Flooding Colorado is not the mighty Mississippi

When you come of age on the banks of the Mississippi River, the word “flood” is fraught with more meaning than it is if you grow up in, say, western Colorado.

Not that the high water we’re about to face is not serious. It is. But there’s high water, then there is the flooding Mississippi River. They are not the same.

When I hear the word “flood,” the first thing I think of is 1965. That was the year of The Great Flood. It was before The Really Great Flood of 1993, which indeed was a doozy. But 1965 was plenty newsworthy itself.

I was a sophomore in high school. It was fascinating to watch boats going up and down Main Street in Hannibal, Mo. The street was under six feet of muddy Mississippi water. It was before the flood gates were installed, so that will never happen again. But it did then and it left an indelible impression.

There was a call for able-bodied men to help fill and lay sandbags along the levees. For several days Hannibal High School was populated by mostly the girls. We boys all got out of school and spent our days alongside other students and a lot of inmates doing the backbreaking work of trying to protect the low-lying rich farmland along the river.

We may have helped somewhat, but the river, as great rivers tend to do, decided itself where it wanted to go. It breached dozens of levees and left more than $1.5 billion in today’s dollars of damage to public and private property.

It looks as if the Mississippi this year won’t do the damage it’s done in the past, although the flooding is severe.

Nor will the Colorado River and its tributaries this year do that kind of damage. But the coming high water is the topic du jour around town.

At City Hall, they’re talking about what to do about homeless camps on the river. In Palisade, officials are worrying about Riverbend Park, and wondering what effect the coming flood will have on the Palisade Bluegrass Festival, scheduled at the park for the second weekend in June.

A Bureau of Reclamation official last week said the flood this year on the Colorado could be the worst in 50 years.

That got me to thinking about the flood of 1984. I was a young city editor at The Daily Sentinel then. Maybe it was my youth on the Mississippi that made me more than casually interested in covering a flood. Maybe it was just an innate interest in the news.

For whatever reason, several reporters, most of whom have long since left the area, never let me forget the night their city editor had them stationed every few miles along the Colorado River from Palisade to Fruita. There they stood for hours during the middle of the night, waiting for the news story that never happened.

It started about 10 that night, when then-Sheriff Dick Williams called me at home. A dam at a reservoir south of Parachute had breached, he said, unleashing a wall of water that would cascade out of the high country and into the Colorado River, where it would head west for Mesa County, bringing who-knows-what kind of destruction with it.

The calls went out to every reporter I could find. To the river, they were told. If a wall of water was to come crashing through the county, then The Daily Sentinel was going to have it covered like nobody else.

So we waited. And waited. And waited. All through the night.

This is what we learned that night, a lesson the sheriff and I discussed and chuckled about many times before he died: A broken dam on a reservoir 45 miles upstream from Grand Junction results in a rise in the river here of an inch or two.

The sheriff and I found it amusing. Several reporters did not.

Denny Herzog is the retired executive editor of The Daily Sentinel. E-mail him at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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