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The American Flood Havoc of 1937

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All along the banks of the great Ohio River live people who can tell, with awe in their voices, of the great floods they have seen - 1913 - 1927. For more than a thousand miles, past Cairo, Illinois, where the Ohio joins the mighty "Father of the Waters," the Mississippi, live tens of thousands more who have learned to fear his relentless power.

Imagine, then, on the morning of Thursday, January 21, 1937, the foreboding in those people's hearts, when the news flashed round the world of a serious rise in the upper waters of the Ohio. Heavy rains had fallen, and quite suddenly the giant tributary (itself a river far bigger than the Thames) had begun to creep upwards, towards the top of its banks. Hundreds of families, who had gone to bed without any thought of disturbance, awoke the next morning, faced with the need for urgent flight. All that they possessed lay in danger. All the work and love which they had put into their homes might be destroyed in a day. If they dallied, hesitating before they left, their very lives might be lost. So rapidly had disaster threatened them, that even the first forms of relief were unavailable.


read the huge headlines. And already men were talking of even greater damage than that which followed the floods of 1927. In almost no time, reckoned in the time which the unfortunate people knew was necessary for them to escape, the river had swollen so terribly that in many places it was ten feet above flood level. Already huge tracts of land were flooded, and a stream of refugees were fleeing to comparative safety, by horse, car, and rail. By the evening of that Thursday another river, the Little Miami, had broken through the dykes by Cincinnati, flooding hundreds of acres, and waterlogging the airport. Three villages in the state of Ohio were completely flooded, and only by urgent relief work were the 2,000 odd inhabitants rescued by boats and lorries.

Railway wagons, barns, schools, and many other forms of temporary shelter were hastily taken over by the Red Gross, to house the homeless, but even as these tireless workers toiled, news came in, from other towns and villages all along the valley, of threatened dykes, rising waters, and an ever-increasing total of homeless families. It was only the beginning. Foot by foot the Ohio rose, until it was within less than four feet of the 1927 level, and it soon became obvious that even the bigger cities must be involved. It was no use waiting for the worst to happen. Over four hundred lives had been lost in 1913. Once the waters got out of hand there was no stopping them. Men, women, and children of all ages began to fly from their homes, leaving almost all they possessed behind them. By Friday, January 22, more than 130,000 families were homeless in eleven states, and still the rain continued to fall all along the valley. Already the damage had reached incredible figures, and at least eleven people had perished.

At Cincinnati, with a population of over 450,000, the river soon reached a level of seventy-one feet - the highest recorded for fifty years, and the engineers predicted a further foot rise before nightfall. The people of Wheeling, West Virginia, a large industrial town, were warned to expect a level of forty-five feet within twenty-four hours. Shops were boarded up, factories closed down, and men worked frantically to remove all the most valuable stock from the stores and warehouses. At Portsmouth, Ohio, dramatic events were already taking place. There, although the people had suffered no severe floods in recent years, on account of the strong walls which had been built, it was soon realised that the weight of water which was on its way would prove too much. Urgent meetings were called, and it was decided to open the sewer valves to let the water into the city. Prisoners were released from the gaol to help the unfortunate householders remove their belongings, and more than a hundred boats were commissioned to assist with the evacuation of the district. Every five minutes the mournful chorus of factory and engine whistles shrilled a terrifying warning, and police tore through the streets in cars, calling out to every one to leave. Feverishly, hour by hour, the work was rushed ahead, while the relentless waters rose higher and higher against the walls. Then, finally, soon after midnight, the valves were opened, and with a gurgling rush the water churned in through the pipes. Within a few hours it was ten feet deep in the city.

On and on. Higher and higher the water rose, sweeping along the river at the rate of nearly ninety miles a day. By January 24 thirteen states were affected, and at least 350,000 were without homes. It was bitterly cold, and the rain continued to fall. Nothing but hunger, discomfort, and even disease was the prospect of those who were forced to leave everything to the mighty waters. Although it was only the third day of the real havoc, damage to property was known to exceed five million pounds, and the death roll had increased to twenty-six in the states of Ohio and Arkansas alone. Soon the swollen waters of the Ohio would reach the Mississippi, and that river was already in danger of flooding. Water flows into the Mississippi from an area more than twenty times the size of England, and with a large part of that area soaked with rain there was a situation grave enough in itself. Dykes were cracking even then, but the full disaster, inevitable, was some days off. Even so, with all possible relief needed in the Ohio valley, people could not prepare against everything that might happen.

President Roosevelt, appealing on behalf of the American Red Cross, said, "The victims of this grave disaster are dependent upon the American Red Cross for food, shelter, fuel, medical care, and warm clothing. I have instructed the various agencies of the Federal Government to co-operate to the fullest extent with the Red Cross Authorities." He also appealed for a minimum relief fund of 400,000. The response was immediate and magnificent. Aircraft, trains, lorries, and boats were rushed to the distressed areas, carrying food, medical supplies and bedding. Twenty thousand workers were drafted to the worst districts, and a further fifty thousand stood by, ready to go wherever they were needed. At Cincinnati, with its population of seven hundred thousand, the more serious effects of the floods were already being felt. More than a tenth of the city was under water, and fires had broken out. Several oil tanks exploded, and firemen were faced with the task of fighting a wall of flames extending for more than three miles, and over half a mile deep. A paint and varnish factory was among the first score or so of buildings to blaze up, and flames shot from it, reaching a height of three hundred feet. Dense billows of smoke hampered their efforts, and to make matters worse the firemen had to stand in muddy water to their waists. A hundred men were released from gaol to help them, along with the other volunteers.

