It's Raining, It's Pouring: 6 Awful Floods

Water, water, water, water"¦ I live in Des Moines so that's sort of all I'm hearing about right now. Rain water, sewer water, river water, bottled water, watery water"¦ there's lots of water everywhere you look right now. Except maybe the grocery stores.

You've probably heard that areas of the Midwest are flooding pretty badly right now; Des Moines is bad but better than some areas. I guess my hometown of Ottumwa is taking a pretty good hit; a friend saw a carp floating down his street yesterday. Here's what Des Moines looks like right now:

That's a road leading into downtown—you can see part of the skyline in the background. For more pictures of DSM, check out my local blog. I'll just say this: some people will not stop their daily runs for anything.

UPDATE: That picture was Wednesday. Here's the same view on Friday... you can see the water is creeping closer to the truck:

Anyway, I figured it was a good time to revisit some big floods of the past. I did leave out some very obvious ones, since I think most of us know the details of those (Katrina flooding, the 2004 tsunami).

The Great Flood of 1993

Let's start with the last flood I remember, which as been called the "100 Year Flood" because a flood like that only happens once every century. Except not, since it's only been 15 years. It has been recorded as one of the most destructive floods in U.S. history, though—about 320,000 square miles were affected when the Mississippi went out of its banks. I remember my mom calling home from work to tell me to fill our bathtub up with water so we had usable water in case the town supply was compromised. It was in Des Moines—the city was out of water entirely for 11 days in July and the water wasn't deemed drinkable until August. Along the Missouri River, more than 700 levees were overflowed or destroyed entirely. St. Louis had water that was 20 feet over the flood level stage and parts of Iowa received up to 48 inches of rain in a five-month period.

A man in Illinois actually received a life sentence for his role in the flooding there—he removed sandbags from a levee because he wanted to strand his wife on the other side of the river. When the water found its way through the hole he had created, 14,000 acres of farmland were flooded, buildings were destroyed and a bridge was closed.

Some areas off of the Mississippi were flooded for nearly 200 days. About 10,000 homes were destroyed, along with 15 million acres of farmland and two entire towns (Valmeyer, Ill. and Rhineland, Mo.). The official death toll was 32 and the damage was estimated at $20 billion.

The 1931 China floods

1931This flood and the flood of '93 sound bad, but maybe we've actually been lucky—the 1931 China floods claimed the lives of somewhere between 800,000 and four million citizens. I know; quite the discrepancy. Either way, it's an astronomical number. Thus far, it's thought to be the deadliest natural disaster ever recorded (not counting pandemics).

The area had been plagued with weather problems for at least two years leading up to the big floods—first, a long draught from 1928-1930. Very heavy snowstorms hit during the winter of 1930/1931 and heavy rains that spring. Then, in July, the area was pummeled with cyclones, and, finally, the flood. Most major rivers in China flooded substantially, including the Yangtze, the Yellow and the Huai.

The North Sea Flood of 1953

The Netherlands, England, Belgium, Denmark and France were all affected by flooding and storms when a high tide and a severe windstorm combined in 1953. About 2400 lives were lost, including the passengers on the MV Princess Victoria ferry, which was lost at sea. Most of the Netherlands' 1800+ fatalities were from one night—January 31/February 1—when dykes in the provinces of Zeeland, Zuid-Holland and Noord-Brabant broke down. An estimated 70,000 people were evacuated, 47,300 buildings were damaged and 10,000 were destroyed. At the time, damage was approximately 895 million guilders.

It could have been worse for Netherland, though. A hole in the Schielandse Hoge Zeedijk dyke could have meant the death of three million people if not plugged. The mayor of Nieuwerkerk had a ship lodge itself in the hole, and to everyone's surprise, the plan worked.

All of this devastation resulted in something good, though—the Delta Works (a combination of dams, sluices, locks, dikes and storm surge barriers) were created. They are thought to be the world's largest and most elaborate protection against flooding.

The Red River Flood of 1997

red riverThis one stretched across North Dakota, Minnesota and Manitoba. It was a pretty nasty one—more than 50,000 people (at the time it was the biggest U.S. evacuation since the Civil War) were evacuated in Grand Forks, N.D. and a fire started in the town, destroying 11 buildings and 60 apartments. Manitoba alone suffered more than $500 million in damages. But this is nothing new for residents along the Red River; it has flooded repeatedly (and severely) since at least 1770. In fact, in 1950, the River overflowed and turned more than 600 square miles of farmland into a big (nasty) swimming pool. (P.S... that's the Sorlie Bridge that connects Grand Forks, N.D., and East Grand Forks, Minn.)

