If floods are inevitable, why do humans insist on building alongside riverbanks? Todd Kerstetter, professor of history at Texas Christian University, tries to answer that question in Flood on the Tracks: Living, Dying, and the Nature of Disaster in the Elkhorn River Basin (Texas Tech University Press, 2019). Kerstetter examines a relatively small river system, the Elkhorn River basin in Nebraska, and describes the waterway's deep history. Floods happen for explicable reasons, and while humans have used the Elkhorn for thousands of years, different societies have found different approaches to dealing with the river's tendency to flood. The problem, Kerstetter argues, is not with the river itself, but rather with the tendency of Americans to build right up close to the riverbanks and staying put. Unlike many places in the American West, a region often defined by aridity, the problem of the Elkhorn is too much water in places were people decided to build towns. In the West, rivers and the people who call them home maintain a love-hate relationship.
Dr. Stephen R. Hausmann is an assistant professor of history at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota.