Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Forget at Your Own Peril

How could 1,000 fatalities and Katrina-scale destruction striking the heart of the industrial north be virtually forgotten? What 1913 warns us today…

Every day for five weeks beginning about February 20, at least one newspaper or TV reporter was contacting me about interviews for their 2013 centennial features on the 1913 flood. Similar daily calls and e-mail requests for interviews were bombarding National Weather Center senior hydrologist  

Experts on the Great Easter 1913 flood and tornadoes were in high media demand throughout March 2013; shown here is public radio/TV host Mike McIntyre (right) of WCPN 90.3 FM/WVIZ Channel 25 interviewing Trudy E. Bell (left) and Sarah Jamison (middle) on "The Sound of Ideas" (audio podcast and video are here)

Sarah Jamison and meteorologist Julia Dian-Reed, and others from the Silver Jackets, historical societies, museums, and local authors in several states.

Then at the end of March, the barrage of calls and e-mail requests suddenly stopped.

The forgetting has already begun anew.

Originally I had intended to end the whole series of centennial installments later this year with a soul-searching essay on the nature of “Remembering and Forgetting.” Last week’s abrupt cessation of the calls as if a switch had been thrown, however, leads me to begin exploring this important topic now as a cautionary reflection—with a warning and an earnest request.

In 1913, it is evident that the news cycle was almost as fickle as it is today. The Nebraska-Iowa-Missouri-Indiana tornadoes splashed across front pages for a couple of days, and then dropped into the interior pages of newspapers as the widespread flooding in the Midwest took over the AP wires and banner headlines. Harrowing destruction and heroism in Dayton, Columbus, Indianapolis, along with heart-rending political cartoons dominated front pages through the end of March, although gradually ceding inches and headline size to competing stories about unrelated global news—the heart attack and illness of Pope Pius X, the hunger strike of U.K. suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst, and the capture of Adrianople (now Edirne) during the First Balkan War. On April 1, the 1913 flood was completely swept off the front pages of the biggest newspapers by coverage of the death of financier John Pierpont Morgan, the world’s richest man, along with his funeral, his will, and his biography.

Yes, on April 1, the 1913 flood instantly became old news, relegated to shorter stories on interior pages. But the disaster wasn’t even over! In fact, it wasn’t even out of the Ohio Valley! Although the angry waters had drained from much of Ohio and Indiana by April 1, only then were they cresting further west down the Ohio River at Paducah, Kentucky. Augmented by runoff from Illinois and Kentucky, the Ohio spread miles wide and flood crests piled one onto the next, inundating riverside cities. Although the crests were less sharp than they were upriver, they were of longer duration—the Ohio remained above flood stage at Cairo, Illinois, for fully three weeks! After reaching the Mississippi River, floodwaters continued to set record heights throughout April, a rolling disaster bursting levees, claiming lives, and wreaking destruction in Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Only in early May were the flood crests finally exiting the Mississippi’s Atachafalaya mouth into the Gulf of Mexico. Although the flood continued to dominate news in local papers in southern states throughout April, the rest of the nation was no longer paying attention to the death march of the country’s most widespread natural disaster.

Meantime, in the industrial north (principally Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, and Ohio), unprecedented tornadoes and flooding had left cities, towns, and landscapes in charred and sodden rubble. In Ohio alone, the canal system was destroyed. Some 500 bridges had been demolished. Miles of rail lines were twisted and trestles weakened or collapsed. Some 20,000 homes had been swept away or crushed, another 35,000 severely damaged, and hundreds of thousands more soaked, mud-filled, and stinking with mud contaminated by human waste from flooded vaults of privies. Tens of thousands of books in libraries were destroyed. Countless livestock and wildlife had perished. Dams had been compromised or breached. Water purification plants, sewage treatment plants, and power plants had been inundated and damaged. 

