Vol. VII, No. 1, Summer 1993


Preservation Corner

Flood 1993:A Personal Memoir

by Bernard K. Schram



Vion and Bernie Schram live in a 200-year old house in the center of the historic district of Ste. Genevieve, the oldest town in Missouri. The Jean Baptiste Valle House was built around 1785 by the last Spanish Commandant and the first American Governor of the territory. The Valle House is but one among the largest collection of 18th century French Creole structures in North America, which makes Ste. Genevieve unique.

It was an exceptionally rainy spring. Most of the time when we looked across the street at the Great River Road Interpretive Center it was through a veil of rain. This modern Creole style structure houses an interesting exhibit of river memorabilia by the Corps of Engineers, a collection of fine drawings by regional artist Roscoe Misselhorn, an introductory film and the town's information service.

But as a matter of special note it is, except for directional signs to the Ferry, the only visible reference to the River. This is strange considering the role the river played in the founding of the historic community and that it accounted for the town's present location after virtually wiping out its original site in 1785.

Normally, unless you drove north of Main Street to the Little Rock Landing or to a high point in the City Park or out to the new Marina, you'd never catch a glimpse of the river or even a suggestion of its relation to the community. Nor did the river often make its presence felt.

We townsfolk were aware that farm fields were frequently flooded as were certain low-lying parts of town--and we took for granted that Kaskaskia Island, south of town, would be regularly inundated as it had been over the centuries. Indeed, it was a local joke that old-time residents on the Island had webbed hands and feet. So we were not necessarily alarmed in May when farmers in the Big Common Field began pumping out water in hope of getting in crops already delayed by downpours.

I recalled with amusement a scrub farm on the riverbank we'd visited once years ago. The old codger had both his hen house and his dog house on rafts anchored by lengths of rope to keep them from floating away. When high water came, he fed the cruising creatures and got in his boat to row away until the flood subsided.

Even when the rains continued unabated, we felt a sense of immunity. In the more than 100 years the house had belonged to Vion's family, there had been no report of its ever being flooded. Nor had we experienced dampness in the basement when the water came to just across the street during the 1973 flood.

But by June things were taking a different and disturbing turn. The most dramatic sign of that was the sudden appearance in the middle of the street just in front of the house of a bright orange cross. This we were told was the level the water would reach at the flood stage of 45 feet. That didn't seem too sinister as it implied the waters would not actually reach us.

Then half a block away---due east of us--there began to rise a tremendous earth and sandbag dike. And the rising water kept pace with the increasing height of the levee. We could stand on the porch and see the menacing water lapping at the barricade. Gradually the railroad tracks were engulfed and I started using the cross-bar RR stop signs as my personal measure of the rising tide.

It was unnerving when the announcement was made that our municipal water was no longer safe to drink without boiling or treating. Having lived in Mexico, we were able to cope with what was a normal precautionary measure there.

A new mark appeared on the telephone pole across the street: a green painted slash representing the 46-plus level the water would reach. Now this was getting near the bone, because that would definitely mean a flooded basement and water possibly up to the first floor.

Panic didn't set in until during one of my regular scans of the levee half a block away I became aware that the water it was containing was practically at the level of our roof. If a break developed, it would surge in like a tidal wave to sweep through the house with enormous and destructive force.

That was when a group of Good Samaritan friends appeared on the scene. They were here to empty the basement, and they began with incredible vigor. The accumulation of generations was unearthed and moved up to the back porch.

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Jean-Baptiste Valle House, residence of Vion and Bernie Schram. The raised galerie and main floor are characteristic of French Colonial houses in Ste. Genevieve. The house is located directly on Main Street, with spacious gardens behind and at the side. The floor joists are logs perhaps brought from the riverside site of the original Ste. Genevieve. (Photograph by Jack E. Boucher for National Park Service, Historic American Buildings Survey.)
This was almost like a museum of family history: steamer trunks dating back to 1840 when Vion's great grandfather emigrated from France; scores of handcarved and gilded picture frames; portraits of numerous of her ancestors; rows of children's books dating back to her childhood and earlier; odds and ends of furniture, china and crystal; magazines from the 1880s; and miscellaneous items sufficient to mount a major yard sale. The porch swiftly filled and the overflow spread into the garage.

This was when we had to face the truth. There was no way we could survive intact any kind of levee break. Nor could we possibly stow all the first floor contents upstairs. Reluctantly we summoned a moving van from St. Louis to collect and store the major pieces. Again the wonderful Good Samaritan friends assembled to form an endless chain to convey upstairs everything portable. This included the cherished contents of our wine cellar, key books we couldn't live without, floor lamps, end tables, the countless small articles which define and embody one's way of life.

It wasn't until we surveyed the carpetless empty living and dining rooms, the downstairs guest room, the library and hallway that the full impact of the situation struck us. The very foundations of our lives were threatened. Our home----everyman's castle, the bastion of security--was in peril. The very place to which one retreated to recover from the "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" was itself endangered.

