Monday, August 1, 2016

Mapping Disaster

What is revealed when 1913 high-water measurements are input into today’s Geographic Information System (GIS) computational tools? By guest author Barry Puskas of the Miami Conservancy District

[Note October 2, 2016: I am in the process of moving both my office and household 40 miles away. As a result of the inevitable chaos, my next post will be November 1. Thank you for your understanding. - T.E.B.]

Beginning Easter Sunday 1913, 9 to 11 inches of rain fell within three days, March 23–25, throughout the Great Miami River watershed. The massive deluge surged through downtown Dayton and a host of other cities and towns, 
Dramatic digitized map of 1913 flood depths in Dayton, Ohio, was one of nine geo-referenced maps created by Barry Puskas and colleagues at the Miami Conservation District (MCD) between 2008 and 2012, synthesizing data from 1915 hand-drawn maps with modern GIS techniques. For this poster, which also paired photographs of submerged locations in Dayton with similar views of the same locations today, Puskas was received the Map Gallery People’s Choice Award from the Ohio GIS Conference (OGISC) of 2013. High-res digital maps of the 1913 flood in Dayton and eight other cities are available from the MCD (more info below)
drowning or otherwise killing more than 360 people throughout the Miami Valley—60 percent of Ohio’s death toll in just 10 percent of its area. In addition, property damage throughout just that southwestern corner of Ohio exceeded $100 million in 1913 dollars, equivalent to between $2.5 billion and $44 billion in today’s economy (see the discussion at the end of this post on converting the value of historical dollar figures, as well as details about fatalities in “’Death Rode Ruthless…’” and about property damage in “Like a War Zone).

This slide and others like it are courtesy Barry Puskas, Miami Conservancy District

In response to the flood, the some 23,000 citizens of the Miami Valley raised local donations of $2.2 million (in 1913 dollars) by the end of May for a permanent flood protection system (see “Morgan’s Cowboys). The Miami Conservancy District (MCD) was formed as a regional agency for the entire watershed; construction was finished in 1922 and the system completely paid for 1949 (see “Morgan’s Pyramids). The MCD has been providing flood protection since. 

The MCD system consists of five major dry dams (slide 14) that hold back floodwaters in excess of what can be handled by 55 miles of levees and 35 miles of improved channel downriver. The system protects not only Dayton but
The Miami Valley is the land area surrounding the Great Miami River in southwest Ohio that encompasses about 10 percent of the area of Ohio. This area suffered 60 percent of the state’s deaths in the massive 1913 flood and close to half its property damage.

also select areas in the cities of Franklin, Hamilton, Huber Heights, Miamisburg, Middletown, Moraine, Piqua, Tipp City, Troy, and West Carrollton.

The system was designed to protect the valley from not just another 1913-scale flood but also an additional 40% more runoff. The 1913 flood exceeded a 500-year flood (that is, one with only 0.2 percent chance of occurring any year), and some statistics I’ve seen indicate it even exceeded a 1000-year flood (one with less than 0.1 percent chance of occurring any year). So the MCD system protects the valley against a 1000-year flood plus potentially 40% more. That’s a heck of a lot of flood protection.  But after suffering through the 1913 flood, the citizens of the Miami Valley did not and do not want to experience such a catastrophe ever again.

Need for maps

To design, engineer, and construct the effective dams, levees, and improved channels, MCD engineers needed several sets of data including: 1) detailed topographic information of the cities and rural regions swept by the flood; 2) the actual peak heights and extent of the floodwaters for calculating the volume and forces exerted; and 3) some realistic sense of the probability of a future flood of the same or greater magnitude for calculating an adequate safety margin.
But in 1913, only 1:62,500 scale U.S. Geological Survey topographic maps existed of the Miami Valley. Those USGS maps were of only limited use, however, as the usual USGS elevation contour interval was 20 feet, far too coarse mapping of elevations for the MCD’s flood-protection needs.
Just months after the Great Easter 1913 Flood, Arthur E. Morgan, founder of Morgan Engineering Co., deployed 50 engineers around the Miami Valley watershed to calculate the actual volume of water in the 1913 flood. In the absence of reliable maps, Morgan’s men—some dressed as cowboys—went house to house interviewing residents to record the times of flood stages, and surveyed the land themselves. The goal: to deduce the maximum possible flood and engineer fix-it-forever flood protection for Dayton. [Photo credit: Miami Conservancy District]

