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Record Rainfall In The Midwest Is Curbing Outdoor Fun And Hurting Businesses

Frank Morris
Outgoing Symphony in the Flint Hills Director Christy Davis surveys part of the pasture where the event would have been held this year

Out on the vast Kansas Flint Hills, Christy Davis trudges through a muddy cow pasture on the site of a big concert that never happened.

“We took a hit with the weather. The one thing that we couldn't control,” says Davis, outgoing director of Symphony in the Flint Hills, an annual event drawing thousands to see live classical music on the open prairie.

Midwestern farmers and homeowners have been hurt by some of the wettest weather ever recorded this spring. And the persistent rain also has cut into the entertainment and hospitality business — as evidenced in the Flint Hills.

A powerful thunderstorm on the eve of this year’s show forced Davis to call it off. It was the first cancellation in the organization's 14-year history.

About 150 miles away in Kansas City, Missouri, wind and rain have been a constant problem for another annual event, the outdoor Heart of America Shakespeare Festival.

“When you're losing maybe half your audience per night, it's very frustrating," says Sidonie Garrett, the festival's executive artistic director.

Relentless rain has depressed turnout this summer.

“You check the weather and you're looking at the radar and you're thinking, ‘Oh wow, it might rain, looks like it could rain,’" Garrett says. “We've had so much rain.”

This year through May has been the wettest ever recorded in Kansas, South Dakota, Nevada and Illinois, and way above average for surrounding states. And in the Midwest it hasn’t just been wet, it’s been chilly.

The temperature at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Illinois, one night last week topped out in the 50s. Hot chocolate vendors ran out of cups.

Rain has already postponed more Major League Baseball games this year than it has in some entire seasons. Fans like Cathy Scroggins have had to adjust.

“I have one top, a sweater, and then a blanket around me that I had to purchase for $55,” she said during the game at Wrigley.

The Midwest also has been dealing with floods, which have killed at least 67 people this year. Water has swamped hundreds of homes, businesses, farm fields — and even lakes.

Credit Frank Morris / NPR and KCUR
Rick Gladson and Lisa Garrison ferry supplies and customers to Truman State Park Marina, their business, via pontoon boat. Garrison figures business is down about 75% this year

At Truman Lake in Warsaw, Missouri, die-hard fishermen launch boats from a road that vanishes into a flooded parking lot. But there aren’t many people out here, and the only marina open on this huge lake is cut off from shore.

“Not everybody has their own private island,” says Rick Gladson. He’s using a pontoon boat to shuttle ice, beer, soda, snacks — and customers — from the road to his marina. Gladson and his wife, Lisa Garrison, bought this floating business, and spent the winter, and a lot of their savings, fixing it up.

“Yeah, huge investment. We are 100% in,” he says. “We joked about sink or swim, so we're, we're treading water.“

It’s the same for Christine Letcher and her husband, who have eight cabins for rent up the road.

“I mean it's slow. Not just for me, but everybody around everybody. The stores, we don't buy as much ice for ice machine,” she says. “And so it just trickles down to everyone.”

As with farming, sports, outdoor festivals and concerts, there’s a season for this business; the season that slipping away.

“This is the time of year where we make the money to pay the bills. I'm a little afraid of what's going to happen this winter,” Letcher says.

Forecasters expect the rest of the summer to be wetter than average. And it will take months to tally the losses from all that rain.

Frank Morris is an NPR correspondent and senior editor based at KCUR in Kansas City, Missouri. 

I’ve been at KCUR almost 30 years, working partly for NPR and splitting my time between local and national reporting. I work to bring extra attention to people in the Midwest, my home state of Kansas and of course Kansas City. What I love about this job is having a license to talk to interesting people and then crafting radio stories around their voices. It’s a big responsibility to uphold the truth of those stories while condensing them for lots of other people listening to the radio, and I take it seriously. Email me at frank@kcur.org or find me on Twitter @FrankNewsman.
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