The 2000 Mozambique flood

birthIn 2000, Mozambique was pounded with rain for five weeks. The result was a flood that killed 800 people and 20,000 cattle. The agriculture suffered horribly following the flood—113,000 small farming households were ruined and 90 percent of the entire country's irrigation infrastructure was at least damaged. The second largest hospital in the country was totally destroyed along with 41 other health institutions. About 214,000 students were left without classrooms when 630 schools closed.

Even though 800 died, more than 45,000 were rescued from places like rooftops and trees. One woman even gave birth while stranded in a tree.

The Hunter Valley floods of 1955

maitlandThese floods (AKA the Maitland Flood) in 1955 were some of the worst Australia has ever seen. Rivers on both sides of the Great Dividing Range left their banks by a lot. Their combined floodwaters made a sea in the middle of the continent that was the size of England and Wales. The city of Maitland was hit the worst—58 homes were completely washed away and 103 were damaged beyond repair. A total of 2,180 had water damage. Twenty-five people died, but not all from drowning—three people died when a helicopter blade severed power lines, electrocuting people dangling from the helicopter who were being taken to safety. The helicopter exploded. Sadly, all of this devastation happened in only six days.

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Shhh...super secret special for blog readers.

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10 Memorable Neil deGrasse Tyson Quotes
Michael Campanella/Getty Images
Michael Campanella/Getty Images

Neil deGrasse Tyson is America's preeminent badass astrophysicist. He's a passionate advocate for science, NASA, and education. He's also well-known for a little incident involving Pluto. And the man holds nearly 20 honorary doctorates (in addition to his real one). In honor of his 59th birthday, here are 10 of our favorite Neil deGrasse Tyson quotes.


"The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."
—From Real Time with Bill Maher.


"As a fraction of your tax dollar today, what is the total cost of all spaceborne telescopes, planetary probes, the rovers on Mars, the International Space Station, the space shuttle, telescopes yet to orbit, and missions yet to fly?' Answer: one-half of one percent of each tax dollar. Half a penny. I’d prefer it were more: perhaps two cents on the dollar. Even during the storied Apollo era, peak NASA spending amounted to little more than four cents on the tax dollar." 
—From Space Chronicles


"Once upon a time, people identified the god Neptune as the source of storms at sea. Today we call these storms hurricanes ... The only people who still call hurricanes acts of God are the people who write insurance forms."
—From Death by Black Hole


"Countless women are alive today because of ideas stimulated by a design flaw in the Hubble Space Telescope." (Editor's note: technology used to repair the Hubble Space Telescope's optical problems led to improved technology for breast cancer detection.)
—From Space Chronicles



"I knew Pluto was popular among elementary schoolkids, but I had no idea they would mobilize into a 'Save Pluto' campaign. I now have a drawer full of hate letters from hundreds of elementary schoolchildren (with supportive cover letters from their science teachers) pleading with me to reverse my stance on Pluto. The file includes a photograph of the entire third grade of a school posing on their front steps and holding up a banner proclaiming, 'Dr. Tyson—Pluto is a Planet!'"
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit


"In [Titanic], the stars above the ship bear no correspondence to any constellations in a real sky. Worse yet, while the heroine bobs ... we are treated to her view of this Hollywood sky—one where the stars on the right half of the scene trace the mirror image of the stars in the left half. How lazy can you get?"
—From Death by Black Hole


"On Friday the 13th, April 2029, an asteroid large enough to fill the Rose Bowl as though it were an egg cup will fly so close to Earth that it will dip below the altitude of our communication satellites. We did not name this asteroid Bambi. Instead, we named it Apophis, after the Egyptian god of darkness and death."
—From Space Chronicles


"[L]et us not fool ourselves into thinking we went to the Moon because we are pioneers, or discoverers, or adventurers. We went to the Moon because it was the militaristically expedient thing to do."
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit


Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at:
Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at:

"Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life."


A still from Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Universal Studios

"[I]f an alien lands on your front lawn and extends an appendage as a gesture of greeting, before you get friendly, toss it an eightball. If the appendage explodes, then the alien was probably made of antimatter. If not, then you can proceed to take it to your leader."
—From Death by Black Hole

How Apple's '1984' Super Bowl Ad Was Almost Canceled

More than 30 years ago, Apple defined the Super Bowl commercial as a cultural phenomenon. Prior to Super Bowl XVIII, nobody watched the game "just for the commercials"—but one epic TV spot, directed by sci-fi legend Ridley Scott, changed all that. Read on for the inside story of the commercial that rocked the world of advertising, even though Apple's Board of Directors didn't want to run it at all.


