Kansas Citians have always been in a love-hate relationship with the elements.
Life in the center of the country means bundling up to see the Plaza lights, baking in the right field seats at Kauffman Stadium and fighting the gusts while raking.
While there’s a splendid variety to our seasons, there’s also a price we pay — sometimes a devastating one.
Twisters, floods, ice storms, heat waves, drought, even grasshopper plagues.
These natural catastrophes serve as bookmarks to the Kansas City story.
All encounters with disaster leave scars. Many offer lessons. But which episodes in local history had the deepest, most lasting impact on the community’s identity and direction?
The Star today looks at the most memorable calamities that have ravaged our spot on the map, dating back to an 1844 flood that actually helped the city get started.
Most are weather events that just come with the territory.
“Every region has its own problems,” said Kansas State University climatologist Mary Knapp. “What’s different about the Kansas City area is the degree of variability.
“You’re right at the intersection of all the possibilities.”
Our part of America is a kind of meteorological petri dish, where Canadian cold mixes it up with Gulf of Mexico air, Knapp noted: “We’re about as far as you can possibly get from any moderating effects of an ocean.”
On average, Kansas City is as windy as Chicago, posts twice as many 90-degree days as Atlanta and on a typical week endures higher humidity than Amarillo, Texas.
We brace for an average of 51 days of thunderstorms a year.
Even disasters not deemed “natural” have owed their strength to the city’s location. Some epidemiologists believe the global flu outbreak of 1918 originated in western Kansas before spreading through troops at Fort Riley, making Kansas City an early and susceptible target. More than 2,000 here died.
In compiling the 10 most significant natural disasters to hit Kansas City, plus runners-up, The Star circulated a list of more than 20 events to local historians William Worley, Monroe Dodd and Wyandotte County Museum director Patricia Schurkamp; the Kansas City Office of Emergency Management; researchers at the Kansas City Public Library and others.
First point to settle: What’s a natural disaster?
Both are relative terms, “natural” and “disaster.” The 1981 collapse of the Hyatt Regency walkways was one of Kansas City’s epic disasters, though it was not natural. A faulty design in the connecting rods was all man-made.
A federal law that regulates disaster relief says a natural disaster “means any hurricane, tornado, storm, flood, high water, wind-driven water … or other catastrophe” that causes substantial damage or injury.
Disease, however, is not on the list. Some experts contacted by The Star made a good case that it should be, so the newspaper cited a few of those plagues among the runners-up.
“What about fires?” asked Eli Paul of the library’s special collections wing.
He said that building fires in the 19th century were such an ever-present possibility, “I’m sure many were thought to be natural disasters. … You didn’t see the frenzy to assign blame.”
One fire made our top 10 — a wind-stoked 1900 blaze of unknown cause. The episode helped give rise to the moniker “Kansas City Spirit,” which also would be invoked in later disasters.
Kansas City’s history is one of getting knocked down only to spring back up. And nature has given no one a pass.
A tornado in 1886 singled out a building full of youngsters. Another twister in 1957 plowed through the new Ruskin Heights development south of the city, killing or leaving homeless mostly young, middle-class families.
A heat wave in 1980 took deadly aim at the poor and elderly. Yet out of that crisis came valuable lessons about looking out for each other.
Yes, nature can be unruly here at prairie’s edge.
But time and again the people have shown what Norman Rockwell depicted in his famous painting after the Great Flood of 1951:
Spirit, and a commitment to stay.
Rick Montgomery, 55, is a graduate of Iowa State University. He joined The Star in 1986 and has spent most of his career as a general assignment writer.
Montgomery also helped write “Kansas City: An American Story,’’ an award-winning book on local history.
In 2007 he co-authored “Fatal Failures,” an investigative project that revealed hundreds of cases of front air bags not inflating in fatal, front-end crashes. That work netted several national, regional and auto safety awards.