Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Great Flood of 1993

In August 1993, I attended my first class of Architectural Design Studio in grad school. It was the class where we would determine which professor we would have for the semester. It was also a chance to see our friends if we had not seen them already and to meet people entering the program. It was there that I met my wife who was there on an exchange from France. But I digress.

It was announced that all of the design studios would be going to help do damage assessment for the cities (Hardin, Kampsville, Grafton, and Alton, IL) hit by what is know as the Great Flood of 1993 along the Illinois, Mississippi, and Missouri rivers. The assessment would be followed by a design project to rebuild the damaged areas of the cities.

Our studio worked at Hardin, IL. Although the waters had receded considerable, the waters were still high and trapped in places where the levees broke. The pictures show two such areas. The other side of the flood plain is three miles away. There were still places where roads were blocked and debris was still prevelent. It had been less than a month since the height of the flooding and the watermark was evident thoughout the city on homes and signs. There was also a network of sandbag walls between the houses showing the lines of defense against the rising waters. I believe the townspeople continued to build the walls, but were forced to progressively retreated from wall to wall as the barriers were toppled. The levee break on the other side of the river is what saved the remainder of the town.
Our job was fairly simple. We were to enter the house and determine at what height the water levels had reached. In some homes this was fairly simple with a light or dark brown line on the walls. In others the line had to be taken from lines on the windows since the walls were covered in black and green mold. We were not there to determine the livability of the house or whether it could remain standing. From my understanding, the watermark elevation would tell the government how much aid each house would receive.

The loss of possessions was amazing. People did not have the time or the means to remove their things. Property is relatively very cheap in the flood plain, but that lower price comes with risk. As with Katrina, people judge that risk by the previous largest event. "We were OK after the last one, so we will be OK for future events." But this was the biggest event in the history of the area. The water had risen 17 feet above flood stage and four feet higher than the previous record in 1973. The water level had reached about five feet above the first floor in most of the places that I remembered. There was not much that could be salvaged from that.
As far as our project, each student concentrated on parts of the cohesive whole. The studio split into two groups. The pie-in-the-sky group and the realistic group. We were part of the pie-in-the-sky group. The bulk of the area that had been flooded would be raised to above flood stage and be redeveloped. My wife created a marina while I created a waterfront recreation/commercial strip with a patchwork of steps down to the water. Each step could mark the river levels at different times. And depending on the river level, a different pattern and waters edge would be visible. Other projects included a community center, a boat launch, an observation tower, and community housing. Although they liked the ideas, the city did not have the means to carry out large projects like this especially after the flood. Even for the realist group.

I returned the following summer to visit a friend who lived nearby. It was a strange scene. Life had returned to normal. The flooded fields had returned bright green with vegetation. But out in those fields were farmhouses you could see straight through. Abandoned. In the city, there were also empty houses and abandoned lots. Right next to homes where people had cleaned up and returned to normal.

It's an experience to see these things firsthand. We saw only the aftermath, but it still gave a sense of place and we met and talked to the people who lived through it. It also has helped me understand what people are going through in events like Katrina.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting these photos and the story of your design studio. I was in Chicago during the flood in the valley, and it did not cause a ripple in my life. I also value your remarks relating this experience to your understanding of Katrina and its aftermath.

Unknown said...

Thanks, anonymous. Although I only saw the aftermath, talking to the people really gave a sense of all they had gone through.