Archive for Sunday, July 1, 2001

Could it happen again?

July 1, 2001


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The Rev. A.L. Parker man-euvered the sedan carrying teen-ager Alice Fowler and her family around a torrent of water that tore through North Lawrence with a ferocity that gives her chills 50 years later.

Wakefield Dort has been studying the Kansas River for a quarter
century. As storm clouds loom, Dort keeps watch on the
fastest-eroding bend in the Kaw, the Eudora Bend.

Wakefield Dort has been studying the Kansas River for a quarter century. As storm clouds loom, Dort keeps watch on the fastest-eroding bend in the Kaw, the Eudora Bend.

"As we drove down Elm Street, water was flooding the car," Fowler said. "We turned onto the bridge and then heard a big noise. Right behind us, the whole intersection was washed out.

"It was just like a great big hand scooped out the intersection and threw it in the river. If we had been a few seconds slower, every one of us would have been lost."

Fowler, 67, chalks survival up to divine intervention, but many folks around Lawrence thought the fury of the Kansas River capable of overwhelming anything and anybody Supreme Being or otherwise as it crested about 15 feet above flood stage on "Black Friday," July 13, 1951.

Fifty years hasn't dimmed Fowler's memories of the above-normal precipitation in May and June and the 16-inch deluge from July 9 to July 13 that produced the 20th century's largest flood in Kansas.

But, for most Kansans, the reservoirs and levees built since 1951 to contain eastern Kansas waterways have rendered the disaster a history-book oddity.

Alice Fowler, Lawrence, was a little girl during the Flood of 1951.
She remembers her mother coming out and telling her to get out of
the water she was wading in.

Alice Fowler, Lawrence, was a little girl during the Flood of 1951. She remembers her mother coming out and telling her to get out of the water she was wading in.

"Time allows us to forget how bad the flood was," said Charles Perry, a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Lawrence. "These floods were a terrible disaster and caught a lot of people unaware."

Water-logged land

Flooding in Kansas and Missouri, directly or indirectly, killed 19 people and injured 1,000, according to the American Red Cross.

From headwaters of the Kansas River near Junction City to the Missouri River's mouth at St. Louis, about 2 million acres were flooded, 45,000 homes were damaged or destroyed and 17 major bridges, some laden with 340,000-pound locomotives, were washed away. Prime farmland was buried in sand and silt.

One-third of the U.S. Geological Survey's streamflow meters recorded the highest flows in state history. Ninety percent of the flow of the Missouri River at Kansas City came from the Kansas River, a tributary that represented only 12 percent of the Missouri River's drainage basin.

Property damage was estimated at $2.5 billion, which equates to $17 billion in 2000 dollars.

In Lawrence, there was never any reason to exaggerate the extent of personal trauma, property damage and business disruptions caused by the flood.

Truth was bad enough.

La Merle McCoy waited anxiously on high ground on the south side of the Kansas River for word about the fate of her North Lawrence home. The best-case scenario would be a house on its foundation, but soaked to the core and fouled by debris. Maybe the stench of raw sewage wouldn't be too bad. Of course, every living thing in her yard would be dead.

"People came back and said it was gone," said Arlene Wilson, McCoy's sister. "It was odd. The house was gone, but the mailbox was still standing there."

By July 13, North Lawrence appeared as if it was swallowed by a lake. Businesses and homes were submerged. Most of the livestock that didn't leave by train or freight drowned, with survivors stranded on rooftops.

The single bridge across the river in Lawrence was shut down early in the day.

"Not because the bridge is weakened, but because there is no place for people to go when they cross the bridge," City Commissioner John Crown said at the time.

Most of the 2,000 North Lawrence residents were evacuated, including stragglers by boat. All roads into and out of Lawrence were impassable, making the city practically an island. Union Pacific and Santa Fe tracks were under water.

Fifty years later, a painted line on buildings at Teepee Junction and in the administrative offices of Westvaco (now Astaris) mark the high-water point.

