after the deluge
December 1993
Photographs by MARY ELLEN MARK

Mary Ellen Mark

Photographer Mary Ellen Mark braved the high waters of the Mississippi during the six days she spent documenting the cleanup of this summer's devastating flood; the portraits that resulted appear in this issue. "When we were out on the boat, it was very surreal and very filthy. There was sewage. There were things from people's medicine chests. A cigarette pack floated by with a caterpillar on it." But it wasn't an entirely hopeless scene. Many of the people she met were, she says, "middle-class people who were not used to being desolate, left with nothing… I was impressed that people were so positive." In a career that has spanned more than 25 years, Mark has become known for chronicling an unusually broad range of subjects -from circus performers to pro-choice activists- all over the world. Since 1965, when Mark received a Fulbright Fellowship to pursue a project in Turkey, she has won several awards for work published in over 40 magazines. She has also published nine books, her latest one focusing on traveling circuses in India. Mark lives in New York City with her husband, filmmaker Martin Bell. They recently collaborated on the film American Heart.

The destructive flood of '93 has receded, but along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, the rebuilding has just begun. DAVID HANDELMAN visits three families as they face the future.

Mary Teder of West Alton, Missouri, will not be returning to her house of 28 years, where the standing water was six feet deep: "I've done enough crying to raise the river a foot."

A first glance, the landscape has a serene, mystical beauty. The sun shines brightly on long-legged egrets lounging in shallow roadside ponds. Only after a while does it become clear that these ponds were recently fields, and that, except for these migrant seabirds, there aren't any birds at all, because on the ground there is neither grass nor worms nor anything living, only thick slabs of mud, now dried and broken in a drab brown mosaic.

The unruly, roiling water has finally retreated toward its former confines, but 1993's Great Flood, the once-in-a-lifetime humdinger, has left lasting scars in its wake, especially on these bottomland plains between the Mississippi and Missouri rivers just north of St. Louis. Most of the houses along Route 94, near the hamlets of West Alton and Portage des Sioux, have been officially branded with red DO NOT ENTER stickers; and with only their roofs and studs intact, they've been rendered virtually see-through, resembling some sort of experimental privacy-free housing development. Destroyed insulation, StairMasters, couches, and televisions sit in forlorn piles waiting to be carted off, while nearby smoldering pyres reduce warped doors and furniture to scorched hinges and knobs. The metal barns, garages, and trailers that weren't flattened were pried open by the elements and now, with every gust of wind, they flap with nerve-racking bangs! Stuck here and there by the side of the road are abandoned vehicles, nose down, windshields caked with mud on the inside. All trees and bushes shorter than six feet tall are barren; all that's left of the ruined corn crop are stubby stems. During the day, handfuls of residents return to clean and repair their houses, but at night, the towns are ghostly, the only noise emanating from the power generators of the few hardy souls insistent on staying no matter how noxious the lingering river-mud odor.

Ebenezer Cemetery, near West Alton; August 1993.

This, anyway, is what visitors witness in late September; for most of the summer, when Mary Ellen Mark shot these photographs, to travel these roads you needed a motorboat, which might occasionally get snagged on a treetop or street sign. The river began bursting levees here just after Independence Day, rose and rose and then stayed up for nearly a month. Things that didn't float away were sometimes looted. In Carondelet, a neighborhood in south Saint Louis, the river left a strange chemical residue on everything, leading residents to blame the nearby Monsanto plant. "It smelled like rotten sewage," says Alice Temple, a 31-year-old divorced mother of two. "It still stinks."

Josh Camp, sixteen, in his Portage des Sioux, Missouri, bedroom. The insulation in his walls turned green; in September, he still had to boat to school.

Nursing-home worker Joyce Kiker, 59, returning to her West Alton home for the first time since the flood. "Material things don't matter to you anymore -it's good friends, neighbors, family. Our house burned only a year ago, and at first I didn't know what was worse. Then I decided the flood was, because it also affected our neighbors and friends."

