Saturday, August 1, 2015

Katrina + 10: Once and Future Disasters

Ten years ago this month, Hurricane Katrina—third most intense hurricane to make landfall in the U.S., based on central pressure—slammed into the U.S. Gulf Coast, beginning the nation’s worst and most widespread disaster since the Great Easter 1913 flood. Ten harsh lessons from both 

“You need to pay attention to what is happening with Hurricane Katrina,” advised the late Air Force senior historian Craig B. Waff (1946–2012), who called me from Wright-Patterson AFB in Dayton, Ohio, just a few days after Katrina began battering the Gulf
Flooded houses in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 (left) and in Dayton during the Great Easter 1913 flood. Credit: Jocelyn Augustino/FEMA and Dayton Metro Library
Coast on August 29, 2005. “Many aspects seem to be repeats of what you’ve been discovering about the 1913 flood.” 

“But the 1913 flood wasn’t a hurricane; it was a winter storm system,” I objected, at that time still rather narrowly focused after having then researched the Great Easter 1913 national calamity for just over two years and published just my first article on it.

“Doesn’t matter,” he replied. “The societal parallels are uncannily striking.” 

How prophetic he proved to be. 

1 – Both 2005 and 1913 were really, really bad. The protracted disaster that began with Hurricane Katrina on August 29, 2005 ultimately killed over 1,800 people and devastated more than 90,000 square miles in at least half a dozen states (Louisiana,
Rainfall during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 (left) and during the Great Easter Flood of 1913 (right). Also shown are the devastating Easter 1913 tornadoes and multistate dust storm. Credit: NOAA and Trudy E. Bell
Mississippi, Tennessee, Florida, Georgia, and Alabama)—about the area of Great Britain. The Federal government spent more than $110 billion in disaster relief, recovery, and rebuilding while private insurers and reinsurers covered nearly another
Costliest hurricanes. Credit: AccuWeather
$62 billion in insured catastrophe losses—the highest annual U.S. insured catastrophe loss ever. In comparison, the Great Easter 1913 disaster claimed some 1,000 lives, afflicted a similar area over parts of 15 states, costing the equivalent of at least $116 to $130 billion (in 2013 dollars) of documented damage. In both cases, we’ll never know precisely just how bad, as many flood losses were uninsured (and thus uncounted) and many people may have died months later and not been counted as part of the original figures.

2 – 2005 wasn’t just Katrina. “Don’t Call it Katrina” is the title of a May 29, 2015 New Yorker article by Thomas Beller. Katrina was just the first knockout punch of a series
Hurricane Rita: Credit: NOAA
of devastating hurricanes, followed three and a half weeks later by powerful Hurricane Rita, hitting land over Louisiana and Texas on September 24, but already fading into forgetfulness. Katrina and Rita marked the first time that two hurricanes of Category 5 strength on the Saffir-Simpson scale formed in the Gulf of Mexico in a single season. Really forgotten was the proverbial last straw: Hurricane Wilma—the most intense Atlantic hurricane on record—which nicked the tip of Florida on October 24, doing another $29 billion in damage, but concentrated most of its fury over the Yucatan. Not only did these hurricanes bring storm surges and torrential rain, but they were also accompanied by tornadoes—59 for Katrina and no fewer than 89 for Rita, putting both
Hurricane Wilma. Credit: AccuWeather
hurricanes in the top 10 for number of tornadoes. And of course, the Great Easter 1913 storm system consisted not only of phenomenal flooding in the Midwest—still holding scores of records across Ohio and Indiana; moreover, it was ushered in with a hurricane-force windstorm (would have ranked as Category 2) that crucially crippled communications, and was accompanied by more than a dozen tornadoes, including record-setters in Omaha (still Nebraska’s deadliest twister) and Terre Haute