Conditions weren't much better elsewhere. The Marais de Cygnes River drenched Ottawa, the Delaware River inundated Perry and the Wakarusa River seeped into areas south of Lawrence. Extensive flooding occurred in north Topeka and in industrial areas of Kansas City.

"Lots of cities lost their water supplies," Perry said.

In DeSoto, pumpkin farmer Darrel Zimmerman worked on the family crop and livestock operation in the Kansas River floodplain.

"I remember that when the floodwater went down, it left thick layers of black sediment. It would dry and crack like jigsaw pieces," he said.

In other places, sand was the major agricultural obstacle. Huge plows pulled by two Caterpillar tractors were brought in to turn the soil 6 feet deep.

"After the flood most people were interviewed about their losses," Zimmerman said. "Our family had a gift brought to us. We have cottonwood and sycamore trees along the river. In the flood, they caught a chicken house. My dad pulled it up to the farm. We have chickens in it today."

Levees to the rescue

If anything positive came from the Flood of '51, it was that the raging waterways served as a catalyst for federal flood-prevention measures in Kansas. President Harry Truman used the destruction to help sell a flood control plan to Congress.

Advocates for flood-stricken areas developed the slogan: "This must never happen again."

Until the 1950s, the occasional "big flood" was viewed as a necessary evil that the nation couldn't afford to control.

"The opposition had said it was too costly for the benefits," said Dale Nimz, an environmental history doctoral student at Kansas University who has studied Kansas River flooding.

With opposition swept away, the Flood Control Act of 1954 authorized construction of reservoirs and levees in the Kansas and Marais de Cygnes river basins.

The idea was that Clinton, Perry, Tuttle Creek and Milford reservoirs would knock the top off a massive flood. The levees would retain much of the rest.

The human cost of these preventive measures wasn't lost on Zimmerman.

He was aware many farms and towns 11 in the case of the Tuttle Creek Reservoir would be sacrificed to control flooding along rivers.

"I remember how much empathy my parents had for the people who had to give up their farms to build Tuttle Creek," Zimmerman said.

Also in 1954, the Federal Soil and Conservation Act organized watershed districts in Kansas. Thousands of miles of farm terraces and hundreds of small reservoirs were built in these districts. These structures help to hold soil and slow drainage.

Federal laws designed to limit construction in floodplains were passed in 1968 and 1973. For example, new construction had to be built above the 100-year flood elevation.

This broad approach to flood control was put to a test in 1993 when eastern Kansas received precipitation reminiscent of the '51 flood. Rainfall pushed the Kansas River at Lecompton nearly 8 feet over flood stage.

"Without the levees, these cities would have been flooded," Perry said. "Without the reservoirs, Manhattan and Kansas City would have had their levees overtopped."

Flood of '51, Chapter 2

Can it happen again?

"It is possible, conceivably possible, to get a flood through here that is much bigger than the '51 flood," said Wakefield Dort, a professor emeritus of geology at Kansas University.

"It would be a rare occurrence and it would require just the right mix of weather conditions," said Dort, who has studied the Kansas River for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

He said a flow of equal or greater magnitude is possible given the right combination of circumstances. A major flood could result if excessive rainfall occurred at a time when the Kansas River basin was saturated and the area's reservoirs were full.

Nimz said flood-control systems shouldn't be viewed as flood-prevention networks.

"In the United States in the 20th century, we seem to be determined to control nature. Yet, we find nature is very unpredictable and probably more powerful that we can imagine," he said.

Kansas has experienced huge floods in a general 50-year cycle: 1844, 1903 and 1951. If history is a guide to the future, another whopper flood may be around the corner.

The risk of another major flood will always be with us. When, where and how much is out of anyone's guess.

"It's sort of like forecasting the big earthquake in San Francisco," Dort said.

The next major flood will be accompanied by better warning for citizens. Weather news is big business now and people should have days to prepare for a hydrological onslaught.

Fowler said she wouldn't wish a flood on her worst enemy.

"In 1951, at first, it was an exciting thing," she said. "But when I came back into North Lawrence and we smelled the stench from dead animals and we smelled the sewage, it hit home what kind of situation we were dealing with."

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