Friday, July 16, 2021

The flood of '93 anniversary

TODAY IS THE 28th anniversary of the West Quincy levee breaking. It was a seminal moment in Quincy history, and if you lived here in 1993, you still remember where you were and what you were doing on July 16 a little after 8 p.m.

James Scott was famously interviewed on WGEM right after the levee broke, and Sheryl was watching. She called her sister (they knew the Scott family) and said, "Jimmy Scott broke the levee. Turn on the TV, they are interviewing him. If anyone did it, he did." Here's an interview with the officer that interviewed him after he broke the levee.

Scott was convicted twice of causing the levee to fail, and sentenced to life in prison. He is eligible for parole in two years, the 30th anniversary of the break, and his story is again generating national media attention you'll probably hear about soon.

Did James Scott break the levee, and did he deserve a life sentence? You'll get varied opinions from people in Quincy. Some are convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt. Others think it's a conspiracy. Others think it would be a mistake for Scott to return to Quincy, even after all these years, because it's still a raw and gaping wound in this city's history.

When a journalist from the outside comes in to investigate, they often fail to realize the massive  emotional toll the levee break took on our community. Almost the entire city engaged one way or another to keep the levee from breaking. Businesses paid their employees to fill bags with sand or help at the levee itself. When it broke, it did more than flood thousands of acres and cause millions in damages. It broke the hearts of many people invested in keeping the levee intact.

People that lived in Missouri and worked in Quincy (and vise versa) had to figure out the logistics of getting to their job, since both bridges between Quincy and West Quincy flooded and couldn't be used. Sheryl remembers flying in a 4-seater plane back and forth from Hannibal to Quincy to get to work. She'd stay at her parents during the week and fly to her home in Taylor, Mo., to see her husband on the weekends. The housing issue in Missouri was so bad that they sold the trailer to someone that had lost their home and was desperate for a place to live. The flying back and forth to Quincy scared the crap out of her every time she had to do it, so selling the place was a good move.

I wasn't here in 1993. I moved to Quincy three years later. In 2008 we had a flood similar in nature, and I spent much of that summer writing stories for The Whig about the heroic efforts to keep the levee intact. The late Chip Gerdes hooked me up with a Knapheide sandbagging crew on the levee itself, and I spent a harrowing night on patrol right on top of the levee.

Also in 2008, I got a call from former Time Magazine writer Adam Pitluk. He wrote a book about James Scott and the levee break called Damned To Eternity, and it was a fascinating account from the outside about the case. I was the only journalist in Quincy to take the book seriously, and Pitluk helped me with access to James Scott himself. It was the first time in 15 years Scott talked with a member of the Quincy media, and it was among the best stories I ever did.

Whatever you think of James Scott and his checkered past, you can't deny it is a compelling story, and its little wonder it still draws interest today. 


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