If our home were destroyed or so radically altered as to lose meaning, we would have to embark on a whole new way of life that would be extremely difficult at our age. Indeed, the question might arise as to how we could adapt if our home suffered major damage. Nor had we--secure on the basis of past experience--any flood insurance. The cost could be catastrophic, prohibitive.

Now began the most stressful period: endless waiting, continuous uncertainty. Each day it seemed the predicted crest was higher and the date farther off. The first definite "crest date" I recall was July 17 because we canceled social engagements in St. Louis so as to be here during that anticipated climax. The onward and upward game commenced, an ever-higher predicted crest to arrive at an even more distant date.

The heights which the river was expected to attain became astronomical: 47,48, 49-plus feet. It seemed almost impossible that the community workers and all their supporters could keep elevating the three-and-a-half mile dike system encircling our town to match the challenge. Yet miraculously, through superhuman efforts, the levee grew and it held! Crisis after crisis sent out frantic calls for sandbag filling, sandbag hauling, sandbag placing, truckloads of screenings. The valiant efforts of our tiny community became a symbol of the spirit and dedication of people all along the river. Ste. Genevieve both because of its historic heritage and its courageous spirit gained recognition as the "town that refused to drown."

Then, in rapid succession, came two crushing blows: one was that the municipal water was so contaminated that it was not safe for bathing or laundry without heavy treatment; and two was an order to evacuate. We had resisted abandoning our homes in the hope that it would not become necessary. But friends insisted that we could no longer linger safely as I could not get away fast enough in case of a major break. (I walk with braces and a cane.)

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So, reluctantly, we moved to a pleasant small motel at Ozora some 12 miles away and dug in "for the duration." The day we vacated, a small levee just south of us broke, flooding a large area along the St. Mary Road--further endangering three important historic buildings: the Green Tree Tavern, the Amoreaux House, and the Bequette-Ribeau House. A chill ran through us at the thought of how close this was to our home.

Throughout this ordeal has run one consistently inspiring thread. We have received literally hundreds of phone calls and letters from France, Mexico, England, Puerto Rico and Canada as well as every part of the United States. Offers of housing came from everywhere, even from acquaintances we hardly knew. Our picture and interview in the Sunday New York Times flushed out people we had not seen for 40 years, others whom we even thought were deceased, and had probably thought the same of us. Thus as the anchor lines to our home base grew more tenuous and fragile, the sometimes seemingly gossamer strands of friendship strengthened into steel cables of affection and sympathy.

As we discussed the situation of our embattled town, expressions of caring became tangible in the form of cash contributions to the City of Ste. Genevieve. These were dedicated to helping defray the great costs incurred in the fight for survival, sandbags, truck and equipment rental, and myriad other expenses. And still more will be needed for the total rehabilitation our community will require when the crisis ends. Our street, water system, sewers--the entire infrastructure--will have to be recontructed. In the struggle to save our past, we have mortgaged the future. If our historic community is to justify its epic David and Goliath struggle we must maintain the town's viability--and to this end we pledge our full support and effort.

Meanwhile, we have finally crested at nearly 50 feet, and the river is receding with painful slowness. The levees are still subjected to gigantic pressure and subject to failure at any moment. The great effort is still called for as people walk the levees day and night watching for weak spots while trucks loaded with sandbags stand ready to race to any spot needing reinforcement.

We still don't know if or when we can reoccupy our home--so we sit and wait, counting the hours, the days of survival.

Regardless of the outcome, which we hope will be a happy one, we shall always cherish with gratitude and affection the thousands of people from all over who have demonstrated a valor and kindness of the human spirit unmatched in our experience.

A Post-Flood Post-Script

After three weeks in exile as evacuees, we returned home to a house which looked more like a bowling alley than a cozy residence. The main floor had a forlorn look of empty abandonment. The second floor, on the contrary, resembled a poorly arranged second-hand junk shop. Now, a couple of weeks later, we have located most of our possessions and replaced them in their accustomed spots.

The town is in process of duplicating our resurrection on a broader scale. The water is still not drinkable and some streets are still blocked by the great levees which saved our home and most of the community. Streets and bridges are yet to be repaired. And, of course, the enormous financial toll remains to be paid.

There are a number of homeless people, many of whose houses may be damaged beyond repair. At least one of our historic museum houses suffered serious damage and others may have sustained lesser harm.

All around us are visible signs of the ordeal through which we have all passed. Sandbags still barricade buildings. Countless plastic bottles of drinking water are stacked in front of the Salvation Army quarters for the taking. The Red Cross warehouse continues to pass out food, clothing and other items for those in need of them.

But physical reminders are not necessary. None of us will ever forget the Great Flood of 1993. No plaque or monument is needed. The experience is etched deep in our memories and has become a major chapter in our town's 250 year history.

BKS

Pergola and side garden, Jean-Baptiste Valle House. The historic Camino Real, the Kings Highway, is at the left. (Photograph by Jack E. Boucher for National Park Service, Historic American Buildings Survey.)

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