So, to gather the additional data, MCD chief engineer Arthur E. Morgan famously sent teams of surveyors armed with buckets of white paint fanning out throughout the Miami Valley, interviewing residents about flood heights and times, marking flood heights on buildings and trees with white paint all the way from Piqua (pronounced PICK-wah) to Hamilton.
Then, using traditional surveying tools and techniques, they meticulously measured horizontal lines of sight and (vertical) elevations. They determined elevations to 1-foot contour intervals on flat ground for the whole river corridor where it flooded, and 2-foot intervals on steeper slopes up to 50 to 75 feet elevation above the flood zone. 

By 1915, they completed about 100 hand-drawn, black-and-white paper maps of the valley’s topography and high-water marks plus property boundaries and other essential features. The contour maps included topographical information, 1913 flood limits, and observed high water marks. In some areas, they even mapped river bottom elevations that would have been below the water’s surface. The maps were so careful and precise that they were used by the MCD for nearly a century for estimating flood depths.
Bringing the maps into the digital age
Beginning in 2008, the MCD wanted to digitize the maps so that they could be geo-referenced to a modern geographic coordinate system where the data could be manipulated using computerized Geographic Information System (GIS) methods. By 2012—in time for the centennial of the Great Easter 1913 Flood—the MCD produced dramatic new maps of the 1913 flood. 

The new digital maps are scientifically important, because much topography today has been altered from what it was in 1913 as a result of major changes—including construction of the MCD flood protection works themselves. The new maps would allow us to overlay the current MCD levees and channel improvements. Making the maps digitally accessible also would allow us to understand some of the dynamics of the 1913 flood in greater detail as described by observers or survivors. 

The new digital maps are also historically and culturally important. Mapping the 1913 flood over today’s geography brings home to current residents the phenomenal extent and power of the natural disaster against modern landmarks. Thus, the maps may be freely used by historical societies and other groups throughout the Miami Valley. A few communities—notably 

Large (9 x 21 inches) utility-grade stickers are available from the Miami Conservancy District for communities wishing to commemorate 1913 flood heights. Credit: Sticker courtesy Barry Puskas, MCD; photo by Trudy E. Bell

Dayton, and Franklin, Hamilton, and Troy—have chosen to use the maps to guide them in prominently marking the peak flood heights of the 1913 flood along downtown streets to encourage walking tours of local history. To that end, the MCD also produced utility-grade stickers that can be affixed to light poles and other smooth surfaces to mark 1913 high water.

Converting from then to now
In a nutshell, the MCD generated the new digital maps from the century-old paper maps. As just one example, I’ve zoomed into one area in Piqua: a peninsula jutting into the Great Miami River that we dubbed the Piqua nose, which shows the hand-drawn streets as they existed in 1913. 

First, we took the black-and-white maps and raster-scanned them to convert them into digital form. Then we digitally stitched them together to give us one gigantic map of the entire Miami Valley, through all five counties along the Miami River corridor. To tie them to modern geographic reference systems—specifically to the Ohio State Plane coordinates—we needed features that have not changed since 1913. Streets are sometimes dug up and moved, buildings razed, canals filled in or otherwise destroyed, bridges replaced, etc. But in general, railroad tracks don’t shift much. So the railroad tracks were essential in allowing us to carefully tie the century-old maps to today’s widely used coordinate system.

We also wanted to separate out the topographic contour intervals along with their associated elevation information. We did that through what is known as a raster-to-vector conversion, which simply means converting a hand drawn line from an image to a digital (or computerized) line object. 