If you haven't seen it, here's a fuzzy YouTube version:

"WHY 1984 WON'T BE LIKE 1984"

The tagline "Why 1984 Won't Be Like '1984'" references George Orwell's 1949 novel 1984, which envisioned a dystopian future, controlled by a televised "Big Brother." The tagline was written by Brent Thomas and Steve Hayden of the ad firm Chiat\Day in 1982, and the pair tried to sell it to various companies (including Apple, for the Apple II computer) but were turned down repeatedly. When Steve Jobs heard the pitch in 1983, he was sold—he saw the Macintosh as a "revolutionary" product, and wanted advertising to match. Jobs saw IBM as Big Brother, and wanted to position Apple as the world's last chance to escape IBM's domination of the personal computer industry. The Mac was scheduled to launch in late January of 1984, a week after the Super Bowl. IBM already held the nickname "Big Blue," so the parallels, at least to Jobs, were too delicious to miss.

Thomas and Hayden wrote up the story of the ad: we see a world of mind-controlled, shuffling men all in gray, staring at a video screen showing the face of Big Brother droning on about "information purification directives." A lone woman clad in vibrant red shorts and a white tank-top (bearing a Mac logo) runs from riot police, dashing up an aisle towards Big Brother. Just before being snatched by the police, she flings a sledgehammer at Big Brother's screen, smashing him just after he intones "We shall prevail!" Big Brother's destruction frees the minds of the throng, who quite literally see the light, flooding their faces now that the screen is gone. A mere eight seconds before the one-minute ad concludes, a narrator briefly mentions the word "Macintosh," in a restatement of that original tagline: "On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like '1984.'" An Apple logo is shown, and then we're out—back to the game.

In 1983, in a presentation about the Mac, Jobs introduced the ad to a cheering audience of Apple employees:

"... It is now 1984. It appears IBM wants it all. Apple is perceived to be the only hope to offer IBM a run for its money. Dealers, initially welcoming IBM with open arms, now fear an IBM-dominated and -controlled future. They are increasingly turning back to Apple as the only force that can ensure their future freedom. IBM wants it all and is aiming its guns on its last obstacle to industry control: Apple. Will Big Blue dominate the entire computer industry? The entire information age? Was George Orwell right about 1984?"

After seeing the ad for the first time, the Apple audience totally freaked out (jump to about the 5-minute mark to witness the riotous cheering).


Chiat\Day hired Ridley Scott, whose 1982 sci-fi film Blade Runner had the dystopian tone they were looking for (and Alien wasn't so bad either). Scott filmed the ad in London, using actual skinheads playing the mute bald men—they were paid $125 a day to sit and stare at Big Brother; those who still had hair were paid to shave their heads for the shoot. Anya Major, a discus thrower and actress, was cast as the woman with the sledgehammer largely because she was actually capable of wielding the thing.

Mac programmer Andy Hertzfeld wrote an Apple II program "to flash impressive looking numbers and graphs on [Big Brother's] screen," but it's unclear whether his program was used for the final film. The ad cost a shocking $900,000 to film, plus Apple booked two premium slots during the Super Bowl to air it—carrying an airtime cost of more than $1 million.


Although Jobs and his marketing team (plus the assembled throng at his 1983 internal presentation) loved the ad, Apple's Board of Directors hated it. After seeing the ad for the first time, board member Mike Markkula suggested that Chiat\Day be fired, and the remainder of the board were similarly unimpressed. Then-CEO John Sculley recalled the reaction after the ad was screened for the group: "The others just looked at each other, dazed expressions on their faces ... Most of them felt it was the worst commercial they had ever seen. Not a single outside board member liked it." Sculley instructed Chiat\Day to sell off the Super Bowl airtime they had purchased, but Chiat\Day principal Jay Chiat quietly resisted. Chiat had purchased two slots—a 60-second slot in the third quarter to show the full ad, plus a 30-second slot later on to repeat an edited-down version. Chiat sold only the 30-second slot and claimed it was too late to sell the longer one. By disobeying his client's instructions, Chiat cemented Apple's place in advertising history.

When Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak heard that the ad was in trouble, he offered to pony up half the airtime costs himself, saying, "I asked how much it was going to cost, and [Steve Jobs] told me $800,000. I said, 'Well, I'll pay half of it if you will.' I figured it was a problem with the company justifying the expenditure. I thought an ad that was so great a piece of science fiction should have its chance to be seen."

