Family describes chaos of ’93 flood
MANHATTAN, Kan. (AP) — In July 1993, Janet Ebert remembers sandbagging around her mother’s home at 1905 Casement Drive late one night, a useless effort in hindsight, she said.
Tuttle Creek Dam had reached its flood capacity after more than 42 inches of rain fell that summer, and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials expected they’d have to soon release water from the dam’s emergency spillway gates, which would flood parts of Manhattan and surrounding areas.
Ebert, 58, reflected earlier this month on that particular evening in 1993 as residents are once again dealing with the potential of Tuttle Creek Lake reaching its capacity 26 years later.
With her own Wamego home safe and her mother, Jean Akin, out of town, Ebert had spent the entire day creating a wall of sandbags around her childhood home in an attempt to hold back floodwaters, as well as moving items and furniture out of the basement with the help of friends and family.
It was not a simple effort either as Casement Drive already had water creeping up the road, and Ebert had to haul just two sandbags at a time around the corner of the street.
“It was like you had to do something because if you just sat, we didn’t know what would happen,” Ebert told The Manhattan Mercury . “So we stayed busy because we had a lot of energy and pent-up frustration about what was going to happen.”
At some point in the evening, she said, a firefighter approached Ebert and said the electricity and gas in the neighborhood had been shut off. It was now under a mandatory evacuation, and she had to leave.
“You can haul me kicking and screaming out of here, but I am not leaving,” Ebert recalled saying to the man.
Not long after, a group of soldiers from the National Guard, more than Ebert had ever seen in her life, walked up to the house.
“The sergeant said, ‘Have you ever built a sandbag wall before?’ I said, ‘No, sir.’ And he said, ‘Well I have. I was in Vietnam. You’ve done it all wrong, and I have people here to help.’ He’d yell out, ‘Nine people in the hole!’ and nine people would jump off my mother’s retaining wall and they would build. When they got tired, he would get more. They did this all night, building this wall.”
When officials came by again to tell her to leave, Ebert said she felt conflicted leaving behind the home she’d grown up in since she was three years old.
“I was very torn, trying to save what my single mother worked her whole life for,” Ebert said.
With the sergeant’s promise he’d stay there for as long as he could, Ebert finally heeded the command.
The Army Corp of Engineers eventually released water from the spillway gates on July 20, 1993. Just a few days later, the lake posted a record-high elevation of 1,138 feet above sea level, and its outflow increased to 60,000 cubic feet per second. The spillway gates remained open for three weeks.
Despite the sandbagging efforts, Akin’s basement and lower garage flooded. At its peak, the water reached about five feet high down there, she said. The pressure of the water against the sandbags on either side of the garage entrance also broke the door, but no debris made it inside.
“I remember I looked downstairs to the basement, and water was coming up the stairway,” Ebert said when she returned to the house after it flooded. “Everything was floating, and we knew we had lost the battle. We just prayed that it wouldn’t get to the upper story.”
The rebuilding process took time and the help of many, Akin, 80, said. She said she was initially denied for Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) assistance but eventually received a check, as well as donations raised by a neighbor, which allowed her to replace her furnace, air conditioning unit and other essentials.
Not every moment was bad, Ebert added. The positive was seeing the community come together and help one another get through the situation. Ebert said complete strangers showed her kindness while they, too, were busy sandbagging their own homes.
“I’d turn around and there’d be a cooler standing on the sidewalk and it would be full of water,” she said. “Or I’d turn around and someone would be handing me sandwiches, and I’m like, ‘I don’t know you people, what are you doing this for?’ That was the good part of being in Manhattan in 1993 that made you realize that people cared.”
Akin also said one of her neighbors took her in for about three months until electricity was restored at her home. When it came to rebuilding the basement, Akin said her fellow church members at Westview Church helped gut the lower level and turn it into living quarters.
“The men (from the church), they’d work at night after they got off work,” she said. “They helped me terrific.”
Eventually, Akin said, she was able to transform the basement into a bed and breakfast, which she ran for about 11 years.
While Ebert remembers the summer of 1993 as frantic and crazed with people trying every method to save their homes, she says information these days is more available as people prepare for the possibility of another flooding event.
Water levels at the dam had been increasing steadily during the spring with more than 14 inches of rain falling in May alone, and the reservoir had nearly reached 100% capacity. A break from the rain as of late has allowed Corps officials to release about 25,000 to 30,000 cubic feet per second daily, lowering it to its current height of 1,130.83 feet as of June 8.
Ebert said she has seen people on social media give advice to those who weren’t around the area in 1993 as they dealt with the possibility of widespread flooding and evacuations.
″(Back then) we didn’t have time to make good decisions,” Ebert said. “My husband said I didn’t make rational decisions because emotion was taking over, and it’s true. I’ve watched it on Facebook and I think people that survived ’93 have tried to guide people.
“They say don’t do what we did and waste your time on this,” Ebert said. “Make sure you have a place to go, that you have flood insurance and documentation so that if FEMA moves in, you can prove some of these things. We didn’t know to take pictures at the time.”
Although the lake is currently going down, local officials still advise residents to remain alert for the summer, which Ebert supports.
“I feel much better about (the current situation) depending on the weather,” Ebert said. “If the weather and the good Lord above shines on Manhattan, Kansas, I think we’re going to be OK, but I’d say people can’t let their guard down yet and be prepared.”
Information from: The Manhattan (Kan.) Mercury, http://www.themercury.com