From Portsmouth came fresh tidings of hardship as snow began to fall in driving gusts, and the Mayor of Louisville advised all the 300,000 inhabitants to leave the city, fearing what would happen when the full might of the floods arrived. There the level of the Ohio was more than fifty-two feet, and still rising. At Frankfort, Kentucky, about three thousand convicts were removed from the State Reformatory, as the lower parts of the prison were flooded, and twenty-four of them made a wild dash for liberty by attempting to swim the flooded river. All were caught except one, and he was apparently drowned. On January 25, Martial Law was declared in Southern Indiana, for looting had broken out in several districts. The homeless now numbered half a million, and at least fifty had perished. Both Louisville and Cincinnati, with a total population of a million, were in dire danger of disease. They were almost without drinking water, and colds and influenza ran rife. A day later, and the death roll had grown to 132. It was plain that all the horrors of the past few days were nothing to what must follow.

At Cairo, where the waters were slowly beginning to rise, where the Ohio runs into the Mississippi, the state troops dynamited sections of the dykes to relieve the pressure of water. Some 100,000 acres were flooded by this necessary precaution, and although every effort was made to evacuate every one from the locality, it was feared that several lost their lives. With billions upon billions of gallons of water everywhere, one of the greatest problems to be faced was the ever-present danger of typhoid. At Cincinnati, although the reservoirs contained upwards of eighty millions of gallons, they were polluted, and it was necessary for every drop to be carried in jugs and cans from other sources, and to boil it before use.

On January 26 Louisville reported typhoid. Hundreds of the inhabitants who had not left, in spite of repeated warnings, were already taxing the doctors and nurses to the limit of their endurance with colds and influenza. Then, on top of all this, coupled with the cold, hunger, and misery, came this last bitter blow. More than a thousand regular troops were drafted to the city to help with the chaos, and to assist the thousands of alarmed people to safety. Added to the now alarming death roll were the lives of twelve convicts who took part in rioting at the Frankfort State Penitentiary. The prison was flooded, and eight hundred convicts were hurried from their cells to the security of one garage, where they were guarded, day and night, by rifles and machine-guns, as carpenters toiled frantically to build a temporary wire and tent enclosure.

A week after the beginning of the floods orders came from Washington, preparing troops to stand by to evacuate the entire civil population from the valley of the Mississippi - to a distance of fifty miles on either side of the river wherever the dykes appeared to be in danger. The floods in the Ohio valley were still growing worse, but the peak would soon be past. Then would follow a terrible threat to at least a thousand miles of country, extending along the Mississippi right from Cairo to New Orleans.

None but an eyewitness can describe the feeling of terror which each person suffered in those stricken towns in the Ohio valley, as the last waves of flood water approached. Darkness, cold, and hunger were but the slightest of their troubles. Drinking water had to be boiled, but in many cases there was no gas on which to boil it. Films of petrol lay on the flood water in the streets, and it was often highly dangerous to strike a match. One unlucky fire, and flames might tear through all that was left high and dry. And then, to cap everything, in spite of the presence of soldiers, there was the ever-present fear of looters. But by January 28 the gravest dangers were past. More than a million were homeless, between two and four hundred were dead, and the most conservative estimate of damage was 80,000,000.

At Cairo the waters reached fifty-nine and a half feet, and were licking the tops of the concrete walls. Frantic and incessant labour by thousands of men had raised those walls another three feet with earth and wood, but another six inches of water might well smash down all that work in a matter of seconds. And, if the walls went, the entire city would be from twenty to thirty feet under water almost immediately. The city was only peopled by men. All women and children had been moved to safety when the full nature of the danger was explained. But, so sure were the men that the walls would hold, that without warning the inhabitants began to return. First in ones and twos, and then in hundreds, they came flocking back to their homes, even as the weary men fought and struggled to strengthen those vital inches of defence material. Fifteen hundred of them, in all, came back, and then were hastily evacuated for the second time as the crucial hour approached. The water rose higher and higher. All through the night men patrolled the walls in the glare of floodlights. At any second a blare of syrens might foretell the worst. But the night passed in safety, and slowly the waters began to sink.

The same tension existed all along the Mississippi's huge valley. Hour by hour the danger increased as the water rose. But, by the grace of God, there was no terrible inrush of the floods. Minor breaks there were, and many hasty retreats, but the danger passed, and slowly the muddy waters sank. For more than a month the terrible calamity held thousands of families in fear of their lives. Damage to the extent of millions of pounds, and a death roll of nearly four hundred, was the toll of those dreadful rolling waters. And now, with the danger well behind them, the people of the river valleys are still wondering what will happen next time. But already plans are afoot for a huge programme, to extend over more than six years, costing upwards of 550,000,000 - for their safety. And in time - before the mighty Mississippi bursts its banks again, it is hoped, every state will be rendered comparatively free from danger.

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Pictures for The American Flood Havoc of 1937

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