Flood on the Tracks: Living, Dying, and the Nature of Disaster in the Elkhorn River Basin by Todd M. Kerstetter
By Todd M. Kerstetter. Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 2018. xi + 198 pp. Illustrations, notes, sources, index. $29.95, paper.
Flood on the Tracks provides a thoughtful analysis of the dynamic relationship shared between the natural features of the Elkhorn River basin and the humans who have called this region their home. Kerstetter opens this easily accessible book by providing readers with an overview of the Elkhorn River basin, a riverine system located in northeast Nebraska. Within this system flows the Elkhorn River, which begins as a trickle south of Newport, Nebraska. As the Elkhorn River meanders to the southeast, it grows as it accumulates water from runoff and feeder streams before it merges with the Platte River southwest of Omaha, Nebraska. What seems to be a tranquil environment, however, can become disrupted by snowmelts, ice jams, and sudden rainstorms. Natural events such as these can cause the Elkhorn River and its tributaries to swell beyond their channels, bringing forth death and destruction.
Drawing on a diversity of primary and secondary sources, Kerstetter argues that the contemporary history of the Elkhorn River basin has been shaped by attempts to use technology to harness and control the Elkhorn River. This stands in contrast to the experiences of the region's Indigenous populations, who "built their homes above the floodplain and likewise kept most of their possessions out of the river's reach" (67). In contrast to the Indigenous populations, Kerstetter reveals how the modern-day inhabitants of the Elkhorn River basin exploited the river's benefits (1822 to 1930s); sought to contain and control floods through the construction of levees, drainage districts, and local protection projects (1930s to 1940s); and finally, after a series of increasingly devastating floods, began to adopt a more a holistic perspective on how to interact with the riverine system (1944 to present). Driven by the realization that human ingenuity and technology has its limits, communities that follow this holistic perspective seek to manage runoff, facilitate the flow of water down the Elkhorn, and limit human incursions onto the floodplain (136–37).
Although some might question the generalizability of its conclusions, this exploration of a river system in northeast Nebraska reminds readers that unrestricted development that does not respect the power of nature can only lead to what Kerstetter calls "unnatural disasters." The good news is that hope abounds, as Kerstetter goes on to suggest that communities in the Elkhorn River basin have begun to set aside the assumption that nature can be [End Page 114] conquered. To this end, these communities have begun to explore policies and practices that are expected to help humans to better live with the ebbs and flows of nature. In terms of the volume's contributions to our understandings of disaster events, the lesson derived from this well-researched book is that the adaptive behaviors emerging in northeast Nebraska will become increasingly relevant for communities around the world. This will especially be the case as communities start to confront the consequences of climate change and realize they need to rethink their relationship with the natural environment. Given the book's substantive content, those interested in disaster management, urban planning, ecology, and community resilience may find Flood on the Tracks to be a valuable resource.
Sam Houston State University