langdon, MO, flood of 1993

Memorable and soon to be muddy — Langdon, Missouri, August 1, 1993
Photo: Richard Oswald

When it rains, it pours.

That’s how most floods start.

Wet springs make me a bit queasy, because I’ve lived through two all-out floods and several other close calls. The first big river flood took place here in 1952. My recollection of that is a little hazy. The second one came in 1993. Those memories are crystal clear.

Like this year, the spring of ’93 was wet. Getting field work done was an uphill battle, but most of the crops were seeded when an early June dry spell gave everyone a chance to plant. After a brief respite, the rains came again, and kept coming”¦and coming.

The Corps of Engineers did their best to hold water behind the dams up north on the Missouri, but when the glass is full it has to run over somewhere.

langdon river bottom 1993

Missouri River bottom at Rock Port, Missouri, 1993
Photo: Richard Oswald

Today, we have a controversy between farmers and sportsmen over the true purpose of dams, like the one at Yankton, South Dakota, that helped, but didn’t prevent a flood in 1993. Farmers say the dams are for flood control, but the recreation crowd says they are for fun.

I used to have a part time job working for Atchison County Levee District #1. During that time I got to know a retired colonel who had been one of the engineers on the flood-control project that deepened the channel and installed the levees along the Missouri. He always said that the goals of all concerned back then were flood control first, navigation second, and recreation third. He saw no reason why all three couldn’t be served equally well. But over the years things change. Recreation has become a big industry in the Dakotas, and demand is strong to keep the lakes full.

busting grain bins flood 1993

Wet grain swells. In 1993 these grain bins burst when the flood soaked the grain inside.
Photo: Richard Oswald

Keeping the lakes filled to the brim has had a negative impact on river navigation. The main channel of the river below the dams needs deep water to float barges loaded with freight, but it’s tough to keep the channel full when drought or low water in the lake makes the Corps reluctant to open the flood gates. High water levels in the lakes also affect flood control: full lakes lack the capacity to hold runoff following heavy rains or snow melt.

Now conservationists have gotten in the act by forcing water releases to simulate the spring rise we used to see before there were any dams, when snow melt from up north found its way down the river on its own. Sportsmen don’t like artificial spring rise because it lowers the lake, and farmers don’t like it because it comes at one of the wettest times of the year.

So far in 2008, the spring at Langdon has been a wet one. Lots of crops have been planted, but most farmers are waiting for enough dry weather to finish the job.

Corn planting here usually starts in early April. The other main crop, soybeans, goes in after the corn. Soybeans are usually planted around May first. Now it’s June and some of the corn and lots of the soybeans still aren’t in the ground.

langdon bend 208

Unsettling sight — the Missouri River at Langdon, June 1, 2008
Photo: Richard Oswald

And the river is high, but not as high as it was in ’93. Unfortunately, at least one meteorologist I know has likened the precipitation pattern this year to that of 1993.

The Missouri River is nicknamed “Big Muddy.” They should have called it “Big Messy,” because when the Missouri comes to visit, that’s what it is.

flooded houses Langdon 1993

The Oswalds’ house in Langdon, MO, during the 1993 flood, and after
Photo: Richard Oswald

Initially, you think that when the water leaves, everything will get back to normal. But the water hides a lot. The first thing we noticed when the water went out in ’93 was the smell. Everything was rotting. Things like grass, crops in the field”¦. all sorts of vegetation that can’t survive the inundation dies and immediately starts to spoil in the hot summer sun and high humidity. It seems like the mud will never dry. When it finally does the smell gets better until the next rain. Sometimes just high humidity or heavy dew brings back the smell, time after time. Following the flood of 1993, it was late spring of ’94 before the air in Langdon smelled clean again.

And, of course, things that float can end up anywhere. Tires, plastic bottles and jugs, dead animals, even fuel barrels and picnic tables pass by on the current. Firewood from a campground two miles north of us was scattered across many of our fields. Logs cut into 16-inch lengths were everywhere; we had to pick most of them up by hand to remove them from the fields — otherwise they would have damaged our farm equipment. There were even huge piles of corn stalks that had to be burned once they dried, and some fields had sand drifts, deposited by the water, that had to be leveled with bulldozers.

Most of the homes on the river bottom were damaged to one degree or another. We were able to return to ours in about three weeks, but the basement walls bowed and were in danger of collapse, so we lived in the house while a block mason jacked it up and installed a new basement. Others weren’t as lucky, and some never moved back to the bottom.

virginina's house 1993 flood

Virginia Ottmann’s house in 1993 — still vacant in 2008.
Photo: Richard Oswald

Given the fact that both our livelihood and our homes are at stake, sometimes it’s difficult for farmers to understand how drawing down water levels in the reservoirs up north can seem like such a bad thing if it saves crops and personal property. That is especially true now that the world needs more food and energy conservation: one river barge can hold as much grain as 100 tractor trailers and requires less fuel to haul it.

Maybe conservation is the best plan for everyone. But a plan for true conservation that works has to take into account the need for all of us to survive. That includes farmers and all the people who need food, as well as fish and fishermen.

In the meantime, I guess I’ll check my hip-waders for holes. Just in case.

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