It can be a tricky thing, staging an event built upon a tragedy, but the Dubuque Community YMCA/YWCA is attempting to strike the proper balance this weekend.
From 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, July 6, the Y is hosting a commemoration of a historic Dubuque tragedy: The Union Park Flood.
One hundred years ago — on Wednesday afternoon, July 9, 1919 — a sudden and severe storm produced such a downpour that a wall of water rushed through the valley of Union Park, then the community’s leading venue for leisure activities.
A flash flood, the product of a deluge measuring nearly 4 inches, swept five people — a woman and four children — to their deaths. Many others would have been lost had it not been for heroism and luck. Destroyed were nearly all the amenities of the park, then owned by Union Electric Co.
While the events at Union Park a century ago command our attention today, note that it was part of a bigger tragedy. Two other Dubuquers died that day: A woman and child were lost in the Bee Branch “sewer,” as it was then called.
The storm and rushing floodwaters also ripped apart major streets and blanketed the city with debris. Mayor James Saul called an emergency meeting of all citizens for the following evening. A major concern was that, in event of a fire virtually anywhere in the city, emergency equipment could not reach the scene.
It’s positive that the YMCA/YWCA, which has held joint or full ownership of the Union Park site for three-quarters of a century, has scheduled events Saturday to mark 100 years since the tragedy. How well discounted zipline rides fit the theme of the day is a matter of opinion, but the balance of the program, including the noon memorial service and tours of the property, will mark the occasion appropriately.
The anniversary also gives each of us an opportunity for further reflection, particularly in light of the storm that hit the tri-state area this past Sunday evening. How far we’ve come and how much we’ve learned regarding severe weather.
A century ago, people did not have storm sirens; they didn’t even have radio. Weather forecasting was still in its infancy. The morning of the 1919 storm, the Telegraph Herald’s front-page weather blurb mentioned “probably local thundershowers late this afternoon or evening,” but readers had no clue of how severe they would turn out to be.
It’s little wonder that back then storms — this one and others across the country — claimed so many more lives.
Today, we have the benefit of storm sirens. We have radio, television and internet. We can view radar that shows us approaching storms — their movement and intensity — in real time. Our smartphones emit warning tones. Weather forecasting has never been more accurate.
When it comes to dangerous weather, we’ve never had so much precision and so much warning. As we remember Dubuque’s seven victims of July 9, 1919, let us all resolve to learn to make the most of today’s advantages.