NWNL Press

NWNL Press

More photos by Alison on this subject in Flood of ’93 Photo Gallery.

Photos profile courage:
Norwalker helps Midwest victims,
depicts flooding

By Dominick Mariani, Correspondent
The Connecticut Post, Sunday, August 15, 1993

NORWALK – Alison MacEwan [Jones] knows what it is like to be in the right place at both the right and wrong time.

Ste. Genevieve’s Main Street

It was the wrong time for the residents of more than one Mississippi River border town who were fighting for survival against nature’s fury. But for MacEwan [Jones], a Norwalk photojournalist who happened to be in the area on a travel photographic assignment, the flooding waters became the impetus for her to pursue a lifelong ambition to capture cultures in action, in prose as well as pictures.

She has written movingly about her experience helping strangers sandbagging a levee to save their historic town of Ste. Genevieve, Mo. And she took pictures that capture the surging river, the sandbags and bulldozers, and the courage and determination.

Why did she choose Missouri in the first place?

“One thing was the hills, the other was the Mark Twain / Tom Sawyer-like atmosphere in Hannibal, Harry Truman’s home in Independence and all that colorful river traffic. But the river activity didn’t turn out exactly as I planned,” MacEwan [Jones] said, chuckling.

“I started out in the Ozark Mountains,” she explained. “I heard news reports about the flooding, but I didn’t want to get side-tracked. I had come to capture the Midwest, its character, its values. But eventually the river pulled me toward it.”

Murals representing French and US characters of Ste. Genevieve

And eventually MacEwan [Jones] got what she came for. Her pictures are not about the flood but the grit and guts of Midwesterners and their Herculean efforts to save the community and regain control over their lives.

Ste. Genevieve, a town of 4.400 people named after the French saint, was founded in the 1730’s by French farmers. It is reputed to be one of the first towns settled west of the Mississippi River.

Southern Hotel above the flood line in Ste. Genevieve

Ironically, only a few months ago Ste. Genevieve was put on the National Trust for Historical Preservation’s list of endangered localities, along with the whole state of Vermont, Thomas Edison’s home in New Jersey, parts of Montana and New Orleans, and other places.

Unlike some of its neighbors along the Mississippi who did not want a levee obstructing their river views, Ste. Genevieve wanted the U. S. Corps of Engineers to build a protecting levee, but could not afford it. The town had recently been trading houses of value to the government in exchange for dollars.

Home unprotected by the levee, Ste. Genevieve

But all that has changed now, as MacEwan’s [Jones’] photos chronicle.

“The real tragedy is they don’t expect the water to completely subside until well into September,” she said. “I just talked to friends back there today and the flood level has decreased to 47.5 feet from its crest of 49.5.”

Two of MacEwan’s [Jones’] friends are Karen and Ken Kulberg, owners of Ste. Genevieve’s Main Street Inn, where she was staying until the authorities ordered an evacuation. She’s also friends with Barbara and Michael Hankins, owners of the Southern Inn, where she retreated to safer ground.

Both places are restored historic inns that offer bed and breakfast, and their owners hope to reopen in a couple of weeks.

Sandbags on Main St., Ste. Genevieve

According to recent estimates of the flood’s devastation, about $200 million in damages was done to the nation’s rail lines and bridges, 500 miles of highway was damaged, and farmers suffered about $8 billion in crop damage.

“I was so impressed with the kindness and heroic nature of the people. I’ll never forget the experience,” MacEwan [Jones] said. “And their sense of humor was always evident.

Some of the signs she remembered seeing and photographing read “Sandbagger Wanted – No Experience Necessary,” “Free Benefits,” “Tetanus Shots Available” and “Hot Food.”

National Guard protecting 4th St. Bridge, Ste. Genevieve

MacEwan [Jones], whose own home in the Rowayton section of Norwalk was flooded by the chilly waters of Long Island Sound last December, thought she knew something about the power of water. But she learned the intricacies of sandbagging on the job as she kept her cameras, lenses, tripod and light meter close at hand.

She sandbagged for a week with grandfathers reminiscing about fish fries, tombstone inscribers, the wife of an Amish swine farmer, teens cycling across the country, police, sheriffs, geologists, surveyors, canoeists and National Guardsmen who came armed with shovels, not rifles.

Not to mention Robert Hersey, who works at the Municipal Court with young offenders in Perryville, Mo. and Ste. Genevieve. Hersey gets “hissyfit” when parents can pay fines for their children instead of letting them work it off in community service. He had them all out sandbagging at the Chester Bridge.

National Guard and residents sandbagging together, Ste. Genevieve

MacEwan [Jones] worked with mothers and daughters who were not particularly close and families who had not spoken to one another in years. But the flood, the work and their spirit reunited them.

“I tried to shoot buildings before the water got to them and then after they were flooded,” MacEwan [Jones] said. “But sometimes I couldn’t move fast enough. You just had to help out.”

She plans to return to Ste. Genevieve when things finally dry out, perhaps to continue a series of before, during and after photos. She wanted to go immediately back after her work in Commerce and Cape Girardeau, but a car accident forced her to come home.

Flooded wishing well, Perely MO

Her work has appeared in solo and group exhibits around the state, and she has worked on projects for the Americares Foundation in New Canaan, the Stamford City Ballet and the Stamford public schools.

Her travel photos include East Africa, the Caribbean, Western Europe, the western United States and coastal New England.

“What I try to do is capture cultures, in crisis like Ste. Genevieve or otherwise,” MacEwan [Jones] said. “The Midwest is different than New England and that’s what I wanted to show, a tapestry of life.”

She calls her technique [a process of] “reduction,” taking photos “with enough intensity to distill the essence at a scene into one image.”

MacEwan [Jones] aspires to make people look at things we overlook or often take for granted, like her new friends in Ste. Genevieve, who will never look at the Mississippi River in quite the same way again.

This article is reprinted from the Connecticut Post, Bridgeport, CT, Sunday, August 15, 1993.