In 2012, this research blog was launched for the 2013 centennial of the Great Easter 1913 flood, to feature original findings and insights by meteorologists, historians, and others about the nation’s most widespread natural disaster—and why it is important today. What has it revealed?
First things first: THANK YOU, loyal readers, for your following, your queries, and your thoughtful email comments since this research blog was launched on November 17, 2012. It is now a significant reference with 60 posts, many quite substantial, and has garnered nearly 150,000 views. Please keep your feedback coming: you can always reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In addition, THANK YOU to all the historians, meteorologists, engineers, and other experts who have graciously contributed guest installments on their own work relevant to aspects or implications of this monumental calamity and effects on the nation. I invite other scholars to contact me with research they would like to highlight in future posts.
On this fifth anniversary, for both new and longtime readers (and for myself!), it seems right to pause and collate some of the main findings about the Great Easter 1913 natural disaster succinctly in one convenient location—as well as evidence for why this century-old storm is highly relevant today not just to history, but also to science, engineering, and infrastructure planning.
Links below take you to the relevant post(s): many observations and conclusions come from new analyses of primary documents or calculations by new meteorological or computational tools, and so may amplify, supersede, or contradict received wisdom in older references.
Scale of disaster
The United States had no warning. The nation’s arguably most widespread natural catastrophe 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) called “an epidemic of disasters.” It began on Good Friday with a dozen tornadoes in Alabama and four other states (see “The First Punch”). It culminated with a violent twister that roared through downtown Omaha on Easter Sunday, March 23 that still ranks as Nebraska's deadliest tornado (see “‘My Conception of Hell’” and “To Build a Tornado”). That same evening, equally violent tornadoes leveled parts of Council Bluffs, Iowa, and destroyed part of Terre Haute, Indiana (see “Terror in Terre Haute”).
Over the following week, record flooding submerged vast areas in parts of 15 states, immobilizing the industrial heart of the nation. Some of the meteorology was just plain weird. Hours before the powerful tornadoes devastