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Across the Fence: You can't rollerskate in a buffalo herd
July 21, 2011 M. Timothy Nolting   

Read more by M. Timothy Nolting
Not too long ago I was amazed to realize that I have remembered things that I saw when I was not quite 2 years old. I came to that realization when a neighbor and I were talking about flooding in Topeka, Kansas. She also remembered since she was living in Topeka at the time and I was a youngster on the farm, some 50 miles north, in Nortonville. I was born in late October 1949. The flood was in July 1951. I had assumed that I must have been around eight or nine years old because I vividly remember the sights of bottomland farm ground under water along Stranger Creek. I remember being caught in a flash flood that nearly swept us off the highway. I also remember the belfry of a red and white building being the only thing above water at one place in northern Topeka. The Kansas River, a few miles to the south had gone way out of its banks.

To the north of us the small but prosperous town of Atchison, Kansas had sat serenely on the western banks of the Missouri River since the later 1800s. But as floodwaters crested the banks they continued to rise until nearly all of downtown Atchison was under water. The famous railhead town of ‘The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe’ never completely recovered from the devastation and the postwar boom came to an abrupt halt.

It was on July 13, 1951; almost exactly 60 years ago, that the Kansas, Neosho and Verdigris rivers, along with other minor tributaries as well as the Missouri river, affectionately known as ‘The Mighty Mo,’ crested far above flood stage and caused the greatest destruction from flooding there-to-fore recorded in the Midwestern United States. Roughly half-a-million people were left homeless and at least two-dozen Kansans died as the floodwaters claimed its victims.

The culprit was an unprecedented summer of rainfall. From June until the 13th of July over two feet of rain had fallen on eastern Kansas with more than half a foot in the four days prior to the 13th. The rivers were already flowing at their maximum capacity when that storm began and as the rain continued the entire region became immersed.

The major towns of Manhattan, Topeka and Lawrence were the hardest hit as the July 13 cresting rose to four, then six and finally nine feet higher than ever before. Two million acres of farmland were lost to the flood. Additionally the flooding caused fires and explosions in oil refineries located near the Kansas River. Freight and passenger trains were stranded, where tracks were still above water, for more than four days until the floodwaters receded. In all $760 million in damages were caused by the flood and more than two million acres of farmland was lost.

Following the great flood of 1951, a series of reservoirs and levees were constructed, all over the area by the U.S Army Corps of Engineers. I remember watching Perry Lake being built and hearing the controversy as people were forced to abandon their homes while dozers and other earth moving equipment pushed untold tons of rich Kansas’ dirt into a monstrous dam. As the rains came the abandoned homes, that lined the streets, filled with water until at last the simple cross atop the little country church silently slipped below the rising waters.

In 1993, these man-made structures were credited with minimizing the damage from another record flood in that year. The levees built along the Kansas and Missouri Rivers narrowed the natural channel of the rivers and expanded the ‘safe’ tillable land. Farmers expanded their river bottom holdings and produced record crops on the fertile soil that the rivers had deposited over the centuries. Families built homes in the shadows of those levees, falsely secure in the certainty that they would hold back the rivers.

This year, as record snowpack of more than 40 feet began to melt in the Rocky Mountains and spring rains across the entirety of the upper mid-west began to course through the veins of our western waterways, some of those same levees had to be demolished in order to minimize the potential destructive force of the water. The widths of these mighty rivers have been artificially reduced by nearly two-thirds, forcing the record amount of water to higher and higher levels. When the levees are breached, the destruction is far worse than if the rivers had slowly risen and spread out across the natural lay of the land.

Controversy abounds, with the Corps of Engineers taking the brunt of the criticism. Perhaps it’s simply a matter of trying to do the impossible or maybe failing to admit that some things are impossible. It has been drilled into us for decades with adages like, ‘nothing is impossible,’ ‘never say it can’t be done, ‘what do you mean we can’t,’ ‘we put a man on the moon, why can’t we…’

Deb and I visited the historic riverfront town of Weston, Missouri earlier this month. The town died around the turn of the last century when the ‘Mighty Mo’ changed its course and left the tiny hamlet high and dry. We enjoyed a delicious lunch in a small café’ on the upper floor of a building first occupied in the 1840s. The owner, proprietor, cook, waitress, and dishwasher (all the same person) told us that the lower part of town was expected to be underwater by the next evening as the old Missouri was changing course once again.

I suppose that there are just some things that you cannot do although it seems that it’s in our nature to go ahead and try it anyway. I’m reminded of a great song, sung by Roger Miller, that I often sang with over-exuberant gusto as my college friends and I would lift our mugs in a hearty toast to the long awaited weekend; “Ohhhhhh you can’t roller skate in a buffalo herd!”

And you can’t control the pounding pulse or the awesome force of the muddy Mississippi, the mighty old Missouri or even the rambling windings of the humble Platte. It just may be that some things are meant to follow the natural order of things.

However, the last stanza of this song goes like this; “You can’t go fishing in a watermelon patch.”

I suppose that this year you could go fishing in a watermelon patch, a cornfield, a wheat field or a hay field. Unfortunately, I’m afraid there won’t be enough fish in the overflow to feed us all. It’ll be about as difficult as trying to roller skate in a buffalo herd.

Tim Nolting is a freelance writer, cowboy poet and entertainer. For bookings or to contact Tim email at mtimn@aol.com
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