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No. 1626:
The Yellow River

Today, a look at flooding. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Early Saturday morning it was raining very hard in Houston. My wife and I got up to watch the street in front of the house. By 2:00 AM, the street was a river — its waves washing across the lawn. We were lucky; just as water started seeping into the house that river crested.

By dawn, water on some major highways had risen to the roofs of stalled eighteen-wheelers. Twenty-seven thousand homes and buildings were damaged. If you yourself weren't driven from your home, you had friends who were. The toll in money ran close to five billion dollars. The direct toll in human lives grew to at least twenty-two. But others eventually died after power for hospital life-support systems had gone out.

And yet, this was only rain — rain that'd fallen upon us so many times in the past and done no more than refresh the ground — rain that'd so often befriended us on other days. Rain was not the enemy. How could it turn upon us like this?

So I thought about older floods. The story of Noah was undoubtedly based upon some real occurrence in the mid-East. Maybe it was the flooding of the Black Sea. It might've been a tsunami. But the worst flooding offender in recorded history is China's vast Yellow River. From the mountains of Eastern Tibet, it winds its way through China, eventually carrying fifty-eight billion cubic meters of water per year into the Yellow Sea.

The Yellow River has devastated lands around it as long as people have known how to write about it. Forty-three hundred years ago, one Yellow River flood lasted for thirteen years. Twenty-five hundred years ago, the Chinese began building a series of levees. Naturally, those levees have failed many times over the centuries.

The worst flood in human history occurred in 1887, when the Yellow River overran the dikes in Henan Province. That flood covered 50,000 square miles. It inundated eleven large towns and hundreds of villages. Nine hundred thousand people died, and two million were left homeless.

The most bizarre flooding of the Yellow River occurred in June, 1938. The Japanese were invading China, and Chiang Kai-shek decided he might stop them by loosing a flood upon them. He ordered the levees blown. The resulting flood slowed the Japanese only slightly, but estimates of the Chinese who died in the resultant flooding vary from 200,000 to 900,000.

The Yellow River takes its name, Huang He, from the Chinese word for the yellow silt it carries in vast amounts. The irony is, that silt enriches Chinese farmlands whenever flooding occurs. And that brings me back to our brush with disaster here in Houston.

Our flood was a fine reminder that, for all our technology, nature is larger than we are. And the business of sustaining Earth does not always take account of our individual needs — or our personal best interests.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Smith, R., Catastrophes and Disasters, New York: Chambers, 1992, pp. 103-106.

After a few days of intermittent rain, tropical storm Allison parked over Houston on Friday evening, June 8, 2001. From then, through the night, it deposited record rainfall on most of the city. Flooding had become severe by the small hours of Saturday morning.

Flooding in Los Angeles, January 18-19, 1886

Flooding in Los Angeles, January 18-19, 1886
(from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, Feb. 13, 1886)