Because her Portage des Sioux home was in the high part of town, Sarah Niemeyer, twelve, found all sorts of wildlife taking refuge there, including 22 snakes in the garage.

Science teacher Donna Farley in her in-laws' West Alton kitchen. The doors swelled up, and for a long time we couldn't even get in the house. We'd taken everything from the bottom cabinets, but the water got up to the ceiling."

Emily, eleven, and Sarah Camp, fourteen, in the "stinky pudding" outside their home in Portage des Sioux. 'We lived in bathing suits," says Sarah. "It was easier to wash."

Billy Evans, thirteen, helped clean up his church in West Alton, where a propane tank had floated loose.

But despite being unaccustomed to such deprivation and disaster, these hardy Midwesterners are reassembling their lives, recalling the flood with both woe and wonder.

Urban Teder had always enjoyed fishing and hunting, so he thought the Missouri flood plain would be an ideal place to live. Before he and his wife, Mary, built themselves a brick one-story house in West Alton in 1965, "we talked with the old-timers that lived here," says Mary, 51, "and they said they hadn't had water since 1940-something." Then in 1973 came the biggest flood anyone could remember. Mary, Urban, and their three daughters remained in the house, pumping the water out, protecting their front door with boards and caulking. Urban grabbed a particularly nice piece of driftwood that was floating by and later turned it into a living-room shelf. There's a pencil line still visible on the Teders' garage door, marking the water's crest from that year, about three feet up.

This time the water completely submerged the stone trestle that serves as a gateway into West Alton -clearance twelve feet nine inches. The Teders' storage shed is now ringed by a mud stain line fifteen feet up; their house, set on higher ground and a foundation, still got more than six feet. "It was so deep, I'd wear me a lifejacket," recalls Mary. She and Urban, 61, now retired from McDonnell Douglas, at first tried to stay again, sandbagging, hoisting furniture onto concrete blocks and then sawhorses and boards, but after a week they threw everything into a U-Haul and got out.

Today Mary, a sandy-haired, blue-eyed woman, is wearing a green sweat suit speckled with bleach, which she has been spraying on her walls and ceilings to get rid of mildew. She eulogizes as she gives a tour of the house: "These were the bedrooms… they were simple, but they suited our purpose. She was able to salvage the driftwood shelf Urban had made, but not the lilac bush they'd long ago transplanted from his mother's farm.

"We're better off than a lot of people," Mary says. "A lot of people didn't get nothing out. Their family pictures and all that went down the drain. I helped one neighbor push all her furniture outside, and then we went to the church and saw the Blessed Mother statue that used to be up on the altar lying out in the yard, covered with mud. That was hard." Her voice breaks, and she falls silent.

Mary gets into her pickup truck and drives through the one-street downtown, where the post office, auto-body shop, and food store are now empty, mud striped, and partly fallen down. She stops at the former appliance store, now the Salvation Army's headquarters for "Operation Noah's Ark," and accepts a hot dog and some carrot sticks from the food wagon. She says that when she retrieved clothes from the mud and tried to wash them, they shredded. "I don't think we'll be fishing in the river for a long time," she says. "I just don't trust it." She pauses. "I've done enough crying to raise the river a foot."

In July Mary swore to Newsweek that she wasn't leaving, explaining simply, "We built our home here." But after she and Urban fled to their daughter Ellen's house across the river in Illinois, Mary started having dreams of water everywhere and began taking "nerve pills." The Teders had no insurance-"We carried it several years, and then they said they weren't going to pay on some stuff"-and their house wasn't damaged more than 50 percent, the figure necessary to obtain a federal buyout. After weeks of scrubbing the "mud, mud, mud, mud," she's changed her mind. "All the work we'd put in; my husband's on heart medicine; we can't take it. We started being at each other's throats." On October 8 they sold the house and are now moving to Farmington, Missouri. "I said they'd have to shoot me to take me out of here, but I'll take that shot and go."

