Mississippi River Basin

Parallels: Mississippi Flood of 1993 and Gulf Oil Spill of 2010

Flooded home in Commerce MO in 1993

Parallels: Mississippi Flood of 1993
and Gulf Oil Spill of 2010

Story and Photographs by Alison M. Jones

Red barns in Missouri’s rural Ozarks

THE Mississippi River floods of 1993 meant nothing to me. Six months earlier “the perfect storm” inundated my Connecticut home with five feet of icy, salt water from Long Island Sound for three days. I wanted to forget about the relentless force of high water. The Sound was my “front yard” and my playground. I was oblivious to any vulnerability it might have to changes in the balance of nature.

I was a long way then from my current project, No Water No Life ®, which raises awareness of the quality, availability and usage issues of our planet’s fresh water resources. Today the Gulf of Mexico oil spill continues to provide daily headlines, and No Water No Life is planning an expedition to the Delta to document this catastrophe. Meanwhile, it seemed appropriate that I update my story of the 1993 Mississippi River Flood noting comparisons and contrasts to today’s issues.

Somewhat by chance, I witnessed intense efforts in 1993 to save Missouri’s riverside communities from a disastrous “imbalance of nature” caused by engineers’ efforts to control the river with levees and the effects of continued carbon emissions that disrupt our climate patterns. That flood event, Hurricane Katrina, and now the Gulf oil spill, are all part of an ongoing continuum of ever-worsening environmental crises. Perhaps the Gulf oil spill will be the tipping point that will break this trend.

I went to Missouri in July 1993 to photograph iconic Midwest scenes for New York photo stock agencies. The media’s increasing flood coverage in May and June seemed over-played and had no impact on my plans. I was an Easterner used to summer hurricanes and winter coastal storms that raged through our region on a regular basis. I already knew about floods and blithely ignored a friend’s prophecy that I would follow the current story of the Mississippi River flooding. (And little did I know that the impacts of covering that flooding would completely change my photographic direction.)

Canoeing on Missouri’s Current River

Carrying cameras, tripod, lenses, filters and film, I was off to Missouri, known as the “Show Me State.” (Now however, many want to call it the “State of Great Rivers.”) My goal was to photograph blue skies, red barns, and white picket fences. Photo stock agencies wanted images of clean pigs at 4-H fairs, portraits of farmers baling hay, couples canoeing on clear streams, pals chatting on the porch of the general store, bluegrass musicians tuning dulcimers, and crafters designing Windsor chairs and heirloom quilts.

Going beyond these editorial demands, I set my own artistic goals, based on my interest in history. Reading David McCulloch’s best-selling biography of Harry Truman brought some of this former haberdasher’s plainspoken values into my camera’s depth of field. Since 1993 was pre-Google, I skimmed encyclopedia entries on Missouri’s mythical heroes – Lewis and Clark, Mark Twain, Daniel Boone, Laura Ingalls Wilder, George Washington Carver. George Caleb Bingham’s epic paintings provided documentation of Missouri’s frontier era. My personal challenge would be to incorporate the past with the present in my photographs from the very middle of America. (And now my photography for No Water No Life challenges viewers to consider the future of our planet’s natural resources based on the present conditions I document.)

My tentative itinerary looped south through the Ozarks to Branson, up to Kansas City and back east to St. Louis along the Missouri River, with a detour to Hannibal. I arrived for July 4th celebrations in the historic former Missouri capital of Saint Charles and then headed south. A 400-acre, century-old farm provided my first lodging in the Ozarks. “Photo ops” there ranged from father and son feeding cattle from a 1950’s pick-up truck; a goose and goat playing in the children’s sandbox; and cows posing with very serious five- and seven-year-old fishermen. This was a travel photographer’s delight.

Keeping the humor in Grafton IL

But directions and plans are meant to be broken. I waited out torrential thunderstorms for two days, watching farmers’ new-mown hay be swept off fields in the flood plains of the Meramec River. The inn’s TV had hourly updates on this incredible Mississippi River story that I couldn’t ignore. My friend was right – the flood pulled me along. And changed me.

Headlines were happening all around me. (They were almost as pervasive as today’s bulletins on the Gulf oil spill.) My adrenaline was rising with the rivers, and I could not resist the chance to test my photographic response to a front-page national news story. Following the clear run-off of the Courtois and Hussah Creeks, I drove east to the turbidity of the Mississippi.

Flooded corn field outside Ste. Genevieve

The rains and floods that summer were being described in Biblical terms. A restaurant sign in a flooded town humorously claimed, “Noah would have eaten here!” At that point, a sense of fun still prevailed. Although empathetic towards those with flooded homes and crops, I was still focusing on creating “punchy photographs” for stock agencies. I didn’t realize this was a flood that would last over a month – so different from a five-hour hurricane or a three-day “nor’easter” in Connecticut.

