Tag Archives: Floods

My Favorite Books About the Weather

Right at this very moment, it’s pretty darned cold here in Kansas, and the temperatures are just beginning to drop. We have about 3 inches of snow on the ground in Ottawa (though the drifting makes it hard to guess just how much we really got last night) and I was shoveling snow in a -10 degree wind, giving up when the fog on my fogged-up glasses froze. I love my old 1901 house, but I’m really thankful for the double-pane glass replacement windows right now. They’re not as pretty as the original double-hung wood-frame windows probably were, but I suspect even the original owners of our home would prefer the replacement windows to a cold and drafty house.

Cold weather makes me want to curl up on the couch and read, and right now, I’m binging on books about weather. Some of them are about Kansas weather, some of them are about weather on the plains, some of them are about weather on the coasts. All of them are about what happens when humans don’t understand that the earth’s weather patterns are so much bigger than we are and try to defy it. And thanks to the miracle of eReaders, online shopping, and online library services, I don’t even have to go out into the weather to read about it.

Here are some of my favorite weather books. I’d love to hear your recommendations, too!


The Children’s Blizzard by David Laskin

The Children's Blizzard by David LaskinIn 1888, a powerful cold front blew across the Dakota-Nebraska Prairie, turning a comfortable winter day into a raging blizzard as children began their walks home from their rural one-room school houses. By the next morning, more than 100 children were found dead on the prairie. Laskin does an incredible job of weaving together the stories of nature, the fledgling U.S. weather service, and the lives of immigrants who didn’t understand their the weather patterns of their chosen homeland. You’ll become very attached to these children as he tells their story, and you won’t know who survived and who didn’t until the end of the book.

Blizzard! The Storm That Changed America by Jim Murphy

Blizzard! by Jim MurphyA few months after the Children’s Blizzard, a catastrophic blizzard hit New York. What makes this book fascinating is that it’s an account not only of the devastating storm, but also the resulting overhaul in municipal policy, such as the development of city-wide snow removal and the burying of power lines. This book was written for a YA audience, but it is a great read for adults, too.


The Great Hurricane: 1938 by Cherie Burns

Great Hurricane: 1938Burns gives an hour-by-hour account of a powerful hurricane that took New England completely by surprise. She also paints a picture of the people on the coast that day–the wealthy in their mansions and the poor who worked in and alongside the ocean. It’s an interesting account of a bygone era as well as a cautionary tale of how vulnerable any of us–regardless of wealth or power–are when it comes to the weather.

Johnstown Flood by David McCullough

Johnstown Flood by David McCulloughWe’ve all heard about the 1889 flood that wiped out Johnstown, Pennsylvania. What most of us don’t realize is how a handful of industrialists–Andrew Carnegie, Henry Flick, and Andrew Mellon–were part of the reason why it was so devastating. More than 2,000 lives were lost when heavy rains caused the dam at their improperly maintained private lake to burst, sending a wall of water into Johnstown. This book is also an account of the newly formed American Red Cross, which was called into action to help the survivors.


And Hell Followed With It: Life and Death in a Kansas Tornado by Bonar Menninger

And Hell Followed With It by Bonar MenningerI’ve recommended this one before, and I’ll recommend it again. This is an well-written account of the 1966 tornado that destroyed much of Topeka, Kansas, as well as the efforts of various citizens who worked to keep the public informed of its path. It’s chilling to think about how many lives would have been lost had the radio and weather people not worked on a homegrown warning system.

The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan

The Worst Hard Time by Timothy EganMuch like Laskin’s Children’s Blizzard, Egan’s book really demonstrates the peril of not understanding your environment. The Worst Hard Time is a powerful account of the people who moved to areas like Western Kansas, Eastern Colorado, and Western Oklahoma, and how their farming and ranching practices, combined with natural weather patterns, created the Dust Bowl. It’s an important read for anyone who wants to understand just how quickly we can alter the landscape. Also, I found my lungs seizing up just reading about all of that dust in the air.


Warnings: The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather by Mike Smith

Warnings by Mike SmithAnd here’s the book I’m reading now: a history of storm prediction and the development of a storm warning system, as told by meteorologist Mike Smith, who himself witnessed the Ruskin Heights Tornado. This book does not make me feel fond of the earlier leadership at the National Weather Service, who actively discouraged tornado research and the issuing of tornado warnings, but it does make me want to cheer for the meteorologists who pursued it both for science and the common good. Also, I never realized how scary flying in a plane would have been before meteorologists discovered downdrafts. Eeek.

Happy reading!

Sunday Snapshot: Ottawa Cottonwood Tree

Cottonwood Tree, Ottawa, Kansas

A large cottonwood tree stands in a pocket of  land between K-68 and the Marais des Cygnes River.

There is an empty pocket of land in the middle of Ottawa, Kansas, that was once filled with farms and houses. A series of floods cleared away the neighborhoods. Despite the installation of a levy system, this area between K-68 and the Marais des Cygnes River remains barren, allowing a lone cottonwood tree, the official state tree of Kansas, to anchor its old roots and spread its leaves to the sun.

Flood Fest 2010

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.

June 2010 Flood

The intersection of Road 155 and Highway 99 is covered with fast-moving water. At the time this photo was shot, the river had not yet crested.


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.

June 2010 Flood, Highway 99

A family follows Highway 99 as it vanishes under flood water.

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.