So in case you were wondering, I just might be responsible for all of the rain that fell in the middle of Kansas during the month of June.
I took a week off to paint the exterior of my house, which, apparently, serves as a much stronger rain dance than washing one’s car. Before long, the ground was too saturated to support a ladder, the woodwork too wet to take a coat of paint. Once the rivers started to flood, we abandoned any pretext of painting for one of Emporia’s favorite past times, flood watching.
As long as no one is in imminent danger, a good Cottonwood River flood brings our little community out for a sort of impromptu festival. As the river approaches the 26-foot mark on the giant measuring stick near the historic bridge at Soden’s Grove, the south side of Highway 99 vanishes under the current, and the bridge is closed to traffic. There is something exhilarating about walking onto a highway bridge cars can’t cross, a gleeful sense of being somewhere one normally can’t be. Couples stroll down the bridge hand-in-hand; parents keep a firm grip on their kids while sharing with them a force of nature.
Fifty-nine years ago, no one in his/her right mind would have wondered out onto the bridge during a flood.
Kansas is a land of extreme weather. Heavy rain, heavy snow, tornadoes, wind, and drought conditions can all happen within a couple of months. There was a reason why there were no truly permanent, established settlements in this area; the weather could wipe out any construction in a blink of an eye. In a relatively flat state with a lot of clay and limestone in its geological composition, several weeks of rain could result in flooding acres and miles of farmland and cities.
An old-timer from this area described to me what it was like to stand on the top floor of his family’s farm house, watching helplessly as the water swept away his cattle before washing through the first floor of his home. A history of Coffey County describes the wall of water that tumbled through downtown Burlington during the 1920s, drowning people and horses, after a single day of heavy rain. Thousands of pictures document houses in water as deep as their second floor windows and citizens paddling boats down main streets.
After at least one major flood almost every decade since the state’s inception, Kansans began to consider the necessity of reshaping the landscape to control the feast-or-famine personality of Kansas’ waterways. Beginning in the 1940s, the Army Corps of Engineers began constructing reservoirs and man-made lakes throughout the state – Tuttle Creek, John Redmond Reservoir, and Wilson Lake, to name but a few. Locating these water systems was not as simple as digging holes and building dams. In some cases, the most logical place for a reservoir was on top of a town in a flood plain. After petitioning for a reservoir in Coffey County, the citizens of Strawn were shocked to learn that the new lake would flow over their town, and relocated to New Strawn.
It can be argued that some places aren’t meant to be lived in, that our tinkering with nature has permanently altered the prairie landscape. In some ways this is true, and FEMA has, over time, bought out numerous property owners in places like Elmsdale and Wolcott to prevent further loss of life and property. On the other hand, these reservoirs and wetlands provide havens for wildlife, a consistent supply of safe water, and greatly reduce the destruction of erosion during flash floods.
And they help even out the highs and lows, greatly reducing the level of destruction that had been a regular part of Kansas life.