Saturday, November 17, 2012

'An Epidemic of Disasters'


The United States had no warning. The nation's most widespread natural catastrophe - yes, even more sweeping in geographical area than Hurricane Katrina in 2005 or Hurricane Sandy in 2012 - struck Easter weekend 1913 as the grand finale of what Mabel T. Boardman (volunteer head of the Red Cross who succeeded its founder Clara Barton) later called "an epidemic of disasters." Beginning with a dozen tornadoes - including one that still ranks as Nebraska's deadliest tornado through downtown Omaha - the catastrophic sequence of events culminated with record flooding across all or parts of 15 states, which immobilized the industrial heart of the nation. More than 1,000 people lost their lives - more than perished in the 1871 Chicago fire, with property devastated over an area bigger than afflicted by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. And it was a rolling disaster, as over the following month the flood crests surged down the Mississippi, bursting levees.
It's a whale of a story with marvelous characters. Its most prominent national hero was a crook - John H. Patterson, founder of National Cash Register (NCR) in Dayton. Another major figure was Ohio's Governor James M. Cox, "boy publisher" of the Dayton Daily News, who effectively co-opted the nation's 1913 Great Easter Flood and made it specifically the Great Dayton Flood. There was also newly inaugurated President Woodrow Wilson, who sent the Secretary of War Lindley M. Garrison into battle against the raging waters. There was engineer Arthur E. Morgan, whose resulting innovative flood control project - then the largest engineering project in the world - has protected southwest Ohio and the city of Dayton ever since. The flood was Ohio's and Indiana's worst-ever weather disaster, and the powerful storm system brought Nebraska's deadliest tornado. 
From across the ravaged eastern U.S., there are many stories this blog will lift out of obscurity. For example, there were nearly thousand prisoners in an Indiana penitentiary whose beloved warden allowed them to save the town of Jeffersonville from being engulfed by the Ohio River- and whose residents were so grateful they feted the prisoners with a bountiful feast. There were the fledgling organizations of the Boy Scouts of America and Rotary, whose members' spontaneous assistance to the victims of the 1913 tornadoes in Omaha, Nebraska, and the flood districts led them to discover their true mission of humanitarian service. There was the record flooding along the Hudson River at Albany, New York, whose fast work on the part of public health officials ended up convincing the nation of the value of chlorinating drinking water to prevent typhoid and other waterborne disease. On the dark side, across the tornado-devastated and flooded regions, sufferers who had lost everything in the flood wrestled to be recognized as victims worthy of compassion and assistance, rather than turned away branded with the stigma of being undeserving paupers.
The national scale of the natural disaster was well-recognized at the time, and prompted the publication of five of what we would now call "instant books." One of them, Our National Calamity of Fire, Flood and Tornado by Logan Marshall (bottom left book in photo), inspired the title of this blog.
Over the forthcoming year, I will be posting stories as close to weekly as deadlines and life allow. Topics will range from meteorology to philanthropy, from daring escapes to lasting legacies - all with the goal of illuminating the vast scale of the disaster (see map) as well as references uncovered over the past decade. I will also be exploring such big questions as: how could something so enormous be forgotten? and could such a phenomenal disaster happen again (the troubling answer is 'yes')?

Please return often, as throughout 2013 many of the hardest-hit Midwestern communities will be commemorating the centennial of the Great Easter 1913 tornadoes and flood in their locale. Please also feel free to contact me for permission to reprint stories, or to invite me to write an article or paper (or a book - my ultimate goal is to write the definitive book on the full scope of the Great Easter 1913 natural disaster), or to give a public presentation.

Caption to map: Extent of the country covered by 1913 tornadoes, electrified dust storm (the worst experienced until the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s), and rainfall of March 23-27, plotted to scale. Subsequent flood crests roaring down the Mississippi River burst levees and devastated vast sections of Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Assembled by Trudy E. Bell from data from multiple sources. (Not shown is the Good Friday March 21 hurricane-force wind and sleet storm that extended from Quebec to the Gulf of Mexico, downing wireline communications, nor the tornadoes that devastated a Chicago suburb and destroyed much of Lower Peachtree, Alabama.)

Caption to photo: "Instant books" were published less than a month after the tornadoes and floods in 1913, largely
collated from newspaper articles about the disasters. The five shown are America's Greatest Flood and Tornado Calamity (edited by Thomas Herbert, M.A. and J. Martin Miller; [no city or publisher given]: copyright Thomas H. Morrison, 1913]); Tragic Story of America’s Greatest Disaster (by Marshall Everett; Chicago: J. S. Ziegler Co., 1913); Horrors of Tornado, Flood and Fire (by Frederick E. Drinker; [no city given]: George W. Bertron, 1913); Our National Calamity of Fire, Flood, and Tornado (by Logan Marshall; [no city given]: L. T. Myers, 1913) - whose title inspired the title of this blog; and Rasende Fluten Tobende Sturm (a German translation of Thomas H. Russell's Story of the Great Flood and Cyclone Disasters; translated by Max Heyer; Chicago: Laird & Lee, 1913). Books in the research collection of Trudy E. Bell.

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