Christmas is hard for flood survivors

BY GEORGE PIPER | COTTONWOOD FALLS, Kan. | December 23, 1998

COTTONWOOD FALLS, Kan. (Dec. 23, 1998) -- Huge hay bales draped in white

plastic form a snowman family around the Jones' farm -- a sure sign

Christmas is around the corner.

Santa's sleigh and colored lights adorn tractors outside the house, while

inside the tree is up and presents lie beneath. The decorations disguise a

mood of concern for Tom and Mary Jones, who saw some 1,300 acres of freshly

planted wheat and generations of black, fertile soil washed away in

flooding that besieged the Kansas landscape.

"It took us a while to get into the holiday spirit," says Mary Jones,

adding that they'll spend Christmas at the home of one of their adult

children. "We're not ready to host it yet."

"We finally decided if the kids would come home and help, we'd put up the

lights," added her husband Tom.

It's a white Christmas now for southeastern Kansas, but no one needs to

write a song titled "Wet Halloween" for survivors of the area's worst

flooding in 47 years.

Heavy rains flooded rivers and creeks in throughout southeast Kansas --

primarily in Butler, Cowley, Chase and Sedgwick counties -- and damaged

more than 1,500 homes in small towns and rural areas and affecting

thousands of survivors. Standing water remained in some locations for five

days. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has 107 maximum disaster

grants pending in Butler County -- mainly in Augusta -- and another 35

further south in Arkansas City.

Local interfaiths sprang up and community ministerial alliances went into

disaster recovery mode with help from national faith-based disaster relief


Communities are at various stages of recovery, said Cherri Baer, a Church

World Service disaster resource consultant for Kansas. Some area still have

several homes with mud in them while other places are trying to dry-out out

sheetrock. "It's the same old story," she said. "Work teams are going to

be needed into the spring and next summer."

The Jones', who grow mainly wheat and soybeans on the family farm, had just

planted the winter wheat crop during the two days preceding Halloween.

Although a steady rain fell during the night of Oct. 31, the prospects of

flooding were remote, and communities lying upstream on the Cottonwood

River usually flood first, giving area residents at least some time to


But when Tom Jones awoke Sunday and started making the short drive to his

mother's home, the water flowing over the road was the first signal of


With the help of family members, Jones moved his farm equipment to higher

ground. Bales of freshly cut hay, however, did not fair as well. He

estimates some $30,000 to $40,000 in hay losses, plus the lost crop. The

house sustained water damage in the basement.

When the flooding subsided, the Jones' farm resembled a junkyard. Railroad

ties, Styrofoam coolers and parts of mobile homes from a nearby residential

park lay strewn about where freshly planted wheat once sat.

More importantly, the rushing waters cleared away precious fertile topsoil.

To underscore the importance, Jones noted that areas where topsoil rushed

away in the 1951 flood do poorly compared to the rest of the land.

"We'll have to start over and build that back up through fertilization and

time," he said, adding that neighboring farmers are in similar or worse

situations. "We're basically down into the subsoil."

As a 5-year-old boy during the July 1951 flood, Tom Jones vaguely recalls

the high water. His older brother told him that while that floodwaters rose

higher in that disaster, the fast rushing water did more damage this time.

"It takes the wind out of your sails, but you work through it," he said.

Besides the farm damage, Mary Jones suffered a bout with pneumonia and

Tom's knees bothered he from walking through high water and muddy ground.

It's been a slow and tiring process to restore and maintain the farm and

prepare for the holidays, but the Jones are looking forward to a nice


"We're going to do it and have fun," Mary Jones said.

Posted Dec. 23, 1998

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