Doomsday KC

Here's what happened 40 years ago, when epic storms swamped Country Club Plaza, killing 25

By RICK MONTGOMERY

The Kansas City Star

A flood for the history books swept through Kansas City nearly forty years ago

September 12 will mark the the 40th anniversary of the "Plaza flood" in Kansas City. The flash flood in 1977 killed 25 people and damaged nearly 5,000 homes.
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September 12 will mark the the 40th anniversary of the "Plaza flood" in Kansas City. The flash flood in 1977 killed 25 people and damaged nearly 5,000 homes.

Editor's note: this story originally published in 2015.

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The Royals were on their way to posting 102 victories for the season, a team record that still stands today.

Crown Center was growing, Westport was revitalizing and the city was still basking from its role as host of the Republican National Convention the previous summer.

“Until that night Kansas City had been on a real roll,” said Monroe Dodd, an author of local history books who then worked for The Kansas City Times.

That night was Sept. 12, 1977.

While many areas of the metro were deluged and 25 deaths occurred from Leawood to Independence, the event became known as the “Plaza flood” because it struck the city’s retail jewel.

A low-pressure cell that day unleashed storms way off the charts. A morning downpour produced once-in-a-century rainfall amounts for a 24-hour period. A second storm around dusk did the same.

The total in some parts came to 16 inches of rain.

At 8:30 p.m., the National Weather Service repeated flash flood warnings.

“Do not take this situation lightly,” it added.

The community knew too well how the Kansas and Missouri rivers could bust out of their banks into low-lying industrial areas. But these two rains overwhelmed Brush Creek, which Depression-era boss Tom Pendergast had lined with concrete to speed drainage into the Blue River.

To be sure, what hit the Country Club Plaza that Monday night was all about speed.

A bartender at the Plaza III restaurant recalled years later how patrons were taken by surprise: “There were cars floating by the windows, with people in them, and still there were folks sitting there eating dinner.

“Nobody knew how serious it was.”

Cars by the score were whisked away and thrown around as if they were Matchbox toys.

volks
This Volkswagen wound up resting between a sycamore and a wall at Broadway and Ward Parkway. File photo The Kansas City Star

Underground parking garages flooded to the ceilings.

Downstream near Manchester Trafficway, a gushing Blue River claimed two victims leaving a rained-out Royals game. Water rolled into General Motors’ Leeds assembly plant.

At an east Kansas City trailer court, residents in nearly 500 homes had to evacuate.

About 4,750 homes citywide suffered damage. In the Plaza, almost half of the 155 businesses shut down to clean up.

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After a swollen Brush Creek surged into the Country Club Plaza, almost half of the 155 businesses had to shut down to clean up. Some parts of town got 16 inches of rain in the Sept. 12, 1977, storm. File photo The Kansas City Star

By the Christmas season, all but a few were back in business. But efforts to prevent another flood had barely begun.

Those efforts may never have gained traction had $100 million worth of overall flood damage not been concentrated on the Plaza, the city’s pride.

Municipalities on both sides of the state line banded together to address flooding. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spent years studying how to help Brush Creek withstand epic rains to come.

The concerns ultimately led to construction in the early 1990s of an $86 million flood control project. A blend of federal and local money made Brush Creek deeper, wider and prettier, with fountains adorning the channel at the Plaza.

The project came to being under then mayor Emanuel Cleaver, now a U.S. congressman.

In the spring after the Plaza flood, a 33-year-old Cleaver testified to Congress about Kansas Citians jumping through hoops to get federal disaster aid. The following year he was first elected to the City Council.

Today the thoroughfare that runs along Brush Creek’s north bank is named for him.

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