3 – 2005 wasn’t just New Orleans. New Orleans was simply the largest city devastated by Katrina, and the one toward which the media converged, possibly because in all the devastation it was comparatively easy to reach, had the greatest concentration of storm survivors and public officials, and had at least some functioning facilities. New Orleans became the public face of Katrina. But that focus on just
Katrina and just New Orleans not only eclipsed the plight of millions of other Louisianans, but also unjustly obscured the tragedy of Mississippi as well as all the victims of Hurricane Rita, especially those in Texas. This, of course, echoed what happened in 1913, where Dayton became the focus of public attention as the result of its being the first major city to get word of the disaster unfolding in Ohio, Indiana, and elsewhere out to the world despite decimated communications—reinforced by the fact that Ohio’s governor was also the publisher of the Dayton Daily News and that Dayton’s savior John H. Patterson was the president of NCR, the city’s largest employer. Even today, the flood is still remembered around Ohio as “the great Dayton flood,” as if the monumental floodwaters stopped at the city limits. Ultimately, identifying a natural disaster with one city has the unfortunate effect of diminishing public perception of both the scope and importance of a monumental, widespread calamity.

4 – 2005 wasn’t just a “natural” disaster. Beller in his New Yorker article “Don’t Call It Katrina” plus many other sources make the point that inadequately maintained levees and other infrastructure compounded the magnitude of the 2005 disaster in New Orleans and elsewhere. Human hubris also played a key role in the devastation
Luxury condos built on flood plain just a few feet above the
average level of the Rocky River. Another danger is the
eroding cliff undercutting the houses above the condos.
 Credit: Trudy E. Bell
wreaked by the 1913 flood, notably houses and businesses built encroachingly close to rivers and widespread deforestation that accelerated runoff. Those contributing causes were identified immediately after both disasters—and likely will be the subject of an entire future installment to this research blog. The chilling part is, humans don’t learn. They still think it is perfectly okay to build on flood plain—see photo at right that I took of the luxury condos built in 2012 in Rocky River, Ohio. Or they feel that because the last major flood happened in 1913, another such flood is unlikely to happen again, so they are justified in trying to avoid mandatory flood insurance—as several residents have tried to do in Troy, New York. They would be well advised to read government reports that predict more frequent intense greater rainfall and runoff in the coming decades for the Midwest and Northeast (see top two references in “Benchmarking ‘Extreme’”).

5 – 2005 wasn’t the worst that could have happened. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita were “only” Category 3 hurricanes at landfall. They could have been Category 4 or 5. In 1913, the intense rain fell when the Ohio, Missouri, and Mississippi rivers were at normal height; they could have been in flood. As monumental as both calamities were, they were not the worst theoretically possible.

6 – The disaster wasn’t over when the waters receded and the media left. In 1913, some newspapers went out of their way to pretend that cities were back to normal as soon as the floodwaters receded—even to the point of spinning the disaster
Paducah, KY, scoffed that the record
1913 flood was a disaster even though
floodwaters filled most city streets up
to 8 feet deep. Paducah News-
Democrat, April 16, 1913, p. 4.
as a “water carnival” equivalent to having the city’s “face washed” and that yielded nothing worse than some lost wallpaper (see “Spurning Disaster Aid”). In 2005, as recounted by Beller and in a 2012 Huffington Post Live half-hour roundtable discussion on how soon we forget, the reality of living with unsafe water, inadequate food, temporary housing, filthy streets, devastated infrastructure, improvised medical care, while trying to rebuild despite having little or no flood insurance payments—all the time still needing to earn a living and care for children—imposed huge medical stress on Louisianans and Mississippians (listen around minute 16:00). One
astute advisor cautioned New Orleans residents, “As bad as you feel now, you will feel worse in a year” when the adrenaline is gone and the media are gone, yet residents will still be struggling with finding gasoline and food. The long slog to recovery resulted in an undercurrent of rage at slow bureaucracies and clueless public. Observed one Huffington Post Live commentator, “the disaster lasts longer than the news cycle.” 