That allowed us to create a digital elevation model (DEM) of the region’s topography in 1913, extracting three-dimensional information from the two-dimensional maps. That’s important because water runs downhill—river hydraulics is all about topography and gravity—and features obstructing floodwater flow that can change or alter flow patterns and flood depths.

On that 1913 digital elevation model, we were then able to plot all the high water marks that Morgan’s surveyors had painted and measured—shown as red dots. They plotted and recorded some 1,900 high water marks along the river corridor. 

Then, from those high-water marks, I made some flood water surface lines, that is, making lines that would represent the maximum or peak surface of the 1913 floodwater from one side of the river valley to the other. 

Now here comes the power of digital manipulation. The digital 1913 flood water surface was interpolated to map the edge of the flood boundary.In addition, the data were used to calculate flood depth for every 10 foot by 10 foot area on the ground. The detailed depth mapping was a new look of the flood that depicted much more detail than the 1915 maps. The newly created flood boundary from GIS matched very well to the 100-year-old paper maps; even the dry areas, or as I call them "islands," complemented the original maps.

From this stage, we can now display today’s aerial imagery view of Piqua’s city streets to create a flood depth map for the city and whole region. Once again picking on Piqua, this view reveals how the 1913 floodwaters—which were up to 20 feet deep in this region—would have inundated the streets of Piqua as they exist today. This, of course, is what happened before the MCD flood protection system was built.

Equally dramatically, now that everything is georeferenced, we can digitally superimpose other layers from current aerial photography or any other digital information. For example, we can overlay the MCD’s current flood protection measures: the long orange line around the Piqua nose marks the MCD levees, and the little green squares mark some floodgates on storm sewer outlets so water can’t get back underneath the levees and inundate the city. 

Finally, we can map the area of Piqua—or elsewhere along the Great Miami or other rivers—now protected by the MCD system today.

Sidebar: Gallery of digitized maps
Below are thumbnail images of the digitized maps of the 1913 flood depths in eight cities along the Great Miami River corridor, in addition to the map of Dayton shown as the lead (top) photo in this article. High-resolution versions of the maps are available from the Miami Conservancy District, especially for those communities that wish to create exhibits or otherwise commemorate the 1913 flood as part of their local history. For more information about the digitized maps and high-water stickers, contact the author Barry Puskas c/o
Digital map of 1913 flood in Franklin, Ohio. Credit: Miami Conservancy District
Digital map of 1913 flood in Hamilton, Ohio. Credit: Miami Conservancy District
Digital map of 1913 flood in Miamisburg, Ohio. Credit: Miami Conservancy District
Digital map of 1913 flood in Middletown, Ohio. Credit: Miami Conservancy District
Digital map of 1913 flood in Moraine and West Carrollton, Ohio. Credit: Miami Conservancy District
Digital map of 1913 flood in Piqua, Ohio. Credit: Miami Conservancy District
Digital map of 1913 flood in Troy, Ohio. Credit: Miami Conservancy District
Digital map of 1913 flood north of Troy, Ohio. Credit: Miami Conservancy District
Barry Puskas, P.E., G.I.S.P.—shown here with the Map Gallery People’s Choice Award he received at OGISC 2013—has been manager of technical services for the Miami Conservation District in Dayton, Ohio, since 2007. Before that, he was a hydrologist for the U.S. Geological Survey. Mr. Puskas has professional experience in civil engineering projects such as land development design, hydraulic and hydrologic studies, and dam/levee safety engineering. A graduate of The Ohio State University, he is a registered professional engineer (PE) and geographic information system professional (GISP). His technical expertise is in hydrologic and hydraulic modeling; FEMA flood studies; geographic information systems; flood forecast modeling; flood protection system operations; and engineering design and analysis of dam safety and levee safety projects. Mr. Puskas also has experience in management of information technology (IT) including servers, virtual servers, network systems, work stations, laptops, and mobile devices. He may be reached c/o

©2016 Barry Puskas

Next time: Racing Against Epidemic

Selected references
The text and most of the illustrations in this guest post are based on half the conference presentation by Barry Puskas supplemented with information gathered during a telephone interview with him on June 24, 2016. Listening to his full 45-minute presentation online while watching his full slide presentation is highly recommended for his additional discussion comparing photographs taken during the 1913 flood in half a dozen cities with photos of the same locations today.

