A state of disaster in 1951

Marion County and its towns hit by the flood-Marion, Florence and Peabody-weren’t isolated from the wider event that swept the region.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the flood covered the basin areas of the Kansas River, Marais des Cygnes, Neosho-which includes its tributary, the Cottonwood-and Verdigris in Kansas, and the Osage and Missouri basins in Missouri.

Name any central or eastern Kansas stream that was a tributary to one of these basins, and it was flooded-the Solomon, the Smoky Hill, the Wakarusa, Diamond Creek, the Republican and more.

According to the USGS, 19 people were killed and 1,100 injured because of flooding.

In the Kansas and Missouri river basins alone, where most media attention was focused, 2 million acres were flooded, 45,000 homes damaged or destroyed, 17 major bridges-some of them weighted with locomotives to try to hold them-were washed away. Parts of cities like Manhattan, Topeka, Lawrence and Kansas City were devastated.

Total damage was estimated at $2.5 billion at the time-which would be $17 billion in 2000.

Of course the 1951 flood wasn’t possible without the 1951 storm, or series of storms. Both the USGS and the U.S. Weather Bureau recorded that May and June of 1951 had above-normal rainfall that had left the soil saturated and streams overflowing.

Many Kansas communities already had experienced significant flooding. Manhattan was regarded as particularly hard-hit.

The USGS reports: “Then came the great storm of July 9-13 that was centered near the common divide of the Kansas and Neosho river basins (including Marion County). Precipitation began during the afternoon of July 9 and continued through the morning of July 10.

“Following a brief respite, the precipitation began again the evening of July 10 and continued through July 12. Each day was characterized by excessive rainfall during the late afternoon and night with little or no rainfall during the early and mid-afternoon hours. By midnight, July 13, almost unprecedented total amounts of rain had fallen since the beginning of the storm.

“Four areas of particularly excessive rainfall centered about 27 miles southwest of Manhattan, 36 miles south-southwest of Manhattan, 15 miles southwest of Emporia and 30 miles west-southwest of Topeka, had total storm amounts of more than 16 inches.”

In Marion County, according to records held by the Corps of Engineers at Marion Reservoir: “The flood of record on the Cottonwood River at Marion occurred July 9-12 with the peak occurring on the 11th. This flood resulted from heavy rainfall on the nights of the 9th and 10th, and was aggravated by a three-inch rainfall the morning of the 12th.

“Rainfall reports, many of them unofficial, ranged from 7.5 to 20 inches for the July 9-12 period. The average was 9.5 inches over the South Cottonwood, 10.2 inches over the Cottonwood, and 15.1 inches over the Mud and Clear Creek basins.

“The depth of flooding at Marion was 8.8 feet.”

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