7 – Plenty of post-disaster blame was dished out. Blaming everyone in sight after a monumental natural disaster is apparently a recognized psychological response. The Federal government was excoriated for many failings in handling emergency response
after the hurricanes in 2005, as well as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the failed levees. That included blaming the very victims of the disasters—even to the point of implying or stating in 2005 that New Orleans “got what it deserved” because of its culture of partying and sinfulness (see Beller’s article) or stating the same thing in 2012 after Hurricane Sandy because the New Jersey coast had the Atlantic City gambling casinos (see the Huffington Post Live video around minute 17:30).  One sobering caution regarding reports calling for revamping government responses: any new procedures won’t get tested until the next Big One—and may themselves fall short both because they are yet untried, and the next disaster will likely differ importantly from the past. 

8 – Big natural disasters are more likely in future. The trend is clear. Many reports predict that weather will grow more violent as the planet warms, increasing both the
Flooding after Katrina made
the cover of this 9/2014
global reinsurance forum on
disaster risk resilience.
number and the intensity of future hurricanes (like 2005) as well as the magnitude of riverine floods in the interior of the eastern half of the nation (like 1913). Costs of major natural disasters are climbing because of increased population, increased personal wealth, and increased infrastructure now in harm's way, as well as some people's magical thinking in continuing to believe that no big disaster could really befall them. Insurers and reinsurers are taking projected climate trends very seriously, and cities and utilities are devising plans for “climate resilience.” 

9 – Unless restructured, the funding of flood insurance is headed for a train wreck. This topic is way too big to address in this one 10th anniversary post, but is a major concern for both the U.S. Congress as well as for individual cities. The need is clear although all solutions appear unpalatable. But this elephant in the room is a clear case of “you can pay me now or pay me later.”

10 – We need to fight the natural human tendency of “post-storm amnesia” in the words of the Huffington Post video (around minute 24:00). Much of the forgetting of the scale, horror, and consequences of the 1913 calamity appears to have been quite deliberate—a topic I intend to explore in a future post to this research blog. Moreover, “motivated forgetting” after the trauma of natural disaster is a known psychological phenomenon. But such forgetting also impedes individual or societal learning from past experience and taking precautions for protection against a repetition. 

Historian Craig B. Waff in Air Force 2.
In short, historian Craig Waff  (R.I.P.) was absolutely spot-on in perceiving parallels between 1913 and 2005. The parallels demonstrate how quickly and thoroughly humans forget a phenomenal disaster through first dismantling its various aspects, and then mentally diminishing the magnitude and importance of those aspects until a monumental calamity can be and may be obliterated from memory…

©2015 Trudy E. Bell

Bell, Trudy E., The Great Dayton Flood of 1913, Arcadia Publishing, 2008. Picture book of nearly 200 images of the flood in Dayton, rescue efforts, recovery, and the construction of the Miami Conservancy District dry dams for flood control, including several pictures of Cox. (Author’s shameless marketing plug: Copies are available directly from me for the cover price of $21.99 plus $4.00 shipping, complete with inscription of your choice; for details, e-mail me), or order from the publisher.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Never Before Seen

Eight previously unknown photographs of the 1913 flood purchased on ebay portray the flood at its peak in Rochester, New York. Who was the mystery photographer?
Last November, out of the blue, one Steven Schooler sent me this email message:

Sorry to bother you like this, but I found your blog online and thought you might be interested in some photos I have listed on ebay that show the aftermath of the 1913 flood in Rochester. I came across these recently in an antique store here in my home state of Texas. They are listed under ebay #111511780776, with the auction set to end Sunday night, Nov. 16.
Of course, I immediately jumped to ebay and beheld eight images I’d never seen 
Previously unknown image of 1913 flood in Rochester, NY, on Saturday, March 29, showing turbulent floodwaters coursing over the Court Street Dam. The original photograph - on photographic paper of an oddball size of 3.25 x 5.5 inches - was one of eight sold to me in November 2014 by Steven Schooler. Credit: Collection of Trudy E. Bell
before of the Great Easter Flood, primarily on March 28 and 29, 1913 in Rochester, New York. Now, you’ll never find Rochester topping the list of cities devastated by the 1913 flood, and no wonder: it’s more than 460 miles northeast of the city that gave a human face to the disaster and became synonymous with it: Dayton, Ohio. But Rochester—along with Albany and other New York cities—suffered record flooding that likely would have resulted in national headlines had Dayton (and elsewhere in Ohio and Indiana) not suffered far worse (see “Rescuing Albany’s Water).

