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Predictions of mass flooding didn’t hold water, reporting did

Saturday, May 12, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 6:33 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008
Scott Swafford is the Public Life editor for the Columbia Missourian.

A Missouri River flood is a strange sort of disaster. Not like a tornado, which forms in an instant and destroys in seconds. Not like an ice storm, which leaves one guessing how much will accumulate and what the impact will be. Not like an earthquake, which comes with no warning and lasts but a moment.

No, a flood on the Big Muddy is different. You can see it coming from miles away and days ahead of time. So when thunderstorms last weekend dumped six to eight inches of rain on northwest Missouri — more than 100 miles from Columbia — folks here knew trouble was brewing. Tributaries swelled with the rains and drained into the Missouri, funneling the water toward everyone downstream.

The pending calamity conjured images from the Great Flood of ’93 and the sister flood that came two years later. Once again, Boone County residents found themselves glued to river-crest projections and bracing for the worst. The first forecasts were grim. The river, according to the National Weather Service, threatened to rise to dangerous levels.

Your Missourian jumped on the story, filling the news pages with reports on preparations in river towns. Volunteers were sandbagging. Homeowners and business owners were evacuating. The water was overtaking low-lying roads. Full-scale disaster, it seemed, was inevitable.

But flood reporting — and forecasting — is an inexact science. When the relentless rains forecast by the National Weather Service for much of the week failed to materialize, crest forecasts began to fall. As of this writing, the river is expected to peak this weekend, seven to eight feet above flood stage but three to four feet lower than the worst of the forecasts.

So, did the Missourian overdo it? We don’t think so. While it appears the flood will be nowhere near as serious as initially thought, the news we gave you was very real. Our reporters related not only the details of the river’s behavior but also the stories of communities rising to the challenge. From the perspectives of both public safety and human interest, I believe our coverage was on target.

Meanwhile, keep watch. A Missouri River flood is a strange sort of disaster. There’s no telling when the threat might return.

Scott


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