Uprooted Town Moves to Higher Ground After Midwest Deluge of ‘93


When the flood warnings came, Mark Smith moved everything off the floors and figured he was safe. After all, his trailer home was 4 feet off the ground and had survived a flood 20 years earlier.

But like people in towns and cities up and down the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, Smith misjudged this flood. The deluge of 1993 broke the oldest records along America’s greatest river system.

When it was over in Pattonsburg, Smith had nearly 4 1/2 feet of water in his trailer and had lost everything. “I mean everything,” he emphasizes.

And of course, it wasn’t over. The 300 townspeople faced the toughest decision of their lives--whether to be part of a government plan to move the entire town to higher ground, or rebuild in a place that had flooded 33 times in the last century.

As mayor of Pattonsburg now, Smith presides over a completely new town.


He was one of the first to move into a new double-wide trailer on hills two miles to the north, out of the flood plain. Nearly everyone in town has either followed him or moved away. The old Pattonsburg is a ghost town.

“It’s been rough. There’s been a lot of pain,” says Smith, who also had to move his auto repair business. “But we figured we would try to stick it out. Now . . . we’re ready to move on, to get that flood behind us.”

Pattonsburg is one of an estimated 430 communities in nine Midwestern states where life was reshaped by the Great Flood of ’93.

Between mid-May and late September--after an unusually wet fall of 1992 and a heavy snowmelt in the spring of 1993--rain fell in almost unprecedented amounts. Streams and rivers ripped through levees in the Dakotas, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri.

The disaster killed 48 people, caused between $15 billion and $20 billion in damage, flooded 2.6 million acres of land, forced 74,000 people from their homes and shut down navigation on parts of the two rivers for nearly two months. The government declared 525 counties in nine states--including all of Iowa--disaster areas.

Des Moines, Iowa, and St. Joseph, Mo., were without drinking water after their water plants were swamped. In Hardin, Mo., caskets were swept from the town cemetery.

Throughout the summer, volunteers, National Guard members and prison inmates worked beside residents to fill sandbags and shore up sodden levees. In some places, like Ste. Genevieve, Mo., they held back the Mississippi. Most other towns failed.

The efforts reached their zenith in eastern Missouri, where the two swollen rivers met near St. Louis. Not until September were all the rivers finally below flood stage.

The scope of the disaster was so wide that it brought “a whole different attitude” to the national government itself, says John Miller, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency office in Kansas City.

“It’s the benchmark, the disaster that we go back to whenever another disaster comes up,” he says.

The key change is called mitigation, getting homes and businesses out of areas likely to be hit by natural disasters.

“It is foolishness for us to continue to pay for people to rebuild in a flood plain,” Miller says. “The emphasis has to be on prevention.”

As part of the mitigation effort, Pattonsburg, along with Valmeyer, Ill., and Rhineland, Mo., agreed to relocate. Many other communities essentially disappeared when the government bought their buildings.

The old Pattonsburg nestled among three creeks and the Grand River, a tributary of the Missouri.

On the morning of July 6, the Grand River crawled out of a deep gorge, swelled over a levee and moved up Main Street, leaving more than 2 feet of water in most buildings.

On July 23, just as people had that mess cleaned up, the streams overflowed again, leaving 3 1/2 feet of water behind.

Gene Walker, the superintendent of schools who lived in a house that hadn’t flooded since it was built in 1875, recalls the disgusting cleanup.

“The mud sticks to everything, the smell sticks to everything . . . ,” he says. “You’d like to stand on your yard and wash the grass down. It’s not just water; it’s flood water. It’s slick, slimy and you have no idea what’s in it.”

When federal and state governments offered Pattonsburg millions of dollars to move, Walker’s house was one of 24 moved to the new town. Many new houses were built. In all, 166 former homes were sold to the government.

The $13-million buyout program ended May 1. The federal government paid 75%, the state 25%.

Most residents believe the move was better than rebuilding the old town. But after surmounting red tape and regulatory hurdles, they give only grudging thanks to the government.

“Most people spent a lot of their own money on this move,” says Lavena Lowrey, a volunteer at the newly built Senior Citizens Center.

And a lot of time. City officials filled file cabinets with myriad forms, and people trying to move struggled to reconcile bank and government mandates.

“This thing could have died 50 times,” says Walker, “if people hadn’t been hardheaded and persistent.”

Velma Hoover, a spry 85-year-old, epitomizes the problems and successes of the move. After her home flooded, she waited for senior citizens’ housing, but the announced plans fell through. Finally, she took the buyout and moved into a trailer.

The government gave her $20,000; the move cost about $50,500. In the process, this energetic and healthy woman collapsed, paralyzed on her right side. She spent 82 days in a nursing home.

“I just suddenly went bad. The doctors said it was all stress,” she says now as she sits quilting, fully recovered, at the Senior Citizens Center.

She misses her old house but says, “Now I like my little home.”

Today, about 40 empty, scarred homes wait for demolition in the old Pattonsburg. The streets are car-eating disasters.

The razing of what’s left of Main Street, too, will be completed by fall. In a strange twist, Main Street got a short extension of life this year as the set for a Hollywood movie about the destruction of a town in the Civil War.

The river town of Pattonsburg was started in 1835 and grew to about 1,000 by the turn of the century. Before 1993, it was struggling but surviving, with two feed mills, a factory and shops, restaurants and a few taverns lining a timeworn three-block Main Street.

Five years ago, there were about 185 homes in town, including a few Victorians set on large yards along tree-lined streets.

In contrast, the new Pattonsburg looks like a modern subdivision carved out of about 600 acres on nearly treeless rolling hills. About 100 homes--some handsome three-story houses, some trailers--sit on block grids of streets. More than 220 lots have been plotted, and the town’s population has rebounded to about 500.

The elementary school will move from a small, brick one-story building and trailers, used since a post-flood fire, to three buildings that look like big igloos. School officials decided to use insulated domes to control heating and cooling costs.

The new Main Street is two blocks long, with storefronts that look alike and carry the slogan, “A proud heritage, a new beginning.”

Several businesses are open, including a medical clinic, an insurance office and a restaurant called Old Memories.

Planting trees along the new Main Street is a city priority now, along with creating a park.

The new Pattonsburg is two miles closer to an exit off Interstate 35, and town officials hope that will help bring in businesses. FEMA’s Miller points out that getting out of a flood plain usually raises a town’s bond rating and lowers insurance rates, both attractions for relocating businesses.

“We didn’t have much to attract anyone down to the old town,” Mayor Smith says. Noting hopefully that there have been some inquiries, he adds, “We have to get people to come in if we’re going to survive.”

They will, townspeople say.

“It still feels like a community,” says Judy Horton, a member of the City Council. “We still all know each other and are involved in each other’s lives.

“But for five years we’ve been concentrating so much on keeping everything legal, keeping within the regulations, that it’s been hard to take time for other things. From a city standpoint and a personal standpoint, you want to move on. You want to get back to a normal life.”