Ste. Genevieve, a picturesque river town south of St. Louis, became my base. Founded by French farmers in the 1730s, this town of 4,400 people seemed small enough to be easily covered in depth, and its Creole architecture and upcoming annual Bastille Day celebrations would yield good stock images.

Historic Ste. Genevieve being flooded

USA Today and local newspapers were daily publishing images of raging rivers by veteran newswire photographers. I thought of T. S. Eliot, who grew up in St. Louis and referred to the muddy Mississippi as “a strong brown God.” National weather forecasters and riverside restaurant owners were asking whether this flood would prove the river’s power to be irrefutable. The growing awe flooding the media and random conversations on the street slowly began to wash over me.

Pumping seepage back over the levee, Ste. Genevieve

The radio deejay was playing the 1970’s hit “American Pie” as I arrived in Ste Genevieve, and I heeded its lyrics. “I drove my Chevy to the levee…;” but the new, hastily built levee across Main Street wasn’t dry. It was only three feet high and one sandbag wide at top, yet already “sand boils” were leaking out underneath it onto the street. Above the brown waters threatened, curling merely inches from the top. (At least they weren’t covered by the sheen or thick grunge of spilled oil.)

How to transfer that imminent danger onto my film’s emulsion? I could easily pre-visualize that the fearsome seepage on the street would appear merely as an innocent puddle when printed. T. S. Eliot’s “strong brown god” would be rendered impotent by the two-dimensionality of paper. How could a photograph be powerful enough to carry with it the river’s invincible sweep through town on its downstream journey?

On my first evening in “the oldest town west of the Mississippi,” I walked past clusters of sandbaggers working by moonlight. I looked again at the saturated levee and shook my head. A $100 million levee proposed years ago could have saved this town, but its financing was never approved by Congress. Now it was too late. How could a few late night sandbaggers stop “The Father of the Waters” or compensate for the indecisiveness of the country’s top political leaders?

Sand bags in north end of Ste. Genevieve

Attaching a flash to my camera, I suddenly wondered why the residents didn’t “get the picture” that this flood was different. It was explained to me that the many levees constructed since 1973’s flood upset all previous methods of predicting flood levels, and this man-made restraint only further intensified the river’s fury. Weather predictions called for yet another week of devastating thunderstorms. The previous week’s accumulations were not even accounted for yet in hydrologists’ dire calculations. I slung my cameras on my shoulder, shrugged and walked back to my room, following trucks bringing in fill for sandbags.

The next morning I used a coffee-shop pay phone next to a noisy jukebox to call my NYC stock agency editor. (This was before cell phones.) Explaining where I was and why, I asked for guidance as to what the agency could use. The editor’s reply: “We don’t do news stories. You’re there for red, white and blue, apple pie Midwest images, remember?” As I slid onto a red plastic banquette and gazed out the steamy bay window, a waitress gave me weak coffee and the news. The town’s much-anticipated Bastille Day festivities were canceled; a “boil water” order and 9 p.m. curfew was in effect; and the elementary school had become the National Guardsmen’s dormitory.

Would Ste. Genevieve fall to the mighty Mississippi? A siege mentality had developed. Twelve-hour shifts were assigned. Instead of guns, shovels were carried to the front, as if they were rifles. Munitions of bags, sand, and screened lime were rumbling into town around the clock. Surrender was not an option.

I had found my angle. I was there to photograph the human forces of true grit, on-going humor and friendly warmth highlighted against a backdrop of sandbags, bulldozers and the river. This tightly knit community’s resistance to nature and the threat of personal loss was the drama.

Ste. Genevieve calling Pres. Clinton!

I thanked the waitress, saying I’d be back for more coffee. Following the cracked sidewalk past sunflowers falling over picket fences, I walked down to the railroad tracks where sweaty backs strained over dumped piles of heavy-as-cement lime screening from a nearby quarry. Clever signs appealing to then-President Bill Clinton for help hung on porches of nearby evacuated homes. An innocent four-year-old, cooling off at the river’s swollen edge, scooped debris out of the polluted water with a butterfly net.

Just as slowly and surely as the river was rising, my sense of futility gave way to amazement. Residents and uniformed troops worked together in a Truman-esque effort to stay ahead of the rising water, block-by-block and inch-by-inch – literally. “We feel like we cain’t even sit down to eat lunch or it’ll git ahead-a us,” said a National Guardsman. His partner, amazed at the night and day efforts of local volunteers, shook his head. “I’m paid for this. They’re not. Working with narcotics patrol on the Mexican border and fighting San Diego mudslides amounted to nothing compared to the intensity and exhaustion of this experience.”

National Guard and locals work together, Ste. Genevieve

The sandbaggers were retirees suffering from kidney stones, state champion football teams anxious to lend their brawn to the effort, and young children. Strangers sweated alongside teams of life-long neighbors. In four days the Main Street’s knee-high levee grew to ten feet high and ten feet wide, massive enough to hold bulldozers. A sandbagger reminded a New York Times reporter that, while this was the worst flood in 100 years, it was also the greatest volunteer effort of the century. (Will these concerned citizens be too crisis-weary to turn out for the clean-up job needed in the Mississippi Delta in 2010?)

