Before it was the year of the flood, it was the year of the rain. "Every day you would get up and think, 'maybe the rain will stop today,' " said Elaine Schroeder, then a secretary with the Des Moines County Emergency Management Agency.

Precipitation between April 1 and Aug. 31, 1993, approached 48 inches in Burlington, easily surpassing the area's normal annual rainfall of 30 to 36 inches.

The flood of 1993 was one of the biggest natural disasters to hit the United States. Damage exceeded $15 billion, 50 people died, 80 percent of the levees on the Upper Mississippi River failed and thousands of people were evacuated, some for months.

The flood was unusual for its height and its duration.

Autumn of 1992 was unusually wet. The winter that followed was long, cold and snowy. The layer of snow pack remaining over Iowa in March was the thickest since 1979. But as late as March 27, the National Weather Service insisted no major flooding was predicted.

However, above-normal spring rains started falling, throwing hydrological models out of whack.

A storm March 30 forced the Iowa River to record levels near Tama, and April 1 then - Gov. Terry Branstad declared eight counties disaster areas.

But the worst was yet to come.

Fortifications overwhelmed

On April 9, water seeped into tunnels beneath Memorial Auditorium and shut down the sewage system. Barge traffic on the Mississippi River was stalled April 19 as the locks at Gladstone, Illinois, were closed.

June 25, 1993 was the day river traffic was suspended. On the following day, 7 inches of rain fell on Burlington and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers didn't reopen the locks until Aug. 22.

"People were just emotionally drained because it was constantly raining," Schroeder said.

Dennis Standard recently had renovated the former Rock Island Railroad freight house in Burlington, turning it into Big Muddy's restaurant and bar.

Since its construction in 1898, the building had never flooded.

As the water level rose throughout June, sandbag barriers kept the building safe. A make-shift gang plank allowed restaurant patrons to come in through an elevated second-floor entrance.

"It turned us into an island," Standard said.

The persistent force of so much rushing water simply overwhelmed his fortifications, however, as the river neared its 25.1-foot crest July 12.

Standard recalled watching an enormous concrete block float off not long before his sandbag levee failed.

"The current was such that it just scooted it down the parking lot," he said. "Then we knew it was just a waiting game."

Vicki Stoller had just begun working in the Burlington office of U.S. Rep. Jim Ross Lightfoot.

"When the rains didn't quit, then we were looking at some problems," she said.

One by one, levees throughout her district began to fail. Even those that did not, such as the Tama Bottoms levee system north of Burlington, suffered from flooding.

"We couldn't get rid of the water fast enough," she said.

Seepage, saturation and drainage from the bluffs combined to fill the bowl the levees created.

"It just kept building," she said. "We just basically flooded from within."

From Stoller's Burlington office on North Third Street, she and another staffer manned the telephones as calls poured in. Desperate officials wanted pumps, sandbags and anything else they thought could help.

Benchmark passed

Until then, the 1965 flood was the benchmark against which others were measured. The Mississippi River reached 21 feet at Burlington in April of that year, and Gulfport, Illinois, was left inundated most of that summer.

That flood was due largely to snow melt. But in 1993, melting snow and continual rain combined in what scientists say were 500-to-1 odds and produced the worst flood the Midwest has known.

The Des Moines County Board of Supervisors quickly adopted a model flood plain ordinance after being told it was alone in not having one.

Tim Hoschek, sworn in as a new supervisor after the November 1992 election, was being asked to make decisions as his family's own Mississippi River cabin was filling with water.

The old cabin had been in the family for generations. His grandfather had taken pictures of the cabin during the 1965 flood.

"We thought it would get on the floor," Hoschek said, "but we didn't think it would get an inch from the ceiling."

Dennis Ostrander walked the levee July 1, a day before the rest of Burlington's Company A, 224th Engineer Battalion, was called to duty.

Assessing the situation with his commander, Ostrander said he walked to the earthen berm's crest and saw water even with the top of the levee — far above the level of the ground being protected below.

Troops and volunteers filled sandbags to raise the levee's height another foot. Ostrander and his soldiers worked day and night, patrolling the construction for boils and breaches when not actually hefting sandbags to shore it up.

The unit used whatever shelter was available, setting up its communication center in barns or in the backs of trucks as the troops moved along the levees.

"We were in somebody's back yard one night," he said.

Meanwhile, inmates at the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison were doing their part to help. About 200 prisoners either filled sandbags or helped to build sandbag walls.

Inmates from the minimum-security farms joined volunteers working to shore up levees, while those at the medium-security John Bennett facility filled sandbags for transport elsewhere.

Correctional Services Manager Ron Welder said the prison itself had to contend with its own flooding. A temporary entrance was constructed off First Street, with a road reaching around the facility's north wall.

Residents of the bluff-top subdivisions used the same temporary road to reach their homes.

"I never believed the water would rise high enough to close off the entrance of the institution," Welder said. "Even though you thought the water could not get any higher, it did."