Governor James M. Cox—chief executive of a state now largely in ruins—estimated the destruction just in the single state of Ohio to be about $300 million, greater than that left by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Later figures show the figure for Ohio to be closer to $200 million (for calculations, see “Like a War Zone”)—but that still translates to a 2013 equivalent of some $75 billion in a state with maybe 40 percent its population today. Some 600 Ohioans were dead, hundreds of thousands more left temporarily or permanently homeless, and fully a quarter of the state’s population had been afflicted by local food famines, destruction of workplaces, or need to house less fortunate neighbors. The immobilized state was under martial law. All banking was suspended for three weeks. The American Red Cross was in charge of disaster relief through August. Federal officials were inoculating flood refugees and others against smallpox and typhoid fever. Homes and offices still standing after having been submerged remained too damp to paint or wallpaper for months. Rebuilding of roads, city streets and buildings, and other infrastructure lasted well into the next year. Property values plummeted.

Long after the floodwaters emptied into the Gulf of Mexico, the appalling intensity of the natural disaster was felt nationally. Until the 1913 flood, Congress had resisted comprehensive national policy on flood control measures, contending that floods were local events that were the purview of individual states. The downing of communications between Chicago and New York City that ceased stock market trades for a day and a half, the halting of the U.S. mails on submerged freight trains for 10 days, and the temporary food famines caused around the nation when the flooding destroyed rail lines and halted rail traffic demonstrated that severe floods not only could be multistate or regional disasters but also could have national consequences. That realization began a nationwide conversation about flood control measures and policies. 

Amateur “ham” radio operators and the U.S. Army Signal Corps provided emergency radio communications when the telephone and telegraph lines were down. Their essential services began a conversation in Congress about the value of commercial broadcasting and emergency radio as an alternative to wireline communications. Indeed, in just a few weeks on April 18, the International Amateur Radio Union is honoring the advent of the second century of emergency radio, dating its birth to the tireless night-and-day key-tapping Morse wireless communications of amateur radio operators in Columbus, Ohio, and elsewhere the Midwest during the 1913 flood. 

The 1913 tornadoes and flood transformed both the American Red Cross and what is now known as Rotary International. The record-keeping procedures the Red Cross devised in 1913 to handle aid to victims over hundreds (even thousands) of square miles proved essential to its mission on the battlefields of the Great War (World War I)—the human disaster that brought true international fame to the Red Cross. Rotarians’ spontaneous outpouring of aid in Omaha, Dayton, and elsewhere caused Rotary to discover its true humanitarian mission, transcending its original purpose as a business service organization. And the innovation of federated giving invented by the Community Chest in Cleveland in February 1913 received its first trial by fire—or flood—the very next month; its efficiency and success were so outstanding that Community Chests sprang up in cities around the nation, which eventually evolved into today’s United Way.

So once again: how does a natural disaster this devastating and widespread, this long-lasting and influential—get forgotten? 

At this stage, I have partial answers. I am not yet wholly satisfied these are the full reasons. But they certainly played important roles, and form a valuable start to further investigation.

First, I found it puzzling that today memories of the 1913 flood around Ohio and the Easter tornado in Omaha are still quite alive and well in individual communities, but their context as part of a national-scale disaster has rarely survived. Faded from the memory of Omaha citizens were the other 10 or so devastating tornadoes decimating other towns, cities, and farms. In the Midwest, some of the collective forgetting doubtless originated in the downed communications, leaving individuals and families to suffer through the suddenly descending midnight disaster in utter isolation. Records clearly indicate that sudden descent of the flood was experienced as profoundly local, and its history has been preserved that same way. It’s almost as if people perceived the flooding as ending at the city limits. As a result, the national-scale disaster became dismantled over time, and preserved only as the Omaha tornado, the Terre Haute tornado, the Great Dayton Flood, the Chillicothe flood, the Indianapolis flood, etc. With such dismembering into apparently local tragedies in individual communities, over time the disaster diminished in importance to later generations. We can watch this same process of dismantling and diminution going on today, as the multistate devastation across Louisiana and Mississippi wreaked by the double whammy of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 fades in time and memory—and, inevitably, psychologically diminished—to a Twitter-short recollection of just the first hurricane (Katrina) and one city (New Orleans).

Second, the long, tough, numbing, waterlogged slog toward recovery was not the stuff of headline news. Shovelfuls of mud scraped out of houses became part of daily life—the new normal. Little about the aftermath and recovery appeared in later newspapers, although progress reports of recovery and rehabilitation were periodically published in several journals of social work. The Omaha World-Herald ran an anniversary special report in March 1914 on Omaha’s recovery in the year since the Great Easter 1913 Omaha Tornado—but such anniversary commemorations were few.

