Here is another column I wrote for the Orange County business magazine. Itís about the Great Flood of 1993, which started in the northern states along the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers and surged south past Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, and states further south. A government report said that hundreds of levees failed along the rivers, leading to 50 deaths and damages amounting to $15 billion. You can google the Great Flood of 1993 and learn more. This column, dated August 15, 1993, is my personal reaction to the flood.
All summer, Iíve been fixated by the flood news from the Midwest. Thatís my motherland back there. Until I went to college, I lived in Ferguson, Missouri, which is five miles due east of Lambert-St. Louis International Airport and 10 miles northwest of the Gateway Arch, which I saw being built when I was in high school. My roots are strong and deep beside the Mississippi River.
When I was a little kid (about the time of Lewis and Clark) [joke], the river wasnít a sewer yet, and you could still swim in some of its tamer pools. I remember picnics beside the river, where we splashed around wooden docks and ignored our mothersí warningsóìDonít go out too far.î I also remember that one year my grandfather somehow lost his false teeth in the river.
Almost every news report reminds me of places and people I once knew. Spanish Lake, where they sandbagged the Baptist church a couple weeks ago, is bottom land north of St. Louis where my grandmother lived after my grandfather died. One of my cousins lives in Jerseyville, Illinois, which is about 20 miles from downtown St. Louis. She says the river is more than 17 miles wide right now, especially in the places where the Mississippi, the Missouri, a lot of little rivers, and innumerable ìcricksî all come together. Seventeen miles wide and a thousand miles longóthatís an inland sea!
A few weeks ago, I phoned my aunt and uncle, who live about 10 miles northeast of downtown St. Louis. Uncle Don told me had his boat tied to a tree in his back yard and also had gloves for Aunt Ruth ìso she can row.î ìSure,î said Aunt Ruth, ìand heíll stand at the gunwale like George Washington with his flag.î They described all the impassable roads they know, and Aunt Ruth said sheíd just learned that the last flood this bad had been in 1840.
In south St. Louis County flow the modest Meramec and the River des Peres. I had a college boyfriend who lived near the Meramec; his family had escaped from communist Hungary during the 1956 uprising. The River des Peres is really a drainage ditch. I remember my father calling it the River de Stink.
I went to college in Cape Girardeau, about 125 miles south of St. Louis. Thereís a tall flood wall to protect Cape Girardeauís old Main Street business district, which is only yards above the riverís normal level. The perennial joke when I was in college was that some night under the full moon, weíd all go down and paint river scenes on that wall. [That has, in fact, been done. By professional artists. I saw the art when I was in Cape for Homecoming in 2005.] In 1973, during the last 100-year flood, I was in graduate school in Carbondale, Illinois, a 50-mile drive from Cape Girardeau. I had to fly across the river to go to court in Cape so I could get divorced; the river was four miles wide, the bridge was inaccessible, and both north and south Capeówhich had no walls==were under water.
For years, Iíve delighted in teasing native Californians by telling them that I grew up where rivers have water in them all the time.
My heart goes out to the people flooded out of their farms and homes by the Mighty Mississippi, but I also have scant sympathy for the people who knowingly live in the bottom-lands along the river. Yes, the soil is exceedingly fertile, but the Army Corps of Engineers notwithstanding, great rivers cannot be tamed. [Well, 20+ years later, the Corps has built enough dams that the river has, alas, been pretty well tamed.] The farmers who live along the Mississippi have always been aware of the risk. Itís time we realized that you really canít fool Mother Nature or Old Man River. Theyíre bigger than we are.