There are at least seven separate methods for assessing the present value of historical money (all seven are discussed at the excellent site by two economics professors at the University of Illinois). They are all correct in different contexts, yet they all yield answers that differ widely. Since natural disaster losses pertain to damage to and rebuilding major projects such as bridges and railways, the most relevant method for this purpose seems to be the “relative share of the GDP,” which allows comparison of the cost of construction of a major project in historical times to the value in the economy at the time as a percentage of the GDP. To compare capital losses in 1913 dollars with 2014 dollars (the latest given on Measuring, the “relative share of the GDP” calculator multiplies 1913 dollars by a factor of 439 to reach today’s value. So $100 million in 1913 would translate to about $44 billion today

For more information, see Officer, Lawrence H. and Samuel H. Williamson, “Measuring Worth is a Complicated Question”; for the actual calculator, see “Seven Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a U.S. Dollar Amount, 1774 to Present.” See also their discussion “Choosing the Best Indicator to Measure Relative Worth,” using the cost of constructing the Empire State Building as an example.  

Miami Conservancy District, The. A Flood of Memories. One Hundred Years After the Flood: Images from 1913 and Today. The Miami Conservancy District. 2013. ISBN 978-0-615-75860-2. 128 pages. Hardbound. Colorful coffee-table book depicts the dramatic 1913 flood side-by-side with images of the same areas today captured by photographer Andy Snow. Dayton, Franklin, Hamilton, Miamisburg, Middletown, Piqua, Troy, and West Carrollton are all included. Each pair of images has brief descriptive text, but the bulk of every page is reserved for the striking contrasts between devastation in 1913 and the safety and vibrancy these communities enjoy now.

Some two dozen more books plus several documentary films have been published about the 1913 flood in various cities in the Miami Valley, including many for the 2013 centennial commemoration. For detailed listings and descriptions of them, see “Book Report!”, Centennial Highlights—and Legacy, “Centennial Year + 2, and “1913 Flood + 3.

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 shipping, complete with inscription of your choice; for details, e-mail me.)


Saturday, July 2, 2016

Crisis Communications in a Communications Crisis

When communications infrastructure is devastated for days or weeks in a horrific multistate natural disaster, how can city and state leaders or local volunteers orchestrate evacuations, aid, relief, and recovery? Where internet and electronics go out, lessons from the 1913 flood are useful

[The text below is a condensed variant of a keynote talk Handling a Crisis when Communications are Devastated: Case Study of the Great Easter 1913 Flood” given before the Greater Cincinnati Crisis Communication Workshop of the Regional Storm Water Collaborative. ]

If a colossal multistate natural disaster befell a third of the continental United States today—especially in the populous eastern half of the nation—and completely devastated all modern infrastructure, as happened during the widespread 1913 tornadoes and flood (still the flood of record in Ohio and Indiana), what makes us so sanguine that 21st-century technology will save the day? 

AT&T’s flooded facilities during the 1913 flood versus the flooded lobby of Verizon’s headquarters at 140 West Street in lower Manhattan almost a century later during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Message: Natural disaster can happen again and could disable 21st-century communications.

Yes, ordinarily we have satellite communications, cell phone towers, internet servers, wireless hot spots, and text-messaging and tweeting cell phones that keep us connected 24/7/365—but they all depend on a intact electrical power grid, finite battery life, and staying dry. All bets are off when the power grid blacks out and/or when electronics get wet.

