People traveling to Columbia from Jefferson City cross the bridge and circle the entrance ramp to Highway 63 and head north on Highway 63. It’s kind of hard to realize that people have to be beyond legal drinking age to remember when an area to the left of the highway was a road lined with gas stations and small businesses. And a town called Cedar City.
Not far along the highway, also off to the left and out in a farm field is a strange white structure, obviously unused for a long time. The road that used to lead to it has pretty much disappeared.
It’s been two decades, this year, since Cedar City died. It’s been twenty years, this year, since that white building in the field was a prison for women.
For some of us, especially for those of us in the news business who live on a day-to-day basis–because that’s how news is–we have to pause to realize that about 7,300 of those days have passed since the great flood of 1993. Twenty years ago this summer we couldn’t cross the bridge and drive up the entrance ramp to 63 North because unprecedented deep and fast-moving Missouri River floodwaters had destroyed part of Highway 54 before the interchange. And the southbound lanes of 63, which were lower then, disappeared under several feet of water.
We had seen water bluff to bluff at Jefferson City a few times before. The people of the little town of Cedar City had been forced out of their homes many times in the decades–generations–past. But they always went back. About the time the 54/63 interchange was being planned in the late 60s and early 70s that would end the days of motorists crossing the bridge, stopping at a stoplight and turning left onto what was then Highway 63 that went through Cedar City and its gas stations (The Derby Station always had the cheapest prices, I recall). The Jefferson City Housing authority met with town leaders at the school in Cedar City one night and made a special offer. It would help relocate the town so it and its gas stations would be closer to that new interchange so that Jefferson City could use the Cedar City location for an industrial park.
The message came back from the Cedar Citians at that meeting. It wasn’t, “No.” It was “Hell, no.” I remember one old man probably younger than I am now who told the head of the Housing Authority, Ted Herron, something to the effect, “This is the town where we’ve grown up, where our parents and grandparents raised their families. This is home. We aren’t leaving.” And the rest of the crowd nodded and rumbled words of agreement. And the Housing Authority officials went back across the river and the idea of an industrial park was shelved.
And then 1993 came. And the river.
One July day, I stood at the end of Bolivar Street in Jefferson City where the city entrance to the original bridge across the river had been, listening to the roar of the water striking the supports for the “new” bridge and recalling the sound was about the same as the roar of the water in the Colorado River rapids of the Grand Canyon where my wife, Nancy, and I had been rafting a few days before. An interviewer from the McNeil-Lehrer Newshour asked about Cedar City where only rooftops of most buildings were visible above the chocolate-colored water. And I recalled the words of that man about twenty years earlier about the generations that had gone back time after time, even after the last great flood, in 1951. And I said that floods might damage or destroy buildings and roads and streets, but the hardest thing for floods to destroy was roots.
The flood of ’93 destroyed the roots. Cedar City didn’t come back. The women’s prison had water in the second floor. It was wrecked. The inmates who were evacuated never returned. In time the property was sold, which is why the building is in the middle of a farm field. The southbound lanes of Highway 63 were built on higher ground.
Our newest reporter, Mary Farucci, was asking about the flood the other day. She’s 24 and even if she had lived here then, she likely would still be too young to have many, or any, memories of the months of misery that states in the Missouri/Mississippi River basin endured.
Cedar City is called North Jefferson City now. Only a few structures are still there. Jefferson City has a community garden and a dog park where once generations of people raised families that withstood the worst the river could throw at them. Until 1993.
This month marks the anniversary of the beginning of the worst water disaster mankind has ever experienced in this part of the country. Associated Press reporter Robert Dvorchak, who was based in Minneapolis when Patrice Press published his recollection in a 1994 book edited by Betty Burnett called “The Flood of 1993: Stories from a Midwestern Disaster, wrote, “For a monster, the Great Flood of ’93 had a humble birth notice. On March 3, in a story on page 6B of the Star Tribune of Minneapolis, National Weather Service hydrologist Gary McDevitt warned that a flood potential existed…’We want to alert people along the river and its tributaries early that we’re watching this year closely,’ McDevitt said in a monthly report. Minor to moderate flooding was forecast. Heavy rains could make it much worse.”
And so it began, with a routine weather story two decades ago this month.
There will be many people telling many stories in the months to come. We’ll be seeing then-and-now newspaper articles, and television features. Those too young to know an event that remains a marking-point in the lives of millions will see the images of that time. But for thousands of us, those stories will be far more than images.