But Woz didn't have to shell out the money; the executive team finally decided to run a 100-day advertising extravaganza for the Mac's launch, starting with the Super Bowl ad—after all, they had already paid to shoot it and were stuck with the airtime.

1984 - Big Brother


When the ad aired, controversy erupted—viewers either loved or hated the ad, and it spurred a wave of media coverage that involved news shows replaying the ad as part of covering it, leading to estimates of an additional $5 million in "free" airtime for the ad. All three national networks, plus countless local markets, ran news stories about the ad. "1984" become a cultural event, and served as a blueprint for future Apple product launches. The marketing logic was brilliantly simple: create an ad campaign that sparked controversy (for example, by insinuating that IBM was like Big Brother), and the media will cover your launch for free, amplifying the message.

The full ad famously ran once during the Super Bowl XVIII (on January 22, 1984), but it also ran the month prior—on December 31, 1983, TV station operator Tom Frank ran the ad on KMVT at the last possible time slot before midnight, in order to qualify for 1983's advertising awards.* (Any awards the ad won would mean more media coverage.) Apple paid to screen the ad in movie theaters before movie trailers, further heightening anticipation for the Mac launch. In addition to all that, the 30-second version was aired across the country after its debut on the Super Bowl.

Chiat\Day adman Steve Hayden recalled: "We ran a 30- second version of '1984' in the top 10 U.S. markets, plus, in an admittedly childish move, in an 11th market—Boca Raton, Florida, headquarters for IBM's PC division." Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld ended his remembrance of the ad by saying:

"A week after the Macintosh launch, Apple held its January board meeting. The Macintosh executive staff was invited to attend, not knowing what to expect. When the Mac people entered the room, everyone on the board rose and gave them a standing ovation, acknowledging that they were wrong about the commercial and congratulating the team for pulling off a fantastic launch.

Chiat\Day wanted the commercial to qualify for upcoming advertising awards, so they ran it once at 1 AM at a small television station in Twin Falls, Idaho, KMVT, on December 15, 1983 [incorrect; see below for an update on this -ed]. And sure enough it won just about every possible award, including best commercial of the decade. Twenty years later it's considered one of the most memorable television commercials ever made."


A year later, Apple again employed Chiat\Day to make a blockbuster ad for their Macintosh Office product line, which was basically a file server, networking gear, and a laser printer. Directed by Ridley Scott's brother Tony, the new ad was called "Lemmings," and featured blindfolded businesspeople whistling an out-of-tune version of Snow White's "Heigh-Ho" as they followed each other off a cliff (referencing the myth of lemming suicide).

Jobs and Sculley didn't like the ad, but Chiat\Day convinced them to run it, pointing out that the board hadn't liked the last ad either. But unlike the rousing, empowering message of the "1984" ad, "Lemmings" directly insulted business customers who had already bought IBM computers. It was also weirdly boring—when it was aired at the Super Bowl (with Jobs and Sculley in attendance), nobody really reacted. The ad was a flop, and Apple even proposed running a printed apology in The Wall Street Journal. Jay Chiat shot back, saying that if Apple apologized, Chiat would buy an ad on the next page, apologizing for the apology. It was a mess:


In 2004, the ad was updated for the launch of the iPod. The only change was that the woman with the hammer was now listening to an iPod, which remained clipped to her belt as she ran. You can watch that version too:


Chiat\Day adman Lee Clow gave an interview about the ad, covering some of this material.

Check out Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld's excellent first-person account of the ad. A similar account (but with more from Jobs's point of view) can found in the Steve Jobs biography, and an even more in-depth account is in The Mac Bathroom Reader. The Mac Bathroom Reader is out of print; you can read an excerpt online, including QuickTime movies of the two versions of the ad, plus a behind-the-scenes video. Finally, you might enjoy this 2004 USA Today article about the ad, pointing out that ads for other computers (including Atari, Radio Shack, and IBM's new PCjr) also ran during that Super Bowl.

* = A Note on the Airing in 1983

Update: Thanks to Tom Frank for writing in to correct my earlier mis-statement about the first air date of this commercial. As you can see in his comment below, Hertzfeld's comments above (and the dates cited in other accounts I've seen) are incorrect. Stay tuned for an upcoming interview with Frank, in which we discuss what it was like running both "1984" and "Lemmings" before they were on the Super Bowl!

Update 2: You can read the story behind this post in Chris's book The Blogger Abides.

This post originally appeared in 2012.


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