KANSAS RIVER FLOOD SET RECORDS IN 1951
July 12, 2001 As summer doldrums grab firm hold of the Central Plains, some residents of eastern Kansas and northwest Missouri remember a time when relief from July heat was the last thing on their minds. Rather than heat, the main worry for many Kansans and Missourians July 13 and 14, 1951, was avoiding death or injury from the worst flood experienced on the Kansas River and many of its tributaries.
May, June and July 1951 saw record rainfall over most of Kansas and Missouri, which led to record flooding on the Kansas, Osage, Neosho, Verdigris and Missouri Rivers. By the end of July 1951, more than 150 communities in the two states had been devastated, including both state capitals and Kansas City on both sides of the state line. The record floods took 28 lives and caused nearly $1 billion damage (in 1951 dollars).
Record rains started falling that May and just seemed to keep intensifying through July. According to records kept by NOAA's National Weather Service, most of Kansas and Missouri (along with portions of Nebraska and Oklahoma) received 200 percent of normal rainfall in May 1951; 300 percent in June and 400 percent in July.
As a portent for things to come, the city of Hays, Kan., was inundated by flood waters from Big Creek on May 22, 1951; killing six people, flooding every basement in town, and damaging hundreds of homes and business, including the post office and Fort Hays Kansas State University. The year still stands as the rainiest ever for Hays.
Major stream flooding began in June on the Marais des Cygnes, Verdigris and Neosho River basins, and conditions were set for a devastating flood from later storms. The Delaware and upper Blue rivers flooded through June and July. The Kansas River (also known as The Kaw River) exceeded flood stage June 9-10 and again June 22 to July 3. The Mississippi River reached flood stage at St. Louis on June 29, 1951, and stayed above flood stage for 32 daysall from heavy rains in the relatively concentrated area. Storms July 1-8 kept soils saturated in eastern and northern Kansas.
The heavy rains climaxed with a series of storms that inundated the already-drenched area July 9-12. Some unofficial rainfall reports tallied 17-19 inches for the three-day period, bringing the rainfall total for spring and summer for many eastern Kansas locations to nearly 30 inches. The June and July flow of the Kansas River at Topeka was three times the flow normally expected in the basin for the entire year.
Flooding reached its peak July 13, 1951, which still stands as the single most-destructive day of flooding in the area. On that date, the Kansas River crested at all official gauging stations from Manhattan to Bonner Springs (well more than 100 miles). The Marais des Cygnes, Neosho and Verdigris Rivers were at, or near, crests at all points in Kansas. A total of 1,074,000 acres in Kansas and 926,000 acres in Missouri were flooded.
As the amazingly-long crest flowed to the east, barracks were smashed at Ft. Riley and water stood eight feet deep in the Manhattan business district. The crest hit Topeka at 6 a.m. July 13, forcing the evacuation of 24,000 people. The 29.9-foot crest inundated Lawrence, where many businesses still proudly display high water marks.
While the Kansas River wreaked its havoc, flooded tributaries to the south caused their own devastation to the state. The Marais De Cygnes River flooded the city of Ottawa; the Delaware River inundated Perry and the Wakarusa River flooded farms south of Lawrence.
Reaching Kansas City, Kan., in the early morning hours of July 13, the crest on the Kansas River poured over dikes protecting the Argentine and Armourdale districts, forcing evacuation of 15,000 people. The river inundated homes, railroad yards, warehouses and manufacturing plants, and wreaked havoc on the Kansas City stockyards. Hogs and cattle were stranded or washed away, and thousands of animals drowned. Damages from the flood in Kansas City totaled $425 million.
The Kansas River crested 18 feet above flood stage in Bonner Springs, Kan., late on July 13, 1951; then reached the 23rd Street bridge in Kansas City at 4 a.m. July 14. Crests on the Kansas River at Ft. Riley (34.5 feet), Manhattan (33.39 feet), Topeka (40.8 feet), Lawrence (29.9 feet) and Kansas City (61.3 feet) July 13-14, 1951, remain today as the highest ever recorded.
The crest pushed into the Missouri River, resulting in a record stage at Kansas City of 46.2 feet at 5 a.m. (That crest record was broken only by the 48.9-foot level of July 27, 1993.) Although the Missouri had only moderate flow from upstream, the record amount of water in the Kaw glutted the much-larger riverbed and pushed the Missouri to well above flood stage.
The flood crest continued downstream, according to records, and reached Boonville, Mo., on July 17; Jefferson City on July 18; Hermann on July 19; and St. Charles on July 20reaching about 12 feet above flood stage at all locations. Even though the vast majority of the runoff water came from Kansas and the Kansas River, the crest on the much-larger Missouri River at Jefferson City is still the second-highest on record. The flood forced the Mississippi River at Chester, Ill., to what is still its ninth highest level ever recorded.
Post-flood surveys conducted by the National Weather Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers showed damages from the flood in the Kansas City metropolitan area to be in excess of $425 million. Other damage totals in Kansas were: Salina $3.2 million; Ft. Riley $7 million; Manhattan $13 million; Topeka $34 million; and Lawrence $3 million. Agricultural damage was estimated at $93 million. Losses in the Marais des Cygne (Osage) basin were estimated at $30 million.
Most of the damage along the mainstem Missouri River was confined to the area between Kansas City and St. Louis. Total damages in Missouri were estimated at $107 million, of which $80 million was agricultural.
In all, the floods of June and July 1951 were estimated to have caused $935,000,000 million in damages and to have displaced half a million people (370,000 in Kansas and 130,000 in Missouri) from their homes in 150-200 cities and towns. Twenty-eight deaths were directly attributed to the floods.
In the aftermath of the record flooding, President Harry Truman cited its devastation to help sell a national flood control plan to Congress. The Flood Control Act of 1954 authorized construction of Clinton, Perry, Tuttle Creek and Milford reservoirs in Kansas to serve as flood control tools. Also in 1954, the Federal Soil and Conservation Act organized watershed districts in Kansas that resulted in thousands of miles of terraces and several small reservoirs being constructed to help hold runoff.
Additional information, including details on local impacts of the 1951 flood and current flood forecasting practices, may be found on the Web pages of NOAA's Missouri Basin River Forecast Center and the National Weather Service Forecast Offices that tracked the flood in Topeka, Kan.; and St. Louis, Mo.
Relevant Web Sites