On Aug. 1, 1993, the levee that protected the town of Valmeyer, Ill., brokeallowing the swollen Mississippi River to inundate the village 25 miles south of St. Louis with as much as 16 feet of water. The Flood of the Century, as it was called, destroyed 90 percent of the town, and when the water receded more than two months later, most of Valmeyers 900 residents had no homes to return to.
Displaced families moved in with relatives, lived in trailers, or stayed in hotels. Some moved away. But most residents wanted to stay. We just didnt want to move, says Donna Mueller, a schoolteacher who had lived in Valmeyer for 20 years. I like the small-town atmosphere. I didnt want to lose that.
Neither did Bill and Bernice Meadors, owners of the Corner Pub, which became a community gathering place before the town was evacuated. The Meadors kept their restaurant-bar open even after the Army Corps of Engineers urged residents to leave.
People came, and I fried hamburgers for them, served them soda or beer, Bernice recalls. Finally, the gas company and the electric company came and they shut everything off. So we had to leave.
The Meadors stayed with their son and his family in nearby Columbia, Ill., for one night but felt they were intruding. I just felt so out of place, Bernice recalls. I just felt so lost. The couple briefly stayed in a local hotel and camped out for three months before moving into a trailer provided free by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The free trailers were a large factor in keeping the community intact, says Dennis Schreder, who has been Valmeyers mayor since April 1997. In September 1993, a month after the flood, residents voted to rebuild Valmeyer at a new location on a 280-acre corn field 1.5 miles away from, and 400 feet higher than, the original town.
A lot of people probably would not have waited for Valmeyer to rise up on the hill again, Schreder says. They probably wouldve had to move on and find someplace to live. So, FEMA coming in and setting up temporary housing helped keep our community together.
FEMA was among three federal relief agencies that worked with the Illinois Department of Commerce and Community Affairs to provide 90 percent of the $24 million it took to rebuild Valmeyer. The other 10 percent came from funds provided by the town through bonds, bank loans, and property sales.
Quite a few times in the development process, wed run into a brick wall and say, Why are we doing this? recalls Dennis Knobloch, Valmeyers mayor at the time of the flood and the current village administrator, referring to environmental regulations with which the town had to comply. But we have no regrets now.
Today, Valmeyer has about 600 residents, a school, three churches, a post office, bank, nearly 200 new homes, and a few businessesincluding a new Corner Pub. The Meadors moved into their new pub in September 1994.
We just love it, Bernice says. You kind of get connected with the scenery, the people, the quietness, the fun. Its just a nice place to be.
Valmeyer isnt exactly what it used to be, Knobloch says, and some residents still carry the emotional scars of living through a natural disaster, but a lot of people have much stronger character than they had before.
We found that town residents can pull together and do whats necessary in times of trouble, he concludes.