Main and Adams streets, Portage des Sioux, August 1993.

Just across the highway on a 1,700-acre farm, Donna Farley lived side by side with her sister, Meridith. The two Colorado natives had married two brothers, David and Michael, who grew up here and whose parents' house is just beyond some grain silos, which are now crumpled like beer cans and smell of rotting wheat seed.

Donna stands in the skeleton of her 20-year-old two-story ranch house, which she has finally gotten broom-clean, discussing plans with a contractor to raise the foundation five feet. The flood turned her front lawn into a-mile-wide-lake whose waves toppled her house's brick walls. Then, on July 31, came a storm with 70 mph winds, thrashing what the water had weakened. "If we'd been here when the storm hit I'd be in a psychiatric ward now," says Donna, a silver-haired eighth-grade science teacher who's wearing a vest printed with a mountain scene over her jean shirt.

When the area flooded in 1986, the water didn't even reach the front door. But this time they were wading in waist-deep water and bringing things upstairs, finally evacuating when the electricity was shut off. The couple, their siblings, two cats, and two dogs all decamped to Donna's parents in St. Louis for a month until they could get temporary housing. "It was… difficult, she says delicately. They'd boat to the house every day, landing on the roof and crawling through the dormer windows. They rescued several more cats out of the hayloft after the barn collapsed but couldn't find the last; returning days later, they found the cat sitting on the roof, a neat pile of feathers nearby.

When they regained access to the house in August, the plumbing remained shut off, so they had to pump dirty water from the basement to clean out the upstairs, then dirty water from the pool to clean the basement. Along the way, they discovered a variety of strange but useful facts: It was important to keep the mud wet, because as soon as it dried, it turned into concrete. And after saving all their doors by detaching them and storing them upstairs, they learned that it's cheaper to get new doors than have new door frames built.

Volunteers helped with the cleanup, as did the Farleys' son and daughter, Jason and Sarah, ages sixteen and nineteen. Asked how it affected her kids to see the house they'd always lived in destroyed, Donna wrinkles her brow. "It's hard to tell with a sixteen-year-old boy," she says. "I don't think anything traumatizes him. I do know this: Last year our daughter always needed money. This year, she's paying for her schoolbooks from her summer job."

The hardest thing, Donna says, is seeing how the disaster has affected others. The other day she drove by a neighbor's and saw the two teenage daughters crying in the yard. A couple of neighbors died, and she says, "They were old, but I can't help wondering if they just gave up because they didn't have a home. A lot of people aren't coming back; the cost of raising the foundation [a Federal requirement to get new flood insurance] is prohibitive. A lot of them are in their sixties; they'd have to live to 100 to pay the loans back."

Alice Temple, her daughter, Melinda, and her father, Joe Laxton, in Carondelet, Missouri. Her parents' house in a factory district south of St. Louis was flooded to the second story. "Everything's contaminated," says her mother, Mary. "You touch something and then touch your hand to your face, it'll burn you. We had to throw every plate away."

The estimate the Farleys have gotten for repairs is $180,000, twice what they expected. But they're chiseling down that figure as best they can and are committed to staying. "It looks precarious, but it's the best farmland," she says. "And we have country life and can be in St. Louis in fifteen minutes. Without the flooding, this area would've been built up years ago."

But David's parents are unlikely to move back. His mother has Alzheimer's, and their house, older and on lower ground, was hit a lot harder. (His father wanted to make sure they salvaged his souvenir armadillo plate; his mother's spoon collection was washed out of its rack high on the kitchen wall.)

When protecting their own home, one thing the Farleys couldn't move out or up was Donna's baby grand piano, which floated into a support beam. "They burned my piano yesterday," she says stoically. "I didn't watch."

Her sister, Meridith, drives up. Her house next door, built a year before Donna's (and before the 1973 flood), received more damage; she recalls the windows "popping like gunshots." She and Mike have decided that, although he'll keep farming, they're going to move to nearby St. Louis County. "I'm such a hyper person," she says. "If they predicted another crest, I'd be backing up the U-Haul again."

