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Saving History From Floodwaters

Federal government offers money, experts to rebuild monuments

By Keith HendersonStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 24, 1993



BOSTON

THE great Midwestern flood of 1993 has had an impact on history in more ways than one. It not only broke all previous records for high water, but also caused extensive damage to many of the American heartland's most prized historical sites and buildings.

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A dollar figure for that damage hasn't yet been calculated. Some areas are only now becoming accessible to preservationists and state officials. But in anticipation of a widespread need to rebuild and repair, the federal government has made $5 million available to communities and individuals whose property is either on the National Register of Historic Places or eligible for that distinction.

Of that total, $3 million will be distributed through state historic landmark and preservation agencies in the form of ``brick and mortar'' grants to help property-owners repair buildings. The remaining $2 million will go through the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a congressionally chartered nonprofit organization.

Last week, the Trust completed an agreement with the National Park Service, which has federal oversight of historic preservation projects, about how its share of the funds will be used. National Trust Midwestern regional director Tim Turner says there will now be a ``flurry of activity'' as experts visit sites and get a better grasp of damage to structures soaked, and sometimes nearly smashed, by the floodwaters.

Illinois, Missouri, and Iowa had the heaviest damage to historic areas. David Blanchette, a spokesman for the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, says the site hit hardest in his state was Fort de Chartres, near the farming community of Praire du Rocher. The fort, largely a reconstruction of a mid-18th century French colonial outpost, was only 100 feet away from a levee break. It remained submerged in up to 15 feet of water for two weeks.

Less spectacular, perhaps, was the damage done to historic districts and individual homes along much of Illinois' long Mississippi River frontage. The state currently has $300,000 in federal ``brick and mortar'' funds for the purpose of stabilizing and rehabilitating historic structures, Mr. Blanchette says, and it expects to get additional money in a second round of federal disbursements.

The village of Elsah, a few miles upriver from St. Louis on the Illinois side of the Mississippi, is considered one of the area's best-preserved examples of a 19th-century river town. It has 50 National Register buildings in its historic district and served as an early test-case for the Trust's assessment effort, according to Mr. Turner. Steve Kelley, a historic preservation expert, was dispatched by the Trust to Elsah a couple of weeks ago, just as residents were starting to reenter their homes and clean things up.

It was great, recalls Elsah Mayor Jane Pfeifer, to have someone tell homeowners who may have had little technical know-how, ``You see, be sure to do this or this.'' Turner observes that if people reoccupying buildings, either homes or businesses, lack that kind of advice, they too easily do things that can cause later problems, such as replacing water-damaged wallboard before wall cavities have really had a chance to dry out.

Ste. Genevieve, Mo., south of St. Louis, is another focal point of concern for preservationists. The town, with its large collection of 18th-century French colonial architecture, is a National Historic Landmark, a step up from the National Register designation. The assessment team sent there included French Canadians with detailed knowledge of the kind of vertical log structures found in Ste. Genevieve. According to Turner, they found various degrees of water damage in some 43 buildings in the town.

Overall, however, Ste. Genevieve did a good job of protecting its historic treasures. ``We were pretty successful in our victory over the flood,'' says Bob Mecker, president of the Foundation for Preservation of Ste. Genevieve, describing how townspeople and volunteers constantly shored up the levee that held back the waters. There was one levee break, but it affected a relatively small part of the town.

To the West of St. Louis, up the Missouri River, the historic German town of Hermann endured a different kind of problem as the bloated river pushed water back up its tributary, Frene Creek. Old homes along the creek, built from low-fired soft brick, got saturated. ``You could just watch the water wicking up the walls,'' says Erin Renn, administrator of the Deutschheim State Historic Site in Hermann.

Prompt assessment by preservation experts will be crucial to preventing quick ``no occupancy'' or ``condemned'' judgments by housing inspectors or owners. Scott Meyer, a builder from Hannibal, Mo., who specializes in restoring historic structures, points out that houses in the path of a strong current will have the worst damage. Two serious problems, says Mr. Meyer, are houses shifting on foundations and mortar washed away from foundation stones.

In Alton, Ill., where a historic commercial district was engulfed by the waters, township supervisor Donald Huber says this flood, which topped all past ones by six feet, taught some important lessons. ``We learned where the weak spots were,'' he says, ``so that we can build an effective wall, and where to place pumps.''

Beyond that, adds Mr. Huber, the community learned a lot about working together. Planning meetings of Alton's downtown merchants only drew four or five people before the flood. During the crisis and more recently, they've drawn drawn 40 or 50, he says.