The night of July 1, Gulfport, Illinois, was evacuated as the late Sheriff Pete Thompson feared the levee protecting the village would fail. Fortified with sandbags, plastic and plywood, the levee stood, but it would be weeks before residents would be allowed back into their homes.

Former Des Moines County Sheriff Joel Behne ordered pleasure boats off the river over the July 4 weekend as the water reached 22 feet — 6 inches higher than the 21.5-foot crest in 1973.

There wouldn't have been many boaters out anyway, since it poured rain all weekend.

The intersection of Burlington's Main and Division streets was turned into a lake, and all but essential business traffic was kept off Front Street as water covered the northbound lane.

A dank river smell hung over downtown Burlington as the parking lot between Memorial Auditorium and the Port of Burlington steadily disappeared under water.

Although there was a sandbag wall surrounding the auditorium, water rose from the inside July 7 and by midday there was three feet of swirling river water on the first floor.

Standard remembers the exact moment water came rushing into Big Muddy's. At about 1 p.m. on July 10, water reached an electrical transformer that supplied the establishment. After it shorted out, the place went dark and the refrigeration went off.

Customers still were coming in, he said, so he thought fast and devised a quick way to get everything out of the building.

Offering a free bottle of beer for every table or set of chairs carried out, Standard had the building empty in no time.

Most of the food was donated to charities, and Standard opened the north and south doors to allow the river to flow through unimpeded.

'Like Niagara Falls'

Rain continued to fall throughout July, and more National Guard troops were summoned to fight the high water.

The battle yielded mixed results.

While the Tama Bottoms levees held, those within the Green Bay Levee and Drainage District watched helplessly as the levee was breeched during the pre-dawn hours of July 12.

Bob Chesnut, at the time, Lee County's chief deputy sheriff, described the sound as "like Niagara Falls."

Some 40 volunteers on the scene were evacuated, and 14,000 acres of some of the state's richest farm ground was inundated within hours. It had been more than 40 years — 1951 — since there had been a flood in the area east of Wever.

Stoller recalled looking across the Green Bay Bottoms after the levee gave way.

"It's hard to describe," she said. "You see dead animals, a great deal of mud, devastation of houses that were beautiful homes. There are no words that adequately describe the aftermath."

While she said the Federal Emergency Management Agency did all it could to help, Stoller said many weren't ready for the agency's applications and forms.

"People assumed that everyone would receive repair funds, and it wasn't like that," she said.

Walking with Gov. Branstad, Hoschek recalled being promised workers and supplies to help protect the Tama Bottoms.

Hoschek said Branstad remained true to his word.

"The governor said he'd get them here, and he did," he said.

Stoller said she mostly recalls the faces of those who lost all they had.

Flood victims stared at their devastated homes with a certain far-away look common only to combat veterans and those who have lived through disaster.

Sometimes it was difficult to face those who hadn't suffered after being among so many who had.

One day, Ostrander recalled, he was given a break. Some of the troops had the opportunity to return to town.

"We came back into Burlington and here were all these people mowing their yards ... almost like they didn't know it was happening," he said.

Hoschek remembers the first time he was able to return to his family's cabin.

"We had an old wooden table that we had all played cards on," he said. "The old round table just fell apart in our hands."

Nature's revenge

In previous floods, the river had risen and fallen relatively quickly. This time though, the water came up and remained high for months. The Mississippi River at Burlington didn't fall below the official 15-foot flood stage until Sept. 11.

"There was nothing we could salvage except for some pictures," Hoschek said.

Big Muddy's didn't reopen until fall, after Standard borrowed a substantial amount of money from the Small Business Administration and spent thousands to repair and rebuild.

With the doors open, most of the mud was allowed to wash away. But he discovered a different problem once he was able to return.

"Just about everything that was in the Mississippi was in there," he said.

There were snakes on the bar, raccoons in the rafters and turtles and frogs just about everywhere else.

"It became a safe haven for everything that was on the islands," he said.

Standard caught a walleye in a pool of water trapped inside the bar.

"I basically started over," he said.

Water wins

Standard said he doesn't for a second believe the 1993 flood will be the last one to rise so high, last so long or cause so much destruction.

"The Grand Canyon is where it is because water wins," he said. "Never say never."

But there is nowhere he'd rather be than beside the banks of the Mississippi River, he said. In fact, following the flood, Standard expanded his restaurant operation at the former freighthouse, converting the formerly empty south end into Big Muddy's Other End, which is used for parties and functions. Vintage photos of the former railroad facility that decorate the walls now include historic flood photos taken during Standard's tenure.

After the flood, Stoller became director of the Two Rivers Levee and Drainage Association. She's became in charge of making sure the levees in the Tama Bottoms area are prepared for another flood like the one 10 years ago.

Even after seeing what the river can do at its worst, she said, it's no different than anywhere else.

On the East Coast, nature takes its revenge in the form of hurricanes. The West has earthquakes and fires. Other places have tornadoes or deadly blizzards.

"Where would you go that you would not or could not be devastated by an act of God?" Stoller said.

Hoschek said he'll never leave.

"We've seen, in my lifetime, several major floods on this river," he said. "But I wouldn't want to live anywhere else."