again in future floods. In the aftermath of the flooding, state and federal officials estimated that damages throughout the region exceeded fifteen billion dollars, and more than fifty lives were lost.

Significance

The short-term effect of the flooding was serious in all nine states in which rivers overflowed their banks. Farmers lost a season of planting, manufacturing industries were temporarily prevented from turning out goods, and many service industries suffered loss of business. The federal government was required to provide billions of dollars in emergency assistance to supplement funds made available by state governments Nevertheless, many affected by the disaster were dissatisfied with what they saw as slow and sometimes inadequate responses to obvious needs. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was required to conduct extensive repair work on levees breached by numerous rivers. A thorough review by federal and state authorities conducted in the months following the flooding uncovered numerous deficiencies in weather forecasting, flood prevention, and emergency preparedness. At the federal level, FEMA revised its procedures for dealing with disasters in the hope of being able to be more responsive to future crises.

The long-term effects on some individuals and communities hit hardest by the flood were decidedly more negative. Because the Missouri and Mississippi rivers had wreaked such havoc on areas in their natural floodplains despite the presence of levees designed to protect these areas, significant arguments over the wisdom of reconstructing homes and businesses in the rivers’ natural floodplains led many officials to recommend that funds for rebuilding in these areas be withheld. Congress reexamined its program for providing flood insurance and made significant changes that virtually prohibited those living in flood-prone areas from purchasing coverage. Although some communities eventually managed to rebuild on their original sites, several others were not so fortunate. For example, residents of the town of Valmeyer, Illinois, reluctantly voted to reconstruct their entire town on higher ground in the hope that they could avoid a repeat of the disaster that wiped out businesses and homes that had been in some families for generations. Floods;midwestern U.S. Missouri River, flooding Mississippi River, flooding Disasters;floods Agriculture;floods

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chagnon, Stanley A., ed. The Great Flood of 1993: Causes, Impacts, and Responses. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1996. Collection of essays discusses many aspects of the flood, including climatology, hydrology, economic impact, and political fallout. Includes an annotated chronology explaining the events that occurred during the six months that floodwaters covered parts of the midwestern states.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mathur, Anuradha, and Dilip da Cunha. Mississippi Floods: Designing a Shifting Landscape. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2001. Presents photographs of the Mississippi River supplemented by commentary outlining the influence of the river on the landscape and the people who live within its floodplain. Includes discussion of the impact of various floods, including the 1993 flood.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Miller, E. Willard, and Ruby M. Miller. Natural Disasters: Floods. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 2000. Handbook on the causes and consequences of floods provides information on government attempts to prevent and control flooding. Includes extensive bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wegner, Michael, Lyle Boone, and Tim Cochran, eds. Iowa’s Lost Summer: The Flood of 1993. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1993. Presents an exceptionally detailed record of the impact of the 1993 flood on the people and economy of Iowa, one of the states hardest hit by the disaster.

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