SIOUX CITY -- The historic black-and-white photos resurfaced this summer.

The pictures showing vast portions of Siouxland under water looked so old, the scenes so unfamiliar.

The images, taken during the Missouri River flood of 1952, had, for the most part, faded into Siouxland's memory.

The river rekindled those memories this summer.

For the first time in nearly 60 years, the Missouri River's wrath was felt up and down its basin. Record rains and snowmelt overwhelmed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' reservoirs. Record amounts of water were released through its dams, leading to flooding from Montana to Missouri.

This flood was documented like none before it. Digital cameras and cell phones captured countless images and hours of video footage, recording this new chapter in history.

It was a new chapter, but an old story.

"The Missouri River basin still has the ability to unleash so much power that we're incapable of handling," said Tim Cowman, director of the Missouri River Institute at the University of South Dakota. "I think the message that it sent is we have not completely tamed the Missouri River."

That the Missouri triumphed over human engineering was no surprise to those who know the river well. The dams may have helped prevent flooding in past years, but Mother Nature can be held in check for only so long, said Steve Jauron, who spent thousands of hours on the river during a 41-year career with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. Since his retirement in 2006, Jauron still gets out on the river as often as he can.

"All of us ... because the river had been so stable for 60 years almost, we had become so used to what we saw every day," he said. "I've always said it's coming back one of these days."

It came back in late May. And as the Missouri gradually slipped back within its banks this fall, the destruction left behind by weeks of flooding displayed the river's awesome power.

"I think there's also an increasing appreciation for the power of water and the Missouri," said Robert Schneiders, director of Eco InTheKnow: Environmental Consultancy, of Boulder, Colo.

A Sioux City native who has studied the history of the river and the corps' efforts to tame it, Schneiders said that throughout the summer, the river knocked out pile dikes and revetments built to control its channel, flowed back into old side channels, tossed sand into dune formations along the banks and spread out across its valley floor, reaching a width of up to 10 miles near Council Bluffs, Iowa.

"In some ways, it's re-establishing its former character," Schneiders said. "It has altered itself."

For years, the river's regulated flows smoothed out the riverbed. The current no longer loudly gurgled and bubbled as it once did while flowing over an uneven bottom.

That changed this summer.

The swelled river carved deep holes along banks. The riverbed was degraded here and there, left uneven again. The Missouri sounds like its old self once more.

"You can hear the river from a quarter mile away again," Jauron said. "You hadn't heard that for 30 years."

It's one of many alterations the river made to itself.

Cowman said scientists won't know the flood's full effects until they get out on the river beginning in the spring and can document changes to the channel, banks and surrounding environment. This was the first flood in 60 years, and the first since the dams were built. Recovery will be different than it was after past floods.

"It's something we need to get out there and pay attention to is how the river reacts after a flood. A lot of new information will come of this," Cowman said.

Some old lessons were also reinforced: namely, the river, when high, will reclaim its former territory, whether there are dams across it or homes built along its banks.

The flooding Missouri re-sent a message as old as the river itself.

"Back off; you're in my space," Schneiders said. "We've taken up too much of the river's room, its space, and we need to back out of it.

"I think people believed our technology had gained mastery over the river. This year we found out our technology failed us, and this year the river broke out from every effort to contain it." 

The question now looms: How closely did we listen to the river's message?

Will we heed its warning? Or, years from now, will we be looking back at historic photos and video from 2011 as we're once again reminded of what the Missouri River can do?


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