So how does she feel about the river? "I hate it!" says Meridith.

"Oh, wait till next summer," says Donna. "You'll get your boat out there. I do have a lot more respect for it now, though. I know it can do anything it wants to."

The only way to get to Portage des Sioux last summer was on a National Guard barge; even in September, drivers still had to forge through eight inches of standing water, and every time it rained the road again became impassable. At dusk the town is mostly deserted; in front of the Portage market, the carcasses of Pepsi machines have mud lines three-quarters of the way up. Portable toilets line the streets, and a special phone booth has been erected providing free local calls.

Amid the desolation and wreckage, the Camp family seems remarkably chipper. "You have no choice," says Pamela, 41, a machine operator at a sewing factory. "You gotta keep going past it, laugh, make jokes." She and her husband, Larry, 39, a computer installer, grew up in the nearby suburb of Jennings and had come here as teenagers to neck, eventually buying a 100-year-old house and having four blond children. They were forced out of their house for two weeks but came back as soon as the flood waters receded, fixing it up room by room, making discoveries like original windows that had been boarded up between walls. They cooked on a Coleman stove until their propane tank was stabilized; they're still using cardboard boxes as a pantry.

Tonight they're in Larry's parents' mobile home in the backyard, celebrating Pamela's birthday with their kids -Noel, eighteen; Josh, sixteen; Sarah, fourteen; and Emily, eleven- plus Noel's fiancé, Dan, and Uncle Al visiting from Florida.

"In the beginning, the flood was OK, when we suddenly had lakefront property," says Larry, who's bearded, genial, and understandably exhausted. "But when the lake came inside…”

The first crest brought 17 inches of water into the house, so they raised everything up three feet; but then the water swelled to 42 inches. Their china began floating around the house; a cedar hope chest Larry had just made for Noel was ruined. The tides kept the family moving, first to a camper in the backyard, then a neighbor's house. They found a house to rent, but then it, too, got water. "You knew what the homeless felt like," says Pamela. "Now where do we go?"

They landed in Pamela's sister's basement in St. Louis for two weeks. Then Dan and Noel moved to St. Charles, where they work; Larry stayed on to be near his job, returning home only on weekends. "The hardest thing was being separated," says Pamela. "We're a very close family."

In the end, only six houses in all of Portage were unharmed. "Right after the flood, everyone was like, 'That's it, I'm over with,' " says Larry. "But time heals all wounds-plus, who's gonna buy your house if you've been in the news all week?"

The damage to the Camps' home has been assessed at $52,000; they had $33,500 worth of insurance, but that doesn't cover contents. So far the family has been handling repairs themselves. "We don't have any choice," says Larry. It took seven of them an entire weekend just to get the mud out of the garage. "Then you'd tear plasterboard down," says Pamela, "and there'd be mud behind it!" Inside the house they discovered the best cleaning method was to shovel the carpet, then cut it into pieces, roll it up, and toss it out the window. On one wall is Sarah's palm print and huge scrawled initials from when they were covered head to toe in mud. "It was like stinky pudding," Sarah says. "We lived in bathing suits; it was easier to wash." (Also, the temperature hit 106 degrees.)

"Josh got really crabby and belligerent," says Pamela. "Emily would laugh like nothing was going on, but then lots of nights she cried in her sleep." The Humane Society found foster homes for their pets; Noel had to change the setting of her January wedding from the Portage Hall to Moose Lodge in St. Charles. Sarah's school replaced her ruined yearbooks; Josh lost his Michael Jordan poster, TV, and stereo.

"That stuff you can replace," says Pamela. 'But I had a Night Before Christmas book that I got when Noel was born, and we'd read it to he kids every year-that got ruined. But Christmas will be the same, we don't care."

Emily pipes up. "We know what gifts to get each other-just replace everything!".