HISTORIC FLOOD EVENTS IN THE MISSOURI RIVER BASIN

This section of the compendium briefly highlights several major flood and flash flood events. Flooding in the Missouri basin has been documented as far back as 1673.

MAJOR FLOODS

1844

The flood of June 1844 is considered the greatest known in the lower Missouri Basin. A large area of the lower Missouri River Valley received heavy rainfalls during the months of May and June. Totals for the month ranged from 18 inches at St. Louis, Missouri, to 27 inches at Ft. Scott, Kansas. A report of the "Floods of 1903" describes this event:

"The floods of 1785 and 1844 ran harmlessly over unbroken forests and bottom, tenanted only by the beasts of the field and the birds of the air, save along the Kaskaskia bottoms and the adjoining ones of the Mississippi, where were the little farms of the French colonists."

1903

The floods of May and June 1903 were caused by unusually heavy precipitation events during the latter half of May. This flood was considered the most devastating since the settlement of the Kansas and lower Missouri River valleys. The same report referred to above, went on to state: "The floods of 1903 descended upon broad, fertile, and highly cultivated fields, and upon rich valleys filled to overflowing with vast industries devoted with never ceasing energy to the fulfillment of the insatiable demands of commerce... The number of human lives lost will never be accurately known, but the total reliable reported was exactly 100..."

1951

The floods of June and July 1951 exceeded any others that had occurred in the lower Missouri River valley since the historic flood of 1844. A two-month period of above-normal precipitation followed by unprecedented intense rains over a 72-hour period in early July caused the resulting floods. The area most seriously affected was the Kansas basin and Missouri drainage below Kansas City, Missouri. The Weather Bureau Technical paper of this event states: "Industrial districts and transportation centers of three metropolitan areas, Kansas City, Kansas, Kansas City and St. Louis, Missouri, were in the path. Two state capitals, Topeka, Kansas, and Jefferson City, Missouri, experienced the devastation. In addition, 150 flourishing communities and smaller cities suffered severe damage. Thirty thousand farms, consisting of three million acres, were affected by the flood waters. Tangible losses amounted to nearly a billion dollars. Twenty-eight lives were lost. This flood, occurring in an important agricultural and industrial area, constituted a major national catastrophe."

1952

The floods of 1952 were caused by rapid melt of an above-normal snow cover in eastern Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota. Record and near record flooding occurred on the Milk River, several tributaries to the Missouri River in North and South Dakota, James River, Big Sioux River, and the Missouri Mainstem. In a letter from Weather Bureau headquarters to then Hydrologist-In-Charge Ray Johnson, the following remarks of News Commentator Walter Cronkite were quoted: "In this record flood, only three lives have been lost so far -- and they only indirectly because of the floods. This remarkable safety record is a result of the Weather Bureau's river forecasting service -- a fantastic modern weapon against flood dangers. Headquarters receives reports of rainfall, the rapidity of melting snow and other factors -- and with a battery of modern gadgets, forecasts just how high the rivers will rise. From field observers, and headquarter offices such as that in Kansas City -- the Weather Bureau was able to forecast this historical flood as long as ten days before the crest reached Pierre, South Dakota -- first large population center to be hit."

1984

Large areas of the Missouri River basin received intermittent heavy rainstorms during the months of May and June 1984. Above average precipitation also occurred during the preceding months. The prolonged wet spring culminated with flooding in June. The flooding was the worst since the disastrous flooding in 1952. Numerous towns and riverfront developments were flooded or threatened with flooding. Many roads and bridges were washed out or damaged. Millions of acres of land were flooded or damaged by soil erosion. Thousands of acres of cropland were not planted because of the magnitude and timing of the flooding, causing a severe financial hardship for farmers. Combined, the rainfall and flooding caused hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of damage. The tributary river basins in which flooding or high flows occurred were the Beaverhead River and Ruby River basins in Montana; the Vermillion River, James River, and Big Sioux River basins in South Dakota; the Big Sioux River, Little Sioux River, and Nishnabotna River basins in Iowa; and the Salt Creek, Papillion Creek, Elkhorn River, and North Platte, and Platte River basins in Nebraska.

In addition to the major flooding that took place May-June 1984, three flash flood events occurred during June. The events occurred on June 9-10, 1984, along Indian Creek in Overland Park, Kansas, the Blue River in Kansas City, Missouri, and creeks in the St. Joseph, Missouri area. Another flash flood event occurred June 20, 1984, in the Belton, Missouri area taking one life.