When the lights went out during the 25-hour regional power blackout of July 13, 1977, resulting from lightning strikes to a Con Edison power substation, I was living in a 14th floor apartment in New York City. That hot and sticky evening, I vividly remember hearing all the humming motors of window air conditioners of my building and the building across the street all wind down in unison and die into sweltering silence. Lights were off. The refrigerator was off. The gas stove still worked, but the elevators were out (some people had to walk their dogs down and up 17 flights of stairs). Underground, people trapped in subway trains had to be led along tracks by workers with flashlights. But my husband at the time, a former Floridian who had lived through major hurricanes, also knew that no power meant no water pumps either in our building or at the water treatment plants; immediately, we filled every large container and the bathtub with clean water against what was clearly to be a long siege. And a few hours later, the building pipes were indeed dry and we were supplying neighbors with drinking water.
Before and after images of the US northeast and Canada taken from a DMSP (Defense Meteorological Satellite Program) satellite reveals the change in the nighttime city lights during the regional 2003 power blackout. The top image was acquired on Aug. 14, about 20 hours before the blackout, and the bottom image shows the same area on Aug. 15, roughly 7 hours after the blackout. In the bottom scene, notice how the lights in Detroit, Cleveland, Columbus, Toronto, and Ottowa are either missing or visibly reduced. Long Island, New York, was also significantly affected; however, Boston was left relatively untouched. Credit: Chris Elvidge, U.S. Air Force and NASA Earth Observatory 

Fast forward to the afternoon of August 14, 2003: it was déjà vu all over again when an even more massive power failure of similar duration blacked out eight states from New York to Michigan plus part of Canada. This time my car (in the Cleveland, Ohio, suburb of Lakewood) was trapped in the garage, which had an electric door opener. My desktop computer’s uninterruptible power supply battery backup thankfully kept beeping as it provided precious minutes for me to save open documents and shut down operations. Internet was unavailable and cell towers were out, not to mention the TV, although my hard-wired land line telephone thankfully still worked. (Hard-wired land lines are powered from a standard phone company, which has backup diesel generators—not sure about phone service through a cable TV operator—but note: cordless phones are useless because their base stations are powered through a wall plug.) Across the dial of a battery-operated transistor radio, I could find no signal from a radio station that could explain what was happening—clearly, many transmitters were out. All traffic signals and freeway lighting were dark. Air traffic control towers and runway lighting were inoperable. 
Houston during Hurricane Allison in April 2015 (note that the lights are still on although the freeway was impassable). Credit: Texas Monthly
During both major power failures, New York City and the U.S. and Canada dodged a bullet: the physical power distribution infrastructure was still essentially intact. Once the generators were up and supplying power again within about 24 hours, from the customers’ viewpoint it was back to business as usual: TV and radio stations were up and running again, as were internet servers and cellphone towers, not to mention the electronics in individual homes. Indeed, at least in Lakewood, the outage that evening had something of the character of a holiday party: with no electronics claiming anyone’s attention, the entire neighborhood turned outdoors to barbecue burgers thawing in their useless freezers and to enjoy summer nightfall and an unusual view of the starry night heavens from their front porches.
Several states received record-setting precipitation between May 2015 and April 2016. Credit: NOAA
Not so lucky are the people in Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Texas who have suffered a series of record precipitation events and major floods over the past 15 months since Hurricane Allison in April 2015 (see “Prayers and Lessons), as well as Missouri this past Christmas and New Year’s (see “Misery in Missouri).Most recently, just last month (June 2016) West Virginia has been drowning in unprecedented rainfall. And as anyone who has dropped a cell phone into the toilet or splashed a drink onto their laptop keyboard can attest, water instantly kills electronics. 

During Superstorm Sandy at the end of October 2012, New York City found that out bigtime, when storm surge flooding caused a Con Edison power plant along the East River to explode, instantly plunging lower Manhattan into darkness (scroll down here about two -thirds of the page to see video of explosion and instant darkness) and the city’s internet infrastructure was hammered. Many gas stations did not have power to pump the fuel evacuating cars. Of the few that did, most did not have internet connectivity to process credit cards—and ATM cash machines were also down. One wonders also whether their cash registers—which are basically special-purpose computers—worked even for cash transactions, or whether proprietors dusted off an old cash apron (note to self: put away an envelope of cash in small bills in event of a natural disaster).
Yes, a cash apron or belt-worn coin changer is totally retro, but it works reliably in the absence of electricity. Credit: Time-Life
Message: Extreme, widespread, intense, and prolonged rain events in the industrial and populous northeast and middle of the nation can happen again. Moreover, if a powerful 1913-scale storm system recurred over the same geography as it did a century ago, much of the nation’s communications systems would be directly in harm’s way. Even battery-powered devices would cease to work if the power goes out for longer than a day or two so batteries cannot be recharged.  
The interlocking nature of communications (and control systems) with the power system has drawn the attention of experts at the Department of Energy

