View from the Levee: Fighting the Deluge

A daring plan to spare the Illinois town of Prairie du Rocher from the 1993 flood took hard work, sacrifice and dynamite.

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The quicker the years pass the slower I get on remembering.

For example, this past May marked the 20th anniversary of my writing a weekly newspaper column on farm and food policy. When did I actually remember the anniversary?

Sometime in July; I forget the exact date.

This past week brought another anniversary of remembrance lost: Almost two months after its passing, the first week of August of 2013 marked 20 years since a shoe-leather tough group of southern Illinois farmers and small town folk beat Old Man Mississippi with little more than sandbags, gritted teeth and just plain grit.

Old timers may recall the summer of ’93 when every major river system in the Midwest was flooded from June up north through October down south. It was a year endless rain, topped levees and broken dreams.

The symbol of that flooded summer came in early August when the soggy, not-tall-enough levee that flanked the Mississippi River near Columbia, Illinois, failed. The rushing water roared through the breach and tore a two-story farm house from its foundation and quickly chewed it into pieces. It was an easy meal for a hungry river.

That breach was about 30 miles north of the historic town of Prairie du Rocher. The little berg of 600 or so is Illinois’ oldest town, founded in 1722 by the French in support of a mighty garrison, Fort de Chartres, built just west of it to protect colonial interests from New Orleans to Canada.

But no fort could protect Rocher, as the locals called it, after the Columbia levee was topped. Levees, of course, are built to keep water out but once they break they do an incredibly good job at keeping water in and that’s what the big Mississippi River levee was about do to the people of Rocher.

With its back to the tall limestone bluff that corralled the river eons ago and its face to the productive, flat farmland to the north and west, Rocher lay directly in the path of the coming river. Its face was protected by a levee but its height was no match to its big brother, the river levee, and no match for the waters now headed directly for it. It was about to be drowned in slow motion.

What to do?

The obvious solution was to add about four feet to the town’s flanking levee and, believe it or not, punch a huge hole in the stout, nearby Mississippi River levee so the onrushing water would have a way back to the river and – hopefully – not crash into Rocherís not-yet firm, not-yet tall enough levee.

And that’s exactly what these farmers, truck drivers, store owners and volunteers did. In less than 60 hours they rallied anyone who could walk, shovel and carry a sandbag to their aid and, incredibly, they saved their little town, its homes and its history.

They couldn’t save the farms, however. In fact, some of the 50,000 acres of bottom land that was flooded as a result of the Columbia breach and the break the farmers ordered in the nearby levee was owned by the farmers who did the ordering.

They were the levee commissioners and it was their job to maintain the Mississippi River levee for the benefit of the community. And they did – only they had to destroy their beautiful, fescue-clad rampart to ensure that duty was carried out.

They also ensured the destruction of their farms in the process. When they ordered their levee to be cut – dynamited not once, but twice – the resulting destruction gave the onrushing water a way back to the river over their fields, their homes and their lives.

Can’t imagine that? I couldn’t either but I was there. I heard ’em do it. I saw the result. Prairie du Rocher remained, barely, and to this day it remains safe and sleepy and snug against its limestone bluff and in its 300 years of history.

Most of those farmers, save but a handful (including my 86-year-old father), are now gone, rewarded, I pray, for their courage and their unselfishness. They would not want their names listed but they should not be forgotten.

I know their names and faces and farms and I will not forget.

Alan Guebert is an agriculture journalist who lives in central Illinois.

 

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