The Flood of 1993

The "flood of the century" caused great damage to the city of Des Moines, and no one who lived through it was untouched.

Des Moines was one of many locations in Iowa affected by record flooding during the summer of 1993. Heavy snows earlier in the year, followed by a series of major rainstorms in the summer, led to higher water levels than were predicted by the National Weather Service.

By Saturday, July 10th, the Raccoon River was reaching levels of 23 feet, finally topping out over 25 feet early on Sunday morning. These unexpected flood levels caught the Des Moines Waterworks off guard – left out of the city’s flood planning, they had made their own arrangements, which were based on the National Weather Service’s unfortunately incorrect predictions. When the river topped their levee and water began to enter the water plant at 1am on Sunday morning, July 12th, they were forced to turn off the power and shut down the plant. The flooding of the waterworks left more than 250,000 Des Moines residents without water, while more than 40,000 were without power.

In the aftermath, the entire state was declared a disaster area, and the drinking water situation in Des Moines lasted until July 30th. The Des Moines Register offices and printing equipment were affected by the flood, and the paper was printed using the equipment at the offices of the Wall Street Journal in West Des Moines for the duration of the crisis. As they reported on Monday, July 12th, "The unprecedented extent of flooding and the magnitude of the damage left no area of central Iowa unaffected. Traffic was paralyzed, commerce was reduced to a standstill and basements were flooded. The most basic of human tasks were rendered impossible. For most residents of central Iowa, life [on] Sunday boiled down to two goals: finding safe water and regaining electrical service."

The flooding also damaged more than 40 bridges, and temporarily closed sections of interstate 35 and 80. Des Moines residents canoed through the streets and the old Des Moines Public Library main branch, located directly on the riverbank, had to have 18 truckloads of water pumped out of its basement during the cleanup. All of the books had to be hand-carried above the flood water.

The flood of 1993 was the largest to date for the Raccoon River basin, surpassing the floods of 1947, 1958, and 1979.  Over 10,000 people were evacuated from their homes and 21,000 homes were damaged - many of them destroyed. During the summer of 1993 some locations saw rain each day for 130 consecutive days. Some areas flooded more than 5 times. Agricultural yields dropped by 62 percent. The submergence and shutdown of the waterworks made the disaster particularly difficult for Des Moines residents, and the cost of the damages was estimated to be over $3.2 billion.  As newspapers of the time said, "this type of natural disaster happens very, very rarely."