Absent much 21st-century communications, are we ready for coordinating relief and recovery? What can be learned from how leaders and individuals responded during the 1913 flood?

Communications blackout
In 1913, the mainstream “broadcast” technology was newspaper publishing. Larger cities often had several newspapers—at least a morning paper and an evening paper—some of which printed multiple editions throughout the day to keep readers informed of breaking news. Supplementing phalanxes of beat reporters covering local and regional stories in person were national news stories carried by the Associated Press (AP) wire news service, which were filed both by AP staff reporters and by “stringers” (freelance reporters in various locales) around the nation. 

Newspapers also widely reprinted stories originating in other newspapers. Most nonlocal articles carried a dateline (the date and originating city or publication) but only rarely a byline (name of an individual reporter who wrote the copy). 

Although crude radio technology had been around for a decade (since Marconi’s famed 1903  transmission of the Morse Code letter S across the Atlantic Ocean in a widely hailed feat of “wireless telegraphy”), transmissions were largely sent and received by individual ham radio operators. By 1913, ham radio even had a rather unsavory reputation both for its unreliable experimental apparatus and for its considerable population of unlicensed and unruly teen-aged boys, who today would be called “hackers.” However, visionary engineers saw radio as a powerful new medium for delivering news and entertainment programming instantaneously to wide audiences. And the well-established wireline telephone and telegraph industries as well as some newspapers knew a threatening upstart technology when they saw one: in 1913, they were heavily lobbying Congress to restrain the development of radio broadcasting. But as of Easter weekend in late March 1913, no commercial broadcast radio existed: the mainstay instantaneous electrical communications technologies of telegraph and telephone all depended on overhead wires strung from poles, and were only point-to-point.

Enter Good Friday, March 21, when the wickedly powerful cold front swept across the eastern half of the nation from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. Sustained hurricane-force winds reached 70 to 90 miles per hour in some cities, blowing down miles of telephone and telegraph wires. Freezing rain quickly followed, the weight of the ice pulling miles down even more miles of wires and snapping hundreds of poles (see “The First Punch).

Now, not every wire needs to be downed to silence transmissions; a few strategic breaks were enough to lead to a nearly perfect communications blackout over multiple states. Wireline communications that did remain were fitful and unpredictable. The consequences were dire: no information about the powerful storm system farther west could be received by the U.S. Weather Bureau in Washington, D.C.—and even if it had been, no warnings could have been telegraphed to cities and communities. So absolute was the communications blackout that in many newspapers no weather map was printed Easter weekend. Indeed, in some papers including in the ground zero of Dayton, Ohio, the published local forecast called for clear and sunny weather for Easter Sunday. Thus, not only was no warning issued about impending disaster, but in the absence of information the published forecast was fatally misleading.
Not only did page 1 of the March 22, 1913 Dayton Daily News forecast clear and sunny skies for Easter Sunday, but asserted that the weather bureau was “next to infallible” for its predictions!

That lack of warning coupled with the violent storm system’s fast approach accounted for Ohio’s hundreds of flood deaths (estimates range from the 420s to the 600s: see “‘Death Rode Ruthless’”). People in other regions that received timely and accurate warning (such as New York and down the Mississippi) had enough time to prepare to shelter in place or to get out of the way, and fatalities were dramatically fewer. And once the floods were raging, the torrents tore out railroad tracks and blocked the delivery of the U.S. mail.

