Early crest brought help to Rocheport

With fewer people to help, the cleanup was much more difficult, residents say.
Sunday, August 3, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 2:18 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The town of Rocheport had met and defeated the first crest, thanks to the residents and volunteers who had been sandbagging for two weeks. They felt confident they’d be able to meet the predicted second crest.

But before dawn on the morning when Ross Perot and Harry Smith were scheduled to arrive, the second crest surged up in Rocheport, two days early.

Steve Paulsell, Boone County Fire Protection District fire chief, said that the Corps of Engineers had been trying to predict when the second crest of the river would come, but since the river had not been that high in recorded history it was a guessing game.

“We thought we had another two days to prepare for the crest,” Paulsell said. “During the nighttime hours we’d leave a skeleton crew to maintain (the sandbag walls). But the crest came up on us about 3:30 that morning and breeched the sandbags. Two firefighters literally threw their bodies into the hole to cover it until it could be filled.”

Paulsell said he didn’t have much time to talk to Perot that morning.

“We had a very rainy, wet season that time,” said Rocheport’s mayor, Frances Turner. “Whenever it started thundering you said, ‘Oh no, here we go again.’ ”

Ten years later, the chalkboard in Rocheport’s fire department that once kept a running list of volunteer placement during the Flood of ’93 is now framed, commemorating the effort and organization involved in fighting the river.

“They kept a log of people that came in, they’d send them to certain areas,” Turner said. “They tried to get signatures of all the folk who came and volunteered, and I don’t know what the number was, but it was way up in the thousands. It was just amazing. That means so much when you’re dealing with a tragedy to know that all your friends are around you and helping you.”

The Salvation Army set up headquarters behind the fire station, feeding volunteers 24 hours a day during the crest weeks.

“We had thousands and thousands of people, in some incredibly horrible temperatures, who continued to come back day after day for no other reason than to help people who were in need,” Paulsell said. “It was really a very emotional thing to see day after day.”

Because much of Rocheport is on a hill, only a few of the residences were endangered by the rising water. Turner, who was mayor during the flood also, said people from all over the nation came to help build sandbag walls to protect those buildings.

Some of the employers in Columbia even let their employees off with pay to come over for half a day or something,” Turner said. “There had been people that were even driving on Interstate 70 that would hear it on the radio, and they would come over and spend some time doing it, too.”

After the second crest, the flood of both water and volunteers flowing into Rocheport ebbed, Susan McClintic said.

“The cleanup was the worst because we didn’t have the volunteers the way we did when the waters were coming up,” McClintic said. “It was a much uglier job; we didn’t have the manpower.”

McClintic remembers that the 10-foot walls of sandbags were solid as concrete and mortared with what she called “it” — whatever the river had washed into the cracks.

“We used a Caterpillar to knock them down and load them up in big trucks to be taken away,” McClintic said.

“At one point we estimated we had close to seven or eight thousand sandbags, some of which were right against homes where we couldn’t get heavy equipment in, so they had to be moved by hand,” Paulsell said.

He directed the fire district’s efforts to protect and sandbag Rocheport and other areas, as well as the cleanup, an effort that he described as a “terrible task.” Though many organizations volunteered to help, including the Department of Corrections and MU’s football and basketball teams, Paulsell agreed there were fewer volunteers than during the flood.

For some people who endured the flood, staying in their homes wasn’t worth the effort. Others, however, refused to leave.

“There were several houses in between here and Boonville on Highway 40, and none of them were rebuilt,” Turner said. “One of them was a great big two-story house that had been there for years, and they never did restore it or anything. Just gave up and moved out, I guess.

“Some of the people did (up) but some of the people down around Hartsburg and McBaine and those little places, no, they were going stay, they wouldn’t leave their town. And I know one lady, her house was surrounded down by the creek. And she’s still living there. She wouldn’t leave there.” Turner said the flood showed how Rocheport can pull together to deal with any crisis, though not much has changed since the waters rose toward the historic river town.

“I’ve been able to accept anything in life, ’cause that’s my way, and I don’t let anything get me down,” Turner said. “I’ve had personal tragedies in my own life, and you just have to accept what life is and do the best you can with it. Don’t look back, and don’t feel sorry for yourself. We will keep going. I had a shirt that the fire department gave out that said, ‘We fought the big Flood of ’93 and we won.’”

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