By Jay Jamison
A cursory examination of world population concentrations reveals that most of the world’s people are located in close proximity to water. The further away from water sources you look, the less people you are likely to find. The great cities of North America are all anchored on water, either as coastal metropolises, or, like Chicago, bordering some great inland waterway. This is not just the pattern in North America; it is the pattern of human habitation worldwide. The great desert cities of the American southwest owe their prosperity to hydroelectric dams, which bring river water to otherwise parched expanses. Not only do these dams bring water to such unlikely places as Las Vegas, but they also provide the abundant electric power necessary to light up the famous strip. Water is necessary for life, and it can also be exploited for transportation, commerce, power and recreation. Just look at satellite images of earth at night and you can see in the darkness where the water is by following the clusters of millions of electric lights of the world’s cities. Of course, among all the positive aspects of proximity to water, there are some drawbacks. Here in the Midwest, we don’t worry too much about hurricanes. Those who live on the coasts, especially in the eastern United States, know about the savagery of hurricanes. Many of these storms are enormous, encompassing hundreds of square miles, with sustained winds beyond the 100-mile per hour mark, which can batter structures for hours on end—a truly frightening ordeal. When they pass, they leave huge areas of destruction in their wake. By the time we are affected by hurricanes here in the Midwest, the winds have usually died down somewhat and we are sometimes subjected long lingering gully-washers, dumping huge volumes of water into our river systems. Some folks might remark that at least we are not subject to the storm surges of hurricanes, but I beg to differ. We tend to think in terms of tornadoes when we reflect on violent weather here on the prairie. Tornadoes are storms of great intensity and often bring awful destruction and human suffering in their wake, but they affect a relatively small area. The Midwest equivalent of coastal hurricanes is not tornadoes, but floods. Anyone who remembers the great flood of 1993, which paralyzed huge tracts of the Midwest, knows that we sometimes do experience the equivalent of hurricane storm surges. Whole towns were inundated, and many thousands of acres of crops were destroyed as a result of that 1993 disaster. I remember watching osprey fish in cornfields from a vantage point on the Hillview blacktop during that flood. In fact, the town of Hillview was forced to move to higher ground after the water receded. On the east coast and the Gulf Coast, they look to the southeast across the Atlantic for signs of trouble. Here in the Midwest, we look up river. If places in Nebraska and Iowa are being flooded, if heavy rains drench the Illinois River Valley north of us, we know many of us will be next. Local volunteers commence sandbagging and everyone prays for the levees to hold. We watch the news as town after town upstream becomes awash in water, and we all know it’s coming our way. Anticipating a flood is like tracking a hurricane; the main difference is, we know where the monster is going.