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WOSTER: Colorado flooding stirs memories of Rapid City, Missouri River

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WOSTER: Colorado flooding stirs memories of Rapid City, Missouri River
Mitchell South Dakota 120 South Lawler 57301

Like a lot of other people across the United States, I watched news reports and weather video clips of the flooding along the east slopes of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado the past week.

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It wasn’t until Nancy and I were driving through Fort Morgan, though, that images of this flood really pulled up memories of the Missouri River flooding of 2011 in South Dakota and of the Black Hills flooding in 1972 that tore up so much of Rapid City. For whatever reason, the images on the television screen didn’t hit as hard as the sight of water spread out in the low spots north of Interstate 76.

Fort Morgan is maybe an hour from where our younger son and his wife live in the southern part of Denver. It’s a town out on the Colorado high plains surrounded by fields and pastures that make it as familiar as much of South Dakota. The distant view of the Rockies is what makes it different. I’ve stopped in Fort Morgan for fuel or sandwiches on past trips, but all I know about the town is what I’ve seen from the parking lots of freeway-side convenience stores or from the windshield at 75 mph.

As we drove toward Denver last Sunday, a soft rain fell, enough to pool in a few spots on the highway so that passing traffic kicked up sprays of water that limited vision until the wipers did their job. Traffic was moving at an uneven pace. I estimated folks were traveling anywhere between 60 mph and upper 80s mph. That and the rain were a challenge, but at Fort Morgan, so were the vehicles pulled to the shoulder of the interstate as travelers gawked at the swollen river. Some buildings were surrounded by water, and playground equipment was partly covered in a park. Trees and fences looked to be standing in 2 or 3 feet of fast-moving water.

Two thoughts came to mind. Don’t these people have sense enough not to park on an interstate shoulder just to stare at flood water? And then, holy cow, this flooding is coming from the Boulder, Longmont, Jamestown area of the Rockies’ Front Range, and that’s a heck of a long way from here.

Safe in Denver later, we watched news updates on the local TV channels, and the memories of past floods I’d seen continued to tug at me. Where we were in Englewood, there’s little evidence of the flooding farther north. And motorists raging along I-25 can’t see the damaged houses, washed-out highways and massive fields of mud that, as the season progresses and recovery goes on, will turn into dunes of thick, gray dirt.

That’s one thing I will never forget about Rapid City in 1972 — the mud that covered lawns and roads and parks after the June 9-10 flash flood. I’ll also not forget how the mud turned into dirt that gave off a foul odor as the summer turned hot. The summer breezes blew that foul dust through neighborhoods and business districts.

The Rapid City flood waters came and went rather quickly. The Missouri River flood waters, while limited to the river valley with major damage in the Pierre and Fort Pierre area and downstream in Union and Yankton counties, hung around for months. Like Rapid City, when the river water receded, the mud left behind gradually turned to gray dust.

In its way the Colorado flooding shares traits with both 1972 and 2011 in South Dakota. The TV screens show citizens pulling carpet, furniture, books and clothing from homes in Longmont and Boulder. The news briefs crawling across the bottom of the screen describe in dust-dry detail the damage: Half a dozen dead, 300 or more still unaccounted for, about 2,000 homes destroyed, 300 or more citizens in shelters. The cleanup and recovery will have to be as massive as the flooding for even a semblance of normalcy to be restored any time soon.

In these situations, we sometimes see the worst people have to offer, but much more often, we see the best of the human spirit.

That best will be essential for Colorado to move forward from this disaster.