A 25-year-old engineer who grew up near the Pacific Ocean got his feet wet professionally while fighting the Flood of 1952 in Omaha.
Now 84 and still living in Omaha, Al Harrison said that watching the battle against the Flood of 2011 the past two-plus months has stimulated memories of 59 years ago.
"Just like we experience now," he said, "it was touch and go."
In duration and volume, this year's flood is the Missouri River's largest in 113 years of record-keeping. It started in late May and it may be six to eight more weeks until the river retreats inside its banks.
But the more brief spring flood of '52 ran several feet higher in the Omaha-Council Bluffs "bottleneck," where citizens' round-the-clock sandbagging drew national news coverage. President Harry Truman visited Offutt Air Force Base for a briefing.
Many also have filled sandbags this year. Harrison, though, recalled the 1952 sandbagging response as "a tremendous civic enterprise with people from all over town on both sides of the river, from way up past the airport down to the South Omaha Bridge."
The citizenry and other flood-fighters won, and the river subsided. Afterward, a World-Herald article said: "One hope buoyed everyone in the valley: That they may have witnessed the last great flood of the mighty Missouri."
That hope stemmed from plans to build upriver dams. A hydraulic engineer for the Army Corps of Engineers from 1950 until his retirement in 1988, Harrison said this year's flooding would have been worse had those dams not been built.
He grew up in Los Angeles, five miles from Santa Monica Beach, and earned a master's degree at Cal-Berkeley. He became interested in river engineering during his two years assisting professor Hans Albert Einstein, son of physicist Albert Einstein.
After two years in the Navy, Harrison came to Omaha in the fall of 1950 to work with the Corps of Engineers.
Though long retired, he sometimes says "we" when talking about the corps, and says it has done a good job carrying out its mandate under federal law.
The corps has found itself in the middle of controversy this year because of competing interests: flood control, upstream recreation and downstream barge navigation. If people want changes in the way the corps manages the river, Harrison said, they should encourage Congress to change the law.
Harrison takes the long view of the Missouri, the longest river in America. Though loyal to the Corps of Engineers, he says he would like to have served in another corps — Lewis and Clark's 1804-06 Corps of Discovery.
"I'm a great fan of the Lewis and Clark diaries," he said. "I and other people who have worked on the river with the Corps of Engineers have been over most of their route at one time or another. It's a different river now, narrowed. But I really respect those guys. They were very tough."
Some have compared their expedition, in its danger and its exploration of the unknown, to the first moon landing. "Unlike the moon landing," Harrison said, "there wasn't a lot of technological help for those guys. They were essentially out of touch for a long time."
A widower and a great-grandfather, Harrison volunteers as a docent at the Henry Doorly Zoo and is active in the Second Unitarian Church. He is the father of four daughters, two in California and two in Oregon. His physician son, Dr. Garth Harrison, died in Missouri in 2004 when struck by a vehicle after he stopped to help a motorist injured in another accident.
As the flood of '52 raged, Harrison flew in a small plane to Bismarck, N.D., and then south to St. Joseph, Mo., studying the Muddy Mo. His work suddenly entailed more pressure because his boss at the Omaha district of the corps took a job at a college in the east, and young Al suddenly was leading the general hydraulic section.
Just as a lot of engineers and other folks have united this year to fight the Missouri, many did so back then. Despite having fought it, Al Harrison never saw it as an adversary.
"It's a beautiful river," he said. "One of the great rivers of the world."
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