For 36 hours, the Flood of 1993 turned Oquawka, Illinois, into an island. There was no getting in, and no getting out.
Keithsburg, Illinois, had it worse, losing 100 homes and businesses to flood water. During the July 1993 flooding, inmates helped Niota, Illinois, residents reinforce the levees in order to save the community. The effort failed, and the 1993 flood damage from the Mississippi River was the worst in its history.
As is always the case with flooding, those who lived in the lowest-lying areas were the ones to lose their homes.
Chris Peterson, village treasurer for Oquawka, volunteered at a community center in Gladstone that acted as a central headquarters for flood fighting efforts. She cooked meals there everyday, feeding flood victims, flood watchers, volunteers and National Guard members. The majority of Gladstone stayed above water, but the saturation from never-ending rains and the rising Mississippi was surreal.
"The ground was extremely soft. You could walk on this side of the levee, and the ground was so saturated, it was like walking on a mattress. You could feel the asphalt flexing under your feet. It was like walking on a big water balloon. It was crazy," she said.
Oquawka sits above the Mississippi, and for the most part, it stayed dry. But the roads didn't. Due to flash flooding of all the creeks, the town was cut off from the outside world for at least a day and a half.
Peterson remembers driving to Gladstone to help at the flood center, her car sloshing through a half-inch of water. She was the last one out of Oquawka that night before the road was closed, and was flagged down by law enforcement as she entered Gladstone.
"We didn't have any problems with a levee breach, but we had problems with water on the backside, because there was no place for it to go," she said.
Mike Peters, who lives up the road from Niota, said there is no comparison between the Flood of 1993 and the Flood of 2008. In '93, Niota flooded. In 2008, it didn't.
"This was all under water," he said.
Peters worked for the Iowa State Penitentiary, which was normally a 15-minute commute across the bridge to Fort Madison. In the summer of 1993, it was was a two-and-a-half hour commute — one way.
"Six of us had a car in Iowa. We walked across the dam in Keokuk every morning, through the water plant and up to the car, then drove from Fort Madison to Keokuk," he said.
Trains continued to cross the railway bridge between Niota and Fort Madison, but it was dicey.
"They had trains on that bridge, and they thought the bridge was going to fall over. They had trains full of gravel on the side to counterweight it," Peters said.
Water levels stayed high for a record three months. Homes and businesses in Keithsburg were lost to the river, and the tragedy repeated itself when the levee near Keithsburg broke again in 2008.
"It (the Flood of 93) was pretty bad," said John Dean, who drives to Keithsburg every two weeks for work.