Controlled Fury

As you no doubt know, the city hardest hit by the massive flooding in Iowa is Cedar Rapids. That community’s name reminded us of Jeffrey Rothfeder’s vivid account of the flood that struck Rapid City, South Dakota on June 9, 1972. In his 2001 book, Every Drop for Sale, he describes (In a chapter titled “Controlled Fury”) how the decrepit Canyon Lake Dam–its spillway clogged with debris during a torrential rain–collapsed and inundated the city, causing tremendous damage and killing 236 people.

Rothfeder uses the story of Canyon Lake Dam’s failure to illustrate the dangers inherent in humankind’s desire to control water–particularly our propensity to divert rivers and store their flow in vast quantities behind dams. The arguments in favor of dams notwithstanding, they have been and always will be the equivalent of time bombs. Says Rothfeder (p. 21):

In instance after instance, floods occur when dams and their abatement systems are unable to withstand the increasing pressure from swelling reservoirs and rivers seeking their natural course in rainy seasons.

This is not to say that dams had anything to do with the Iowa’s inundation. We don’t know what role water diversion systems have played in either aggravating or mitigating the current flooding. We do know that the Army Corps of Engineers is making a lot of judgment calls, balancing the need to release water from straining dams to avoid breaches with the equally urgent need to minimize contributing to the flooding downstream.

What both Rapid City and Cedar Rapids shared in their mutual tragedies was a lack of awareness of the danger that they had always faced: According to Rothfeder, the people of Rapid City were barely aware of the Canyon Lake Dam’s reservoir, an ancient structure that no longer had a purpose and was not even much used for recreation. The stunned inhabitants of Cedar Rapids for some reason simply thought they were not in danger of flooding.

From the New York Times

They said this city would never flood. They talked about 1993, and 1966 and 1851, years when the Cedar River swelled and hissed but mostly stayed within its banks. They thought they were safe. They were wrong.

Our thoughts are with the citizens Cedar Rapids and its surroundings, who are looking at a long period of recovery. It may take days–or weeks–for the water to recede and according to officials they’re looking at up to two months without power.


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