Numbers don’t always tell a story — unless you pay attention.
Numbers, where they involve water that has disrupted thousands of lives in Middle America flooding, never overshadow human costs. This newspaper and its affiliated outlets have told the tales of people whose livelihoods and daily existence have been crippled by high waters.
But numbers provide a context for the sufferings.
The federal government, large and unwieldy, struggles with boiled-down and personal miseries. It might be government “by the people, for the people,” but people serve more like bits of data in the grand endeavor of assembling statistics.
There’s one thing the government does well, and that’s compile numbers. Lots of numbers. Washington has storehouses of numbers and armies of folks devoted to their collection, maintenance and analysis.
Here’s a number supplied Monday by a federal source, the National Weather Service: 20.16. That’s the level of the Missouri River at St. Joseph in feet as of mid-morning.
(The gauge recording this has a title, SJSM7, located near that boomerang stretch of Sacramento Street near the river. Federal officials also excel at this, attaching initials to places and things whenever possible.)
This number shows the Missouri River to be in flood stage, a threshold at which St. Joseph has been for an uncomfortable number of days this year.
In fact, two of the top four historic crests at this particular gauge occurred during a 69-day period this spring.
While typical hot and dry weather of July has set in, the National Weather Service’s hydrograph for St. Joseph has a green bar across its top reading “Flood Warning.” At the very least, the river level, 3 feet above flood stage, has a discordant feel for mid-summer.
Of course, flood stage does not necessarily point to devastation. Washington defines this term as an established height “above which a rise in water surface level begins to create a hazard to lives, property or commerce.”
The current river condition does not suppose itself as the Missouri River destruction caused in, say, Holt County, where overtopped levees chased people from their homes, trapped farm equipment in the rising waters, destroyed silos full of harvested grain and washed away any chance of a crop season in some of the state’s richest fields.
Some other numbers relate to this. From the dam at Gavins Point in South Dakota, the most downstream of a series of Missouri River structures, the water releases as of last week stood at 70,000 cubic feet a second.
That compares to the releases exactly one year before of 30,000 cubic feet.
In other words, the dam with the greatest influence on water flowing past St. Joseph (and the flood zones just to the north) has released mid-summer water of more than twice the amount during a year of historic river crests.
If you’re saying that doesn’t make sense, you have a grasp of the situation.
Look, people in these parts understand that the dams up north do not solely serve the needs of St. Joseph. For the 500,000-square-mile watershed, they exist for purposes of irrigation, recreation, navigation and species preservation, plus water supplies and quality, among other things.
But flood control and protection of farms and businesses have just as great a claim in this mix. A federal judge said as much last year, finding blame in the Army Corps of Engineers’ management practices.
If the river managers have tried to find a balance, they’ve yet to do so. The numbers do not favor their efforts.