August 1, 1993: What Was the Worst Flood of the Mississippi River in Recorded History?

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A Brief History

On August 1, 1993, the Great Mississippi and Missouri Rivers Flood of 1993 came to its peak. Was this the worst flood of the Mississippi River since European colonization of North America? The answer is a solid “maybe.” Different parameters for measuring how “bad” a flood is can leave the subject of which flood is the “worst” open to debate. In some ways, the Great Flood of 1993 can be considered the worst Mississippi River flood in US History.

Digging Deeper

Big floods often cause big damage, both in dollar amounts and in environmental impact. Washed away bridges, roadways, houses, farm crops, cars and even people are a hazard anytime a major flood occurs. People attempt to mitigate flooding by channelizing rivers and erecting levees and dams to control the course and flow of water. Unfortunately, such efforts may preserve man-made structures, but they also interfere with the natural course of events. Floods carry a lot of silt, which enriches farm fields that have been flooded. Preventing floods stops this natural replenishment of rich farming soil. Other man-made structures such as roads and buildings increase run-off and raise the risk of flooding since more water is directed to streams instead of soaking into the ground as much of the rainfall naturally would. The interference caused by people with the topography of the land also often increases erosion, a problem greatly exacerbated during a flood. Another potential disaster is flood waters disrupting containment ponds for toxic waste, washing such waste into the waterway and polluting the water. Likewise, floods have created havoc with local aquatic life by washing fish farms into the mainstream and unintentionally introducing exotic species into the waterway. Obviously, floods can also play serious games with shipping and boating, both by washing away boats and barges and by creating new obstructions in waterways.

Mississippi River out of its banks in Festus, Missouri. The spot where this photo was taken is nearly 1.5 miles (2.4 km) west and 30 feet (9.1 m) above the river.

Just how “bad” a flood is can be measured by the peak depth of the water that is reached during the flood at a given point, by the acreage covered by floodwaters, by the number of people killed, by the maximum flow rate at a given point on the river, or by how much damage is caused as measured by a dollar amount. Depending on which parameter or parameters are used will decide which flood you consider the “worst.” Another factor is choosing exactly which location along a waterway you use for a reference point.

The Great Mississippi and Missouri Rivers Flood of 1993 (or just The Great Flood of 1993) in the American Midwest can in some ways be considered the worst Mississippi River flood since North America was settled by Europeans. Excessive rainfall in the drainage basin from April 1 to August 1, 1993, amounted to between 4 and 7.5 times the average for this time period in various locations. This flood, which peaked on August 1, 1993, resulted in monetary losses of about $15 to $20 billion and caused 32 human deaths, although some estimates of fatalities reach as high as 50. Within the flood zone, over 30,000 square miles of land were flooded! States affected by the flood included Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wisconsin. Along many points of reference on the Mississippi River the 1993 flood broke records for the height of the water at its peak, although the actual measured water flow was not at record levels. At St. Louis, Missouri, the Mississippi peaked at 20 feet above flood level. At a 52 foot in height floodwall at St. Louis the water reached within 2 feet of the top of the wall! Had this flood wall been topped, the entire downtown of St. Louis would have been flooded. Virtually every single privately built levee was breached, and shipping was disrupted on the Missouri and the Mississippi Rivers from early July into August. Lost revenue from shipping cost about $2 million each day.

Water encroaching on the city of Alton, Illinois

Of all the harrowing stories of heroism and terror related to the Great Flood of 1993, one story in particular stands out in a twisted, bizarre way. A 23 year old Illinois man was having a good time partying, and in order to prevent his wife from showing up to end his partying, the man removed sandbags from a levee in order to strand his wife on the opposite bank of the river! This idiotic action would almost be funny if it did not risk the lives of human beings, let alone monetary damage, and the man paid dearly for his folly by being sentenced to life in prison for his crime.

Along different points of the Mississippi, the flooding persisted for a period of 200 days, while areas of the Missouri River remained flooded for half that time. Some of the floods of the past may have flooded more land area but caused less damage and death due to the much less population and development of the floodplain in the old days. As important as the commercial river traffic on the Mississippi is today, in the past such boat and barge commerce was even more important, so disruptions would have affected the people of the region even more so than the 1993 flood, although past floods caused more fatalities.

Monument to the 1993 flood at Jones-Confluence Point State Park at the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers in St. Charles County, Missouri, 400 feet (120 m) above sea level. The water reached the top of the pole at 438.2 feet (133.6 m).

Big Rivers = Big Floods, and the Missouri-Mississippi (you can include the Ohio River in that bunch) is one extremely large river system. What other massive floods can you think of to compare with the Great Mississippi and Missouri Rivers Flood of 1993? Would you rate this particular flood as the worst of the Mississippi floods? What American floods would you consider worse, not just those of the Mississippi?

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Changnon, Stanley. The Great Flood Of 1993: Causes, Impacts, And Responses. Routledge, 1996.

Green, Jen. 1993 Mississippi River Floods (Disasters). Gareth Stevens Pub, 2005.

Starling, William.  The Floods of the Mississippi River: Including an Account of Their Principal Causes and Effects, and a Description of the Levee System and Other Means Particular Account of the Great Flood of 1897.  Andesite Press, 2017.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.