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Archive for Wednesday, July 14, 1993

51

July 14, 1993

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On this day 42 years ago, pilot Delbert Richardson had a bird's-eye view of a devastating flood that turned North Lawrence into a lake.

"I saw small buildings floating and I also saw roofs where the water was just rippling over the top of them," he said after one flight over the city.

In an interview Tuesday, Richardson said he and other Lawrence pilots used Piper Vagabond planes to coordinate rescue efforts, ferry marooned people to hospitals, transport mail and equipment, and allow photographers to record the flood.

In 1993, flooding has returned to North Lawrence.

"The flooding now is not even close to the '51 flood," said Richardson, 78. "We found people stranded on roofs. They had to be rescued by boat.

"You have to understand, communications were knocked out everywhere. We used short-wave radios to communicate."

In 1951, the rampaging Kansas River flowed at an average width of three to four miles in North Lawrence. The river swept away houses, barns and cars.

No lives were lost in Lawrence. However, Richardson said it was difficult for North Lawrence residents who lost their belongings to see a bright side to the tragedy.

"Everybody cooperated," he said. "People opened up their hearts and helped."

Because the Lawrence airport was completely flooded, Richardson and the other pilots used Kansas Highway 10 for a temporary landing strip.

"To take off," Richardson said, "we flew under two wires and then cleared a third."

At the peak of the flood July 13, 1951, the water was 30.4 feet at one Lawrence measuring station. That was 12 feet above the river's banks at that station.

Record rainfall throughout the Kansas River basin brought the floodwater to eastern Kansas. In Lawrence, 16.5 inches of rain fell from June 20 to July 13, 1951.

The city actually fought two floods during that period. On June 23, 1951, the river reached 25.6 feet.

Volunteers prevented serious damage during the first surge, but nothing could stop the deluge that came three weeks later.

Richardson said he would fly people over their abandoned, flooded homes and farms. They insisted on personally checking the condition of their property.

"They'd see their house and just sit there and start crying. It was very emotional. Many of these people had no insurance," he said.

When the floodwater receded, mud was everywhere. The remaining houses and buildings in North Lawrence had a layer of silt on the floor. It some places the slime was 2 feet deep.

"The people of North Lawrence dug themselves out without much federal aid," he said.

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