Only two cameras existed in 1913 that
could have taken photos of such an
oddball size. The most likely one was
this Kodak 3A Folding Camera.
Credit: Camerapedia
I e-mailed Schooler and asked if I could purchase the images outright. Although he was unable to discontinue the auction at that point with less than 12 hours to go, he wrote:

"I do like what you're doing with your blog, though - I'm actually a professional archaeologist, so I appreciate your love of history. I mostly sell rare/scholarly/reference books on ebay to supplement my income, but I also enjoy poking around in antique stores and am always drawn to the inevitable baskets of sad, cast-off photos. For the ones that have enough clues to situate them in time or place, I enjoy doing a little research and seeing what I can figure out about them. (These Rochester pics were obviously pretty self-explanatory.) Anyway, by putting these wayward photos on ebay, I figure they're at least getting a shot of winding up in the hands of someone who'll be able to more fully appreciate them."
I bit my nails all through November 16, crossing my fingers that the photos would not sell. The next morning, Schooler replied to my query:

"Trudy, no bidders on the photos, which I am actually grateful for too - I really wanted you to get them. You clearly have a passionate interest in the topic, and you're probably the one person best situated to extract the maximum educational / public awareness value from them. Do you think you'll make a blog post out of them? Or maybe even incorporate into another book? (Saw from your email you have one titled The Great Dayton Flood of 1913.)"

The only other camera at the time taking
the oddball film size was the No. 2
Stereo Brownie, a less likely possibility.
Credit:Marlo Groleu

He did not know the identity of the photographer, although the box that contained them had other photos of upstate New York landscape scenes with handwriting on the back identical to the writing on the back of the flood images. 

Because the prints are small and large-format film and glass plate negatives were common a century ago, I speculated that the images might actually be contact prints instead of enlarged. Before shipping them to me, Schooler scanned the prints at 1600 dpi, and was excited to report “there actually is some pretty amazing detail. Like on one, there's a billboard in the distance and on the extreme zoom you can tell it had the image of a roadster-style motor car. And you can actually see one of the pumper vehicles a lot better in another.” 

Schooler packed them very well and they arrived quickly. He added:

If you do use the Rochester images in a new post, or in a new book down the line, please do drop a line -  it would be exciting to see the photos I found used in a finished product!
The camera and photographer
I began digging online for information about the camera and locations noted, as well as in the photocopies of four Rochester newspapers on microfilm (obtained several years ago during a research trip to Rochester) for details about the flood scenes. 

Mystery picture, taken of dry
Water Street on Easter Sunday,
March 23, before the rains began.
Why? Credit: Trudy E. Bell
From my own wet lab darkroom work with black-and-white film, I recognized the small white round dots as being from bubbles in the developer that settled on the film because of too-vigorous pouring and agitation during developing. The composition of the images is not the greatest (indeed, in a couple the out-of-focus window sill obscures a bottom corner of the scene), nor is the printing job expert, yielding inadequate contrast. To me, all these characteristics suggested that the photographer was likely an amateur, not a professional. 

Both the images and the paper prints are also an oddball size: the images themselves are 3 by 5.25 inches, and the paper on which they are printed is 3.25 by 5.5 inches. These sizes perplexed me until belatedly I recalled that Rochester was the headquarters of the Kodak Co. The fabulous British site Early Photography has a marvelous table of standard film and plate sizes for antique and vintage cameras. According to that table, the only possible candidates that could have existed by 1913 would have been Kodak roll film size 122 introduced in 1903 or Kodak roll film size 125 introduced in 1905, both 3.25 by 5.5 inches, sometimes also called a “postcard” film size. 