Third, many people who suffered devastating losses to tornadoes and flood wanted only to forget the horrific catastrophe that maimed and killed loved ones and ripped apart families, homes, and lives. They sought the anodyne of amnesia. The clear exception is Dayton, whose happy ending with the Miami Conservancy District has kept the flood in living memory. But Dayton’s oft-repeated narrative still contracted the natural disaster to the Miami Valley, as if nothing else had been happening in the other 90 percent of Ohio much less in neighboring states.

Fourth, in the early 20th century there was acute shame in being destitute—even when destitution was an arbitrary act of God. Most individuals and small businesses were stuck with absorbing the total financial loss. In 1913—just like today—most home and business insurance policies did not cover flooding. Thus, the disaster financially ruined thousands of families and small business owners. But in 1913, there were no social safety nets. Indeed, there was such great fear of being perceived as paupers—i.e., indigent unworthy poor—that many disaster victims hid their need out of terror of losing respect and standing in the community.

Fifth, and most chilling of all, in some cities—Omaha and Paducah among them—mayors and bigger businesses and some newspaper editors who were unabashed community boosters actively suppressed information revealing the full scale of the disaster in their cities for fear of scaring away outside investment (after all, who would want to risk investing in lands and businesses in a flood zone?) Paducah’s editor actually had the heartlessness to laugh off the flooding of a third of the city—including the entirety of the lower section of town where poverty-stricken African Americans struggled to survive—as a “water carnival.” Direct quote.

And of course, by 1914, memories of the 1913 tornadoes and flood were soon overwhelmed by the horrors of the march to the Great War (World War I). Timing is everything. 

Many aspects mentioned above will be explored more fully in published articles and in future installments to this research weblog (although likely with somewhat reduced frequency: a research paper per week in addition to my day job is a killing pace).

Now that the 1913 centennial has awakened public awareness to the mammoth scale and influence—indeed, to the very existence—of the nation’s most widespread natural disaster, let us today recognize this tragedy fully for what it was. Why is that important? Not only to honor history and the dead, but also because such a monumental winter storm system positioned right over the industrial north could indeed recur (see “Be Very Afraid...”). If forecasts of increased frequency and intensity of storm systems of all types indeed manifest themselves as predicted and as trend lines suggest, formerly freakishly rare events of unprecedented strength and persistence could increase in likelihood. Although loss of life might be less because of redundant warning systems, material property damage today—given far greater urban and rural population density, infrastructure, impermeable surfaces, and personal wealth—would without doubt be orders of magnitude more devastating. Modern computational modeling and GIS surveys this year in Ohio and Indiana for the 1913 flood centennial have revealed a stark, unsettling truth: many flood walls existing today, despite their massive appearance, would be inadequate to withstand a 1913-scale event.

In 1913, three-quarters of the nation’s industry was east of the Mississippi and north of the Ohio River. The nation’s industrial heart was the epicenter of the 1913 flood. Floodwaters quenched the fires in blast furnaces in Ohio and Pennsylvania, derailed trains from New York to Chicago, stilled communications, and shut down the stock markets. It struck the captains of industry as impartially as it struck immigrant day laborers. No technology can yet withstand an EF-4 tornado. Are you prepared to withstand the worst? 

History has much to teach us about the future—not only specifics about the physical catastrophe itself to inform modeling of implications for today’s landscapes, but also about the human response. 

Those ignorant of history may be doomed to repeat it—and be just as unprepared as all those who woke in terror at midnight around Easter 1913 by disaster’s crushing of all they knew.

In April 1913, the nation’s tragedy was still wet, raw, and unfolding. Let us not forget our national calamity of March–April 1913.

My request: A future installment will be devoted to preserving memory of 2013 centennial events, new research, and media coverage across all states in one centralized location for reference. If you hosted or attended a 1913 commemorative exhibit or event or granted a media interview, please send me your personal account of it along with some photos that you or someone else might have taken of its proceedings. If your newspaper or local TV or radio station featured historical coverage, please send me the URLs. Let me know also if you or an organization you know has set up a data base or reference library of digital images accessible to researchers.

Next time: Centennial update: April and beyond

©2013 Trudy E. Bell. For permission to reprint or use, contact Trudy E. Bell at

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