Peoples' Weather Map


The Flood of 1993 and The Bridges of Madison County

Madison county, Iowa

Beck O’Brien


The summer of 1993, all 99 counties in Iowa were declared Federal Disaster Areas, due to catastrophic flooding. According to a 2014 report by Jeff Zogg, Senior Hydrologist at the National Weather Service WFO in Des Moines, the flood of 1993 was the worst flood Iowa had ever experienced, as far as statewide impact goes. In Madison County that July, those involved in tourism were concerned about one particular element of county infrastructure: the bridges.

“When torrential rains in central Iowa sent the Raccoon and Des Moines rivers surging over their banks Saturday, Sherry Ellis, director of the Chamber of Commerce, said she drove immediately to the bridges, which cross assorted tributaries of the Des Moines River.” Ellis was likely eager to make sure the county’s main tourist attraction was still safe for the public to visit.

The six red bridges in the Winterset area were made famous by the New York Times best-selling romance novel, The Bridges of Madison County by Robert Waller, published just a year prior to the floods, in 1992. Upon hearing of the devastating floods in Iowa, Waller called the Winterset Chamber of Commerce to make sure the bridges had survived. He was met with a positive response that July; all six wooden bridges were still intact. In fact, the flooding streams below never even touched the bottom of them.

But much of Iowa’s infrastructure was not so lucky to weather the floods unharmed. Damages at the time totaled $2.7 billion, which in 2018 dollars is about $4.7 billion. The flood damaged 21,000 homes, and over 10,000 people had to be evacuated from their houses. Seventeen people died.

The Flood of 1993 transpired for a number of reasons. For one, the cold growing season in 1992 meant that the soil retained a significant amount of water. Rain was high in fall of 1992. The winter led to one of the “greatest snow packs in state history in early March.” Heavy rainfall in the spring and summer were the last straw on the camel’s back. It was the perfect combination for a terrific flood.

Just north of Madison County, the city of Des Moines lost its public water supply, due to the Raccoon River floodwaters overwhelming the Des Moines Water Works on July 11th. Soon after, an ad ran in the Fort Madison Daily Democrat that said “wanted: more toilets.” Des Moines had no running water for 250,000 people and was looking for portable toilets for its residents.

While Madison County tourism was unharmed by the weather, Solon, in Johnson County, was not so lucky. For the first time since the celebration began in the 1920s, the town called off its annual “Solon Beef Days.” The town was “worried about heavy traffic on Highway 1 that runs through town” since Interstate 380 and Iowa Highway 965 were closed. The closure of the annual festival surely hurt local businesses “that depend on the 20,000 visitors the event attracts every July.”

As assessed in 2014, the flood of 1993 was the worst flood to affect the state of Iowa in its modern history. However, many other floods have devastated the Hawkeye State since. The flood of 2008 is also remembered in Iowa history as particularly devastating and was even more focused and intense than the 1993 flood, but since it did not affect as wide an area and did not last as long as the 1993 flood, it comes in second. In third place is the Great Flood of 1851; in fourth, the Rockdale Flood of July 4, 1876; and tied for fifth, The Mississippi River Flood of 1965 and the Missouri River Flood of 1952.  The 2019 floods in the Missouri and Mississippi River Basins and points in between is one of a number of major Iowa floods since 1993.

Sources: on-line: Jeff Zogg, “The Top Five Iowa Floods,” National Weather Service WFO, Des Moines, Iowa (March 2014); Mary Neubauer, “Famed Bridges Survive Flooding,” in The Hawk Eye, (Friday, July 16, 1993), Newspaper Archive; Associated Press, “Eastern Iowa still deluged by water” in Daily Democrat, Fort Madison, Iowa (July 16, 1993), Newspaper Archive.