Now, according to Kodak’s own list of historical cameras, the only camera that could have existed in 1913 using that oddball 122 film would have been one of half a dozen models of a No. 3A Folding Pocket Camera, which was on the market from 1903 to 1915. Initially, it retailed for $78—hardly chump change in 1913, equivalent to about $1700 today—but quickly dropped to $20. 

The other possibility, for 125 film, would be a No.2 Stereo Brownie Camera, on the market from 1905 to 1910 for $12 (about $265 today). Although the price point would be right for an amateur, the camera itself seems unlikely unless there were an option for exposing the entire film plane for a single image. 
Men boating on Front Street. Possibly the water was too deep to allow the anonymous photographer to approach closer to his subject, which was beyond the pile of bricks.
Credit: Collection of Trudy E. Bell

My bet is on the No. 3A Folding Pocket Camera, suggesting to me that the photographer might have been a fairly wealthy amateur.

Easter Sunday mystery
The least interesting image of the eight has the most intriguing mysteries. It shows just a dry empty street with pieces of trash along the curb and some random people at the far end, a couple of them moving fast enough to be blurred during the exposure time. On the back the photographer has written: “Water St. Out of the office window looking toward Main St. Taken Easter Day 3/23/13.” Water St.—or, more precisely, North Water St.—in Rochester is only a block long, which instantly narrows down the location (see map).

Water from the flooded Genesee River washing into houses on March 28, 1913. Note the snow on the roof and the icicles. From sun angle, photo was taken in the morning. Credit: Collection of Trudy E. Bell
Okay, so why was the photographer in the office on Easter Sunday? Doesn’t sound like the behavior of an observant Catholic or Protestant in 1913 on one of the two holiest days of the Christian year. Might the photographer have been of another faith? (Certainly today University of Rochester is one of the top 30 private universities in North America with a large Jewish population.) If the photographer had access to the office on a Sunday, was he (most likely male in 1913) a senior employee with a key or did the office work 24/7? Or did he/she have living quarters there? If the office never closed, including on Easter Sunday, what was its business? 

Compare this image from the Rochester Municipal Archives (second image in the Rochester Subway's blog) of some of the same buildings with the image just above. From the sun angle, this one was taken in the afternoon.
The biggest mystery is: why was the photograph taken? Was it a test shot with a new camera? There is nothing obviously noteworthy out the window. Moreover, the rains had not yet begun, as the heavy weather moved over upstate New York at least a day later than it hit Indiana and Ohio.

Peak flood, March 28
There are four images from Friday, March 28—the day the waters were receding from cities in Ohio, but were just cresting in upstate New York. One—evidently taken from 
High water under buildings on the Main
St. bridge from the river flowing below.
Credit: Collection of Trudy E. Bell
an upper floor across the Genesee River—is annotated “Water washing into the houses across the river from back of our shop & office. Ordinarily there is dry ground about 15 feet below the balconies. The water went right on through & came out on Front Street. 3/28/13.” 

Assuming that the photos were again taken from the same office on Water Street, that suggests that the building fronted the river on the west side of Water; note also the mention of a “shop,” which implies a factory. The photo itself shows snow on the roofs and huge icicles; the buildings’ east-facing walls are in full sun, suggesting the photo was taken in the morning. A sharper image of part of this same scene is the second photograph in the Rochester Subway’s blog installment “Rochester’s Great Flood(s), which is a fast enough exposure it better shows the water’s turbulence; some of the snow has melted and the east-facing walls are in shadow, implying that photo was taken later in the afternoon.

Another that same date, with the notation “From back window,” says “These buildings are on Main St. They are built right over the river, which ordinarily runs 15 feet below, and you can see the arches. Now the water is right up under the buildings. 3/28/13.” 

Mill Street, Rochester. Trudy E. Bell
Until the 1960s, Rochester’s Main Street was unique in the world: despite previous floods and fires that destroyed three predecessors in the nineteenth century, the fourth and stone Main Street Bridge was lined with buildings on both sides, with the Genesee River flowing underneath them. This 1913 flood view probably shows the snow-covered roofs and the backs of the buildings on the upriver (north) side of the Main Street Bridge, judging from the likely location of the back office window. 