So in 1913, how did people warn others and handle the catastrophe—distributing not just aid but also urgent information—when a major victim of it was the crippling of communications? 

Resourceful individuals took charge in ingenious ways.

Something old, something new
In Dayton and Hamilton, Ohio, individuals warned others in the cities of the danger that levees might be in danger of being overtopped by wedging open a factory whistle or continually ringing church bells. In Peru, Indiana, hundreds of lives were saved when one scared man ran through the streets pounding on doors and warning people to get to high ground. 
Credit: Federal Communications Commission - FCC EAS 2007 TV Handbook
Warnings about the flooding threatening lives in the middle of the state and devastating Dayton got to Ohio Governor James M. Cox through the fast action of two telephone engineers, Thomas E. Green and John A. Bell (see “The Governor’s Ear”). What Bell did for Dayton—keeping the governor in touch with the city every half hour—Green did for the rest of Ohio, causing Cox to call him “my electric scout.”
Telephone wire chief Thomas E. Green’s fast action with patching together emergency communications around the state of Ohio was credited with saving hundreds. Governor Cox later awarded Green (and John A. Bell) medals for heroic service during the 1913 flood. Credit: Cleveland Plain Dealer April 4, 1913 p. 4.

Cox—himself a long-time newspaper man and publisher of the Dayton Daily News—then held daily press conferences in the State House open to every newspaper reporter who could make it there, to spread the word around the state. Newspapers became the broadcast media for official notices, such as boil-water disinfection warnings and Cox’s notification of a 10-day bank holiday around the state. 

Moreover, as the social media of the time closely connected with their local communities, newspapers published column after column of messages from readers asking after relatives in the flood and tornado zones and publishing news as received of their rescues or their deaths. The newspapers themselves went to extraordinary efforts to typeset all this information—in the midst of a power outage, the Akron Beacon-Journal powered its linotype machine with motorcycle engines—and to distribute newspapers to flood-trapped residents around the state (see “‘Clevelanders Responding Nobly…’”).
Individual ingenuity played a big role in communications during the 1913 flood when the power was out. The Akron Beacon-Journal powered its typesetting machines with motorcycle engines to produce a small emergency issue of the paper. Credit: Beacon-Journal March 25, 1913, p. 1.
For handling what telegraph messages and telephone calls that could go through on remaining wires, heroic “telephone girls” and other telephone personnel who stuck to their posts as the water was rising around them to make sure the information got through. The physical wires themselves became the final escape routes to safety for dozens of desperate people trapped around Ohio and Indiana (see “High-Wire Horror”) 

And some of the much-maligned teenaged boys—college and even high school students—who were experimenting with ham radio technology transmitted Morse Code “wireless telegraphy” messages about the plight of flood-stricken areas, summoning aid and relaying information night and day for the first week until the Army Signal Corps operators could make their way into the flood zone with their more powerful equipment (see “Wireless to the Rescue” ).
Across Nebraska, Indiana, Ohio, and elsewhere, “telephone girls” stayed at their switchboards night and day to ensure communications.

Communities and individuals would be well-advised to think through options for communicating evacuation orders or other urgent notifications should a natural disaster also bring a concomitant prolonged power blackout: an outage that might last days or a week. Even if individual cell phones stayed dry and charged, would all cell towers—especially those at higher elevations out of flood zones—remain powered? 

Even seemingly older technologies such as church bells might not be an option for warning people. Many churches no longer have actual bells hand-rung by pulling ropes. Instead, either actual bells are electromechanically operated through a keyboard, or no real bells exist: their sounds are digitally synthesized by electronic carillons.  A civil defense siren would work if it had a gasoline or diesel-powered engine for emergency power (and was above any floodwaters). The federal Emergency Alert System—which occasionally interrupts TV and radio programs with warnings about severe weather—could help, but only if people thought to grab a portable radio and were able to ensure that it stayed dry.

©2016 Trudy E. Bell

Next time: Reconstructing Depth of Disaster   

A PDF of the full original presentation is here.