“I can’t be here and not sandbag,” I wrote in my journal. Putting my cameras down, I joined in. There were intricacies to bagging. It took three people: one to shovel, one to hold the bag open, and one to tie the bag. The white bags were best. The strings on the brown bags cut your fingers, and the green bags didn’t stay tied.

Sandbags protecting Main St., Ste. Genevieve

“Bag holders” and “bag stringers” quickly figured out that it was easiest to sit on an already-filled bag. The “shovel-ers” learned to ignore the American creed of “more is better.” A full sandbag is too round, allowing water seepage in the levee. A half-full bag (only 3 shovelfuls) is easier to stack, weighing a mere forty pounds – not eighty.

The residents who had received evacuation orders needed to move their belongings to higher ground. All who helped in lifting loads to safety were offered dinner, coffee, late-night glasses of sweet Missouri wine and home-baked cookies. A side story caused a momentary pause in emergency operations. An innkeeper found the body of “Old Mike,” a local octogenarian recluse. In curious Mark Twain fashion, he had died on the second floor of a long-ago abandoned garage which flood victims were now using for dry storage.

The Ozark’s Alley Springs, Eminence MO

Concern grew over the fate of the historic Green Tree Inn with its charming, southern-style trellises and wrap-around porches. Built in 1789 and a long-popular “watering hole,” it was being shuttered and abandoned by the National Guard who deemed it too weak to sustain sandbag protection. Five visitors wrote a poem of hope for its survival, put it in a bottle, and tossed it over the levee. One month later, my friends from The Main Street Inn wrote, “Let’s get together when all of this is over. We many never laugh at it, but we can probably smile.”

After one week in Ste. Genevieve, I was experiencing the photojournalist’s dilemma of determining when to leave a story. There was no justification for staying unless a levee broke, a tragedy I didn’t want to happen. But, if it did, I didn’t want to miss it. Although torn, I returned to the Ozarks and other parts of the state on my checklist for stock images. I disciplined myself to make more use of my tripod as I photographed deep-blue springs. I requested model and property releases from farmers selling cantaloupes and watermelons in front of old gristmills. But I never found a clean pig – they were all dirty.

Farewell from the front yard boat in Commerce MO

My final view of the summer’s new inland sea was on my TWA flight home. That aerial sweep widened my perspective: there were many other communities, upstream and downstream, also fighting Ste. Genevieve’s battle. I stared out my airplane window, mulling over words by my daughter’s favorite author, Bryce Courtenay: “the power of one, one idea, one heart, one mind, one plan, one determination.” That was the Midwest Spirit of 1993, an accomplishment to be remembered, whether levees broke or not.

I returned to the East Coast with hundreds of chromes of levees, Levi’s and Midwestern grit. (There were no digital cameras or flash cards in 1993, but thankfully the jeans and grit have survived.) I had just documented not only a flood, but also community values and moral commitment, as exemplified by Missouri’s favorite son Harry Truman. I had left my search for stock images and gone into the realm of photojournalism, recording a culture coping with a crisis.

After being on Ste. Genevieve’s front line in 1993, I began studying the causes of Mississippi River floods, which have continued beyond 1993. Today, almost 20 years later, I have become a conservation photographer working to raise awareness of the vulnerability of our watersheds. My long-term No Water No Life project combines the powers of photography and science to raise awareness of the vulnerability of our watersheds and fresh water resources. The Mississippi River Basin, where I witnessed the fearsome impacts of climate change and levee channel-ization in 1993, is one of six No Water No Life case study watersheds in North America and Africa. That channel-ization has prevented the replenishment of sediment in the bayous and on the barrier islands, which means a loss of protection from hurricanes and a fragility that will, at the very least, significantly delay recovery of soil retentive flora of these now-ephemeral buffers between sea and land.

This year’s devastating Gulf of Mexico oil spill – and its aggregation of hundreds of thousands of patches of oil – requires that same 1993 human grit and spirit in order to cope with degradation from this disaster. But that is not enough. The nation must work much more pro-actively, from bottom-up grassroots efforts and top-down governmental positions. This coordination is needed to create sustainable natural resource management, risk assessment and properly executed environmental-impact studies, and legislative restraints over corporations to protect the commonwealth of the nation. Waiting until the next crisis cannot be an option.

Alison, a photographer from Mountainville NJ with a studio in New York City, works with nature conservancies and non-profits supporting rural third-world development. Her images of landscapes, cultures, and wildlife appear in magazines, books and electronic media, and are featured in her photo essays, slide shows, workshops, and fine-arts exhibits. For more information, visit alisonjonesphoto.com.

[Posted by NWNL on June 19, 2008]