The Great Flood of '93: Boone County residents remember the impact

Sunday, July 14, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:31 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 16, 2013
The Great Flood of 1993 had residents of Hartsburg, Rocheport and other Missouri River towns sandbagging and moving belongings to higher ground. In remembering the flood, residents say they relied on neighbors and volunteers to get through.

HARTSBURG — Jo Hackman pointed to the stained-glass window above the first story of her house a mile from the Missouri River that reads “Home Sweet Home.”

“The flood broke all the windows out of our house except this one,” Hackman said. “The flood water rose halfway up the window.” 

The window of her home at Hartsburg in the Missouri River bottoms was 7.5 feet above ground.

Twenty years ago, what came to be known as the Great Flood of 1993 closed down dozens of area roads, including U.S. 63, threatened the Columbia water supply and broke record levels up and down the Missouri and Mississippi rivers that were set in 1951.

Persistent downpours bombarded mid-Missouri and points upstream, causing the Missouri River to rise nearly 12 feet in July alone. Residents in Hartsburg, Rocheport and other river towns began to fear for their homes and safety.

“Water was lapping on both sides of I-70,” Barb Nixon, who lived near Rocheport, recalled. “It was actually pretty frightening.”

By the time the waters receded in early September, the flood affected 455,000 acres of farmland and caused an estimated $3 billion of damage in Missouri.

The early stages

This natural disaster didn't occur overnight. A wet fall in 1992 left soil moisture high, and the ground was unable to hold the rains that followed. Between June and August 1993, more than 24 inches of rain fell on central and northern Missouri, according to the National Disaster Survey Report.

The Missourian reported the Missouri River level at Boonville on July 8, 1993, was 30.9 feet — nearly 10 feet above flood stage and just 2 feet from the historic 1951 level — and the Weather Service forecast the river would rise nearly 6 feet by the weekend to new highs.

More than 5 inches of rain fell in Boone County that week, pushing the crest forecasts even higher and forcing residents in low-lying areas to evacuate.

Ganelle Cunningham, a long-time Hartsburg resident, remembered her family evacuating their home when a levee broke on July 12.

“We put some of our stuff up,” Cunningham said, “because we’d been through floods before. And we just put it up so high, but water just kept coming and coming.”

Despite taking precautions, some household belongings were lost to floodwaters, and the house was damaged beyond repair. 

Volunteers from far and wide

Hundreds of volunteers from all over the country converged on Hartsburg and other river towns to help with sandbagging.

"We had a map on the wall at the firehouse," Cunningham said, "and every state that would come to help us, we'd put a colored pin in it. And of the 50 states, there were only seven states that weren't represented."

The volunteers who made their way to Hartsburg worked out of the town's firehouse, which became a disaster center for distributing flood supplies and keeping track of the weather. 

"If we didn't have that central unit over there keeping everybody together," Cunningham said, "I don't know if we would have all survived."

The Boone County Fire District station in Rocheport served a similar purpose. Monty Conrow, commander of the Rocheport station, said they managed the volunteers, took care of supplies and built teams and sent them to houses that needed help.

"Rocheport had never seen that type of water," Conrow said. "It was the highest I've ever seen, and I grew up in the flood plain." 

Conrow was surprised at how many people were in Rocheport during the flood. 

"We went from a small, sleepy town of 100 or so people to a town of 2,250 volunteers," Conrow said, "It was a real unique experience to see that kind of volunteerism."

Columbia resident Michele Spry was a teenager when she went to volunteer for sandbagging in Huntsdale along the river south of Rocheport. At the time, she was a junior at Hickman High School and went to help with her mother and boyfriend Brandon Spry, whom she went on to marry.

"It was a really neat experience, especially at 17 years old," Spry said. "The best part was to see the hundreds of people working together for one ultimate goal to try and salvage as much as we could."

Sandbagging was only one of the ways that volunteers could help river communities. Volunteer agencies distributed clothing, food, housing and cleanup. Versailles, Mo., "adopted" Hartsburg and sent vans full of volunteers every day to help clean up after floodwaters receded.

Hackman, who was Cunningham’s neighbor during the flood, also evacuated and returned home to find the first story filled with water. Sheetrock was missing from the walls, everything was coated in mud and the roof of the front porch had caved in.

"I remember our tomato cages drifted all over the bottom land," Hackman said, "and a group of Mennonite girls walked around our field picking them up." 

“The only thing is, you couldn’t go moaning around town because everyone else down here was in the same shape you were in,” Hackman said.

By the end of July, the flood was worse than anyone could have imagined. The river at Boonville reached its peak crest of 37 feet on July 29, setting a new record at 16 feet above flood stage. 

Moving on

Although the July 29 crest was the highest, flooding continued into August. The floodwaters began to recede, and people started the long and difficult process of cleaning up and moving on with their lives.

Cunningham moved to a new home on her family's land at the top of the hill; Hackman and her family restored the flooded first story of their home.

"I remember the water came into our house on July 13," Hackman said, "and we moved back in the week of Thanksgiving. We were still working on stuff, but we were able to come back."

Conrow said that people born and raised in the flood plain consider it their home.

"It's just hard to get them away from their home," he said. "They're going to do whatever to stay."

Where were you during the Great Flood of 1993? What do you remember most? Add your memories here.

Supervising editor is John Schneller.

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