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
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
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where
we're interested in the way inventive minds work.
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.
For more on the Yellow River, see:
Flooding in Los Angeles, January 18-19, 1886
(from Frank Leslie's Illustrated
Newspaper, Feb. 13, 1886)
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright
© 1988-2001 by John H. Lienhard.