"I knew I was going to die."
So said Tom Stevens, recalling the day he figured his life was over at age 12.
"You get so scared, you just surrender your life," he said Thursday after a program on the history of Floyd River floods at the Sioux City Public Museum. The program was part of the museum's ongoing free noontime brown-bag series, "History at High Noon."
On Thursday, Stevens, now 72 and a retired iron worker, described the fear he felt as floodwaters filled his home at 304 Court St.
On June 8, 1953, after heavy rains fell north of Sioux City, a wall of water swept down the Floyd River Valley, killing 14 people and ruining homes, industries, businesses and the stockyards. More than 2,000 people were left homeless.
Stevens' home was in the South Bottoms near the packing plants and the river. When the water hit, it moved the small house off its foundation, lodging it in some nearby trees.
"We would have gone right in the river otherwise," Stevens said. "I was so scared, I was going to swim across it. And I couldn't swim. My ma wouldn't let me go."
For six hours, he stood chest-deep in dirty, stinking water along with his mother and grandmother until being rescued by the Army National Guard.
The flood caused $24 million in damage, which would amount to $150 million today, Matt Anderson of the Sioux City Public Museum said during his talk last Thursday. Anderson wrote his master's thesis at St. Cloud State University, St. Cloud, Minn., on on the history of the Floyd floods.
From the standpoint of loss of life and property, the 1953 flood "ranks among the most disastrous on record for streams of its size in the Missouri River basin," according to an engineer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who was quoted in a Journal story.
"Between 1870 and 1953, the Floyd flooded more than 60 times," Anderson told the 15 in attendance at his presentation."There were four terrible floods that did millions of dollars in damage. At least 45 people were killed -- 39 in Sioux City and six in Sioux County."
The deadliest one took place on May 18, 1892. At least 25 people died.
"It forced the Union Stockyards into bankruptcy," he said. "Sioux City lost half its population" due to the destruction of the stockyards and packing plants, coupled with a national depression. "It took more than 20 years for Sioux City to recover."
In the early part of the 20th Century, the Floyd Valley filled with new packing plants, the Stockyards, industries and railroads. Some smaller floods in 1926 and 1934 caused damage.
Northwest Iowa Congressman Charles Hoeven, from Alton, introduced the first flood control legislation in 1944 and saw it through two presidential vetoes. The $20 million channelization of the Floyd was finished in 1964. The new channel eliminated most of Springdale and the East and South Bottoms neighborhoods.
Since then, the Floyd hasn't flooded. The industrial area now carries the congressman's name -- Hoeven Valley, as does Hoeven Drive.
Stevens said surviving the '53 flood changed his life. For one thing, he and his wife, Gert, live on a hill on the city's west side.
"I think it was the best thing that ever happened to me -- you realize you can die quickly. And I think it made me a more caring person."