1986

During September and early October 1986, extremely heavy rainfalls resulted in record flooding across Michigan, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, and Oklahoma. In the MBRFC area of responsibility, some of the worst flooding occurred in and around the upper Osage River basin. Recorded rainfall data show that the maximum amounts of rainfall during the storms occurred in a band extending about 15 miles either side of a line from Truman Dam to Chanute, Kansas. Record flooding occurred along certain reaches of the Blackwater, Marais des Cygnes, Marmaton, Little Osage, Osage, Sac, South Grand and Missouri Rivers. The accumulation of runoff from the storms in the upper Osage River basin resulted in maximum daily inflows of record into Harry S. Truman Reservoir, Stockton Lake, and Pomme De Terre Lake Reservoir.

1993

An unusual combination and sequence of hydrometeorological events occurred in the spring and summer of 1993 which culminated in the widespread Midwest flooding known as The Great Flood of 1993. The flooding occurred as a result of a previous wet fall, normal to above-normal snow accumulation, rapid spring snowmelt accompanied by heavy spring rainfall, and heavy rains in June and July.

The Natural Disaster Report states: "The Great Flood of 1993 was an unprecedented hydrometeorological event since the United States started to provide weather services in the mid-1800's. In terms of precipitation amounts, record river stages, areal extent of flooding, persons displaced, crop and property damage, and flood duration, this event (or sequence of events) surpassed all floods in the United States during modern times... Within the Missouri River System, 1993 floods of record include those set at 14 forecasts points on the mainstem and at four forecast points on each of the Saline, Smoky Hill, and Grand Rivers. During the event, near flood of record stage occurred at an additional 23 forecast points on the Missouri River system alone. For example, in 1993, flood records set more than 42 years ago on the mainstem of the Missouri were broken by more than 4 feet at multiple forecast points. In at least one case, a new flood of record was established early in the event only to be broken by higher water later in the event..."

1995

During the spring of 1995, unseasonably warm temperatures in February and March resulted in snow melt which saturated the ground. This, along with repeated heavy rains in the Midwest during March, April, and May, produced significant flooding on many streams and rivers in the Dakotas, Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, and Missouri, as well as other states. Initially most of the flooding was outside MBRFC's area of responsibility but by mid-April significant flooding occurred on the James and Big Sioux Rivers, and their tributaries. By mid-May widespread moderate to major flooding was occurring and thoughts of a repeat of "THE GREAT FLOOD" were going through people's minds. Most rivers, including the Missouri Mainstem, had crested by the end of May. Although flood records set in 1993 were approached, few were broken. Record high stages were set at various locations along the James River in South Dakota.

In addition to the major flooding that took place, flash flooding occurred May 7-10 in the Rapid City, South Dakota area. Keystone, South Dakota was evacuated. There were numerous road closures and bridges washed out in the Black Hills region of North and South Dakota.


FLASH FLOODS

The Black Hills Flood of June 9-10, 1972

On June 9, 1972, an almost stationary group of thunderstorms formed over the eastern Black Hills of South Dakota near Rapid City and produced record amounts of rainfall. Nearly 15 inches of rain fell in about six hours near Nemo, South Dakota, and more than 10 inches of rain fell over a 60 square-mile area. The resulting floods were the highest ever recorded in South Dakota. At least 237 people died in the Black Hills flood and another 3,057 people were injured, and total damage is estimated to have exceeded $160 million.

The Big Thompson Canyon Flood of July 31-August 1, 1976

Big Thompson Canyon, one of many scenic spots in Colorado, winds torturously down through the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains. Estes Park marks the western end of the canyon, and it ends near Loveland, where the mountains meet the great plains. The small river, usually a clear, cold, rapidly flowing mountain stream 1 to 2 feet deep, descends some 2,500 feet through the 25-mile long canyon.

On the evening of July 31, 1976, in less than a 6-hour period, very heavy rain fell over a 70 square-mile area. More than 12 inches fell over the slopes of the western third of the Big Thompson Canyon and more than four inches of rain fell over the entire canyon area from near Estes Park to Drake, Colorado. The resulting flooding was devastating; over 135 persons were killed.

The Kansas City Area Plaza Flood of September 12-13, 1977

Major flooding occurred on streams in the Kansas City area as a result of two separate rainfall events within 24 hours. The first storm saturated the ground, which allowed a greater part of the second rainfall event to run off. As much as 16 inches of rainfall was reported in the Kansas City area.

Twenty-five persons lost their lives and an estimated $50 million in damages occurred. Although many homes and businesses suffered losses in the small stream basins, the major monetary damage occurred in the Brush Creek basin of Missouri and Kansas and within the lower Blue River basin of Missouri.

The Cheyenne Wyoming Flood of August 1-2, 1985

By late afternoon on August 1, 1985, a stationary thunderstorm developed over Cheyenne, Wyoming, producing record amounts of rainfall. In approximately a 3-hour time span, six plus inches of rainfall occurred. The storm produced at least one tornado, heavy rains, and hail. In some parts of town, hail piled up to depths of 4-6 feet. The severe flooding resulted in 12 deaths, 70 people were injured, and total damages exceeded $61 million.

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