A quarter century ago, the murky, stained, stinking water from the Flood of ’93 began receding from Platte County farms, businesses, roads and homes. Memories have not receded for those who witnessed bluff-to-bluff water in the Missouri River bottom, a moving lake in the Platte River valley, and big water spreading out along Bee Creek and lower Line Creek.
High water marks were impressive, and the sight of water as far as the eye could behold was, too. Engineers made calculations but to the eye the sheer amount of water was immeasurable. The U.S. Geological Survey considers it among the most damaging and costly floods in modern history in America.
Anniversary stories about the flood appeared in media this summer. I sometimes wonder if newcomers to the county, or the young, might be bewildered about what the fuss is about. Even people living here in 1993 who were on high ground might have seen little of the flood, but those with homes or jobs in the river valleys, or who had to cross river valleys to get to them — they remember.
This summer, it is the flood’s deep stress and strain on people that lingers on my thoughts. People experienced heartbreak and deep worries. Lives changed if their lives were attached in any way to the river bottoms.
First came flooding at Bean Lake in the county’s northwest corner. The water crept up into some yards and near some houses and the lake’s outlet to the Missouri River was closed. They were trying to pump water out of the lake, but soon that was a lost cause as the water covered farm fields and circled all the houses. I went on a boat ride with a resident to inspect a failed levee.
Platte County sheriff’s deputies and staff were monitoring the situation from a school bus converted into an emergency command post. It was parked on Missouri 45, which doubled as a boat ramp.
A few weeks later, water would cover the highway, fields and the roofs of many houses.
Some people lost their weekend retreats at Bean Lake and in other bottom lands, but others lost their home. After the flood, I was given the tour of a fairly new home, expensive, owned by an elderly woman. Her plans for retirement were shattered.
Also that autumn, I remember the pain and frustration of some people at Sugar Lake who showed me their house. As soon as the water first went down, they mucked it out, cleaned, dried it and repainted. But the water came back up and flooded it again.
Floods bring a familiar rise and fall in people. There’s a can-do adrenaline fed approach to sandbagging, moving belongings and monitoring rising water levels when the flood arrives, but when a flood takes weeks and months to leave, and the cleanup begins, a tremendous weariness sets in.
Excitement reigned when people came from throughout the Kansas City area to help Parkville residents and merchants build sandbag walls to keep the Missouri River out of the historic downtown area. But the river overtopped all efforts. Months later, to see remains of failed sandbag walls still in the streets, and old buildings stripped to their framework to dry out, that was dreary. People had lost jobs. Some lost lifetime investments.
I remember the strain on elected officials, too. They had major catastrophes to monitor night and day. People turned to them for help. They would have to keep helping for years with paperwork and administration of state or federal emergency relief programs such as buyouts.
Tracy got a new park thanks to buyouts that removed houses from flood-prone elevations near the Platte River, but the people who lived in those homes had to find a new place to live.
Many businesses were flooded in Riverside, including the venerable Red-X and an industrial park, people who worked in those places faced a frightening uncertainty of what the future would bring.
People who saw the flood now look ahead, too. The Missouri River flooded even higher upstream of Weston in 2011.
Chances are good, especially with climate change, that someday we’ll have a flood event as big or bigger than ’93.
The loss of wetlands to hold water, tile drainage systems in farm fields, storm sewers in cities, more impervious pavement and roofs being added everywhere all the time, all these things add up to even worse flooding the next time.
We cleared some houses and businesses out of harm’s way after ’93. A few road beds have been rebuilt higher. The city of Riverside got a major new levee.
But nature trumped our precautions and efforts in ’93, and she will likely do so again someday.