A third photo for the same date reads “Andrews St., Rochester N.Y. 3/28/13.” The fourth reads “Mill St. Rochester N.Y. 3/28/13.” The two might be usefully considered as a pair, as in 1913 Mill and Andrews intersected; thus, the photographer might have shot one, turned 90 degrees, and shot the other. The water on Mill St. is clearly not very deep, and likely also the same on Andrews, judging from the “open for business” sign on the grocery store and the coat-covered fire hydrant. Note the hose snaking across Mill St., and at the far left water is gushing out of a pipe that is pumping out a basement.

Saturday, March 29
Andrews Street, Rochester. Collection of Trudy E. Bell
The next day, the water was still at least knee deep on Front Street, as can be seen from the photo annotated “Good boating on Front Street Rochester N.Y. This is where the river dropped in the back doors and left by the front. 3/29/13.” The camera’s focus is on the two men in the boat in the middle distance beyond the pile of bricks.

Elsewhere, even though streets were dry, cellars were still flooded. On the back of one image the photographer wrote, “Engines pumping water out of cellars. Rochester, N.Y. 3/29/13.” Unfortunately, no location is noted, but perhaps a reader familiar with Rochester history may be able to identify this busy brick or stone street with its trolley tracks and landmark buildings. The pumping at left appears to be being done with the aid of a fire engine.

Engines pumping. Location?
Collection of Trudy E. Bell
The last photo (lead photo at top of this page) reads “Court St. dam Rochester, N.Y. Ordinarily you can see all the rocks in the rapids. The ‘roll’ of water coming over the dam is about 9 feet high. 3/29/13.” Note also the dangerous turbulence of the floodwater.

The floodwaters had scarcely receded when Rochester’s mayor, Hiram Edgerton, wrote a letter on April 1, 1913, urging the city council to “immediately” consider ordinances to build a protective wall along the west side of the Genesee River, which was completed two years later. The wall still exists and is undergoing improvements today.

Can you help?
I also have scanned the backs of six prints where there is a paragraph of writing, on the outside chance that some reader may recognize the handwriting and be able to identify the photographer. 

The handwriting is quite legible with few abbreviations; indeed, the nature of the explanations suggest that the annotations were not notes to self, but explanations to a friend or relative somewhere else who may not be familiar with the Rochester. That causes me to wonder whether these images were actually mailed to someone distant from the city. And of course, the question has to be asked how they finally ended up in Texas, where Schooler purchased them. 
Anyone recognize the handwriting of the anonymous photographer on the backs of the photos? Scans by Trudy E. Bell

If you have any clue as to the identity of the photographer from the handwriting—or if you know the history of Rochester well enough to have a good supposition as to the “office” and “shop” from which the photographer was shooting—please definitely contact me. I will feature any further information in a future installment.

©2015 Trudy E. Bell

Next time: Katrina + 10

Selected references
A selection of images that make interesting comparisons appear in the installment “Rochester’s Great Flood(s) in Mike Governale’s blog Rochester, May 19, 2014. 
A few paragraphs of interest appears in “The Flood at Rochester, N.Y.,” by E. A. Fisher, Engineering News, v. 69, p. 741, April 10, 1913. 

Tidbits about the 1913 flood in Rochester appear in this USGS reference on floods in upstate New York 1865-1989, with discussion about five notable floods including 1913.

For more about buildings on a bridge, see "Historic Main Street Bridge" by Dorothy S. Truesdale in Rochester History 3(2): , April 1941.

Bell, Trudy E., The Great Dayton Flood of 1913, Arcadia Publishing, 2008. Picture book of nearly 200 images of the flood in Dayton, rescue efforts, recovery, and the construction of the Miami Conservancy District dry dams for flood control, including several pictures of Cox. (Author’s shameless marketing plug: Copies are available directly from me for the cover price of $21.99 plus $4.00 shipping, complete with inscription of your choice; for details, e-mail me), or order from the publisher.