TOPEKA, Kan. -- By the time you read this I'll be in Kansas for my 40th high school reunion.
In a lot of ways though, I head south thinking it's a 50th reunion of sorts. It was 50 years ago this week that a flood, the biggest natural disaster in Kansas history, changed my life forever.
As a boy of 7 I have strong memories of that flood, of the July days that turned the Kansas River into what the Topeka newspaper the other day called an ocean. Most years, especially during the frequent droughts, you'd swear you could walk across the river's sandy bottom. Sometimes only a trickle coursed through the river bed that divided Topeka and a neighborhood called North Topeka.
As the rains continued and the flood threat increased, our family decided it was time to flee to higher ground. We lived on the wrong side of the tracks in North Topeka. It was the prime flood target.
So we moved in with my grandmother. We became flood refugees two nights before the river waters reached 36 feet and the Kaw, as it is also known, went out of its banks.
In time, 14 people would be killed in Kansas and Missouri by the flooding. Estimates were that up to 160,000 people were left homeless.
Before the floodwaters receded I remember driving to where bridges once stood. Out went the Brickyard Bridge to the west of Topeka. Out went the Sardou Bridge on the east edge of town by the airport. Railroad engines vanished when a Santa Fe bridge was washed out in the center of town.
I can still smell the stink of the water and the mud. I can still feel the searing pain of a fever after getting a couple of typhoid shots so I could return to the flood-ravaged home once the water went down.
The water reached seven feet in the downstairs of our wood frame home. It was only a few steps short of reaching the upstairs where most of the furniture had been moved. North Topeka had been covered by 15 feet of water.
North Topeka was our home. And we planned to return. So I helped clear the mud from the house and the sidewalk and the toolshed. I made tracks in the mud on the sidewalk with my bike and made dirty faces at all the sightseers driving down North Quincy Street. Yep, that's why I refused to rush out and look at the recent tornado damage in Brainerd. Storm victims can do without gawking passers-by.
Continued rains and the threat of more flooding forced a change of plans. Shaken by the prospects of another flood, we moved to the right side of the tracks.
I was able to take advantage of better schools and a house that was only a block away from my high school journalism teacher who gave me the biggest helping hand in my newspaper career. OK, so maybe I did guarantee my straight A-plus journalism grades by mowing her yard.
Even though we moved to higher land, I wasn't immune from Topeka's natural disasters forever. I became a victim of what probably was the worst storm in Topeka history on June 8, 1966, when a tornado ripped through Topeka, damaging 2,000 homes (including my apartment), injuring 550 and killing 16.
So I return to Topeka with funny feelings this weekend. Sure, it will be nice to renew acquaintances. But I also go home to the land of the south wind knowing a lot of water, literally, has gone under the bridge.
I remember the Flood of '51 and how it affected me 50 years ago.
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