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Flood For Your Right to Party? – Now I Know

In the spring of 1993, it rained in the Midwestern United States. That’s not unusual — rain and spring go hand in hand — but that year, it rained a lot, and didn’t seem to ever stop. The Mississippi and Missouri Rivers — the two longest U.S. rivers — and many of their tributaries flooded. In total, the Great Flood of 1993, as it is now called, did nearly $30 billion in damages (in today’s dollars) and claimed dozens of lives.

And while the floods were a natural disaster, one man — James Scott — is in prison for his role in the disaster.

Scott was born in 1969, in the suburbs of Quincy, Illinois, a city of about 40,000 people that sits on the banks of the Missouri River, bordering the state of Missouri. (Here’s a map.) His early life made him known to area authorities; he committed a number of crimes, including burning down his former elementary school. By the time the floods started, he had spent time in six different prisons. But during that summer, he was out on parole, once again living outside of Quincy.

Like many people in the area, he pitched in when the rains got heavy. West Quincy — the area directly across from Quincy but on the Missouri side of the river — was home to a levee designed to prevent the river from overflowing. But the storms from the preceding weeks and months had taken a toll on the levee. Several people, including Scott, helped reinforce the structure, and on July 16, 1993, it seemed like it would hold — the river had stopped swelling and its water level was a foot or two lower than the levee.

Unfortunately, that assumption proved incorrect. The levee broke that night, and chaos ensued. Floods ripped through a 14,000-acre (21 square mile/57 km2) area, drowning nearly everything in site, as seen above. A pair of barges escaped the river and made their way onto what was previously dry land, and one of those barges struck a gas station, which burst into flames. The flood knocked out all the bridges across the river for a 200-mile (320 km) radius for weeks and destroyed multiple West Quincy businesses. Thankfully, no one was killed.

Authorities were suspicious about the breach. As the Washington Post reported, “Law enforcement officials and local residents suspected foul play because the break occurred at one of the strongest points in the levee system. Thousands of workers had placed more than a million sandbags to protect access to the Bayview Bridge that joins Quincy, Ill., and West Quincy, Mo. The structure was reinforced by a three-foot wall of sand, a layer of plastic and sandbags.” And unfortunately for Scott, he was on-site right before the levee broke. We know this because shortly after the disaster, a local news reporter went to the scene to get the story, saw Scott, and interviewed him. Scott told the reporter that he had gone to the levee and thought that it looked like it could fall, so he tossed a few sandbags on it and then went to the bar. When he came back, the levee had broken. It was a reasonable story, but Scott’s reputation preceded him, and the authorities’ pre-existing belief that something was amiss combined into him being a suspect. When local law enforcement saw the interview, they questioned his motives for being at the levee just before it broke and opened an investigation.

That investigation led them to witnesses who articulated a possible nefarious motive — Scott, allegedly, just wanted to party. As the appeals court summarized, “two witnesses [heard] statements made by Scott after the levee failure, which indicated he wanted to cause a flood so his wife would be trapped on the other side of the river and he would be free to party and engage in an extramarital affair. [S]everal witnesses testified that in the days before the levee failure, Scott made statements about tearing down the West Quincy Levee ‘to get his wife stuck over there so he could have a party and some stuff,’ and so ‘he could have parties at his house, and so there would be real good fishing over in the fields after it broke.’” Scott was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. The conviction was tossed on appeal but prosecutors retried him, and the second jury found him similarly guilty.

To this day, Scott maintains his innocence — and there may be good reason to suspect that he’s telling the truth. Journalist Adam Pitluk has been following his case for roughly two decades, and in an interview with Vice, made the case that Scott was simply an easy scapegoat for a community looking for someone to blame for the Great Flood. For example, civil engineering experts, including one interviewed by Vice, argued that the levee wasn’t nearly as strong as the local authorities believed; rather, it was a natural weak spot. And one of the key witnesses against Scott was a local official in charge of the levee — who also happened to be one of the largest landowners on the Missouri side of the river, and therefore, one of the largest victims of the flooding. As Pitluk noted, that witness had a financial incentive to find a human cause of the catastrophe: “for the farmers to be made whole, they needed a scapegoat to have an insurance claim, because they did not have [flood insurance]. They did have homeowners insurance, that covered vandalism, so were it not for someone vandalizing the levee, they would not be able to file a claim.”

Scott is next up for parole in 2026.

Bonus fact: In 2012, Missouri was on the other end of a water problem — a drought had hit the area. This posed a unique danger for a rural farmer named John Sam Williamson. On his farm is “The Big Tree,” a 350-year-old burr oak tree, the largest known burr oak in the United States. (The tree is legitimately famous — it even has its own Wikipedia entry, and yes, there’s a photo at that link.) That August, Chris Starbuck, a local professor who studied plant life, told Williamson that the Big Tree was parched and not likely to survive without a lot of water. This time, the Missouri River played hero. Williamson secured an 850-gallon tank, filled it up at the river, and hauled the water back to the tree. And then he did it a few more times, too. In total, according to NPR, “Williamson figures he gave The Big Tree about 3,000 gallons of water.” The tree survived.

From the Archives: When the First Responder is Also a Disaster: James Scott may be an innocent man in prison for his role in making a disaster worse. James Clark, the subject of this story, also went to prison for making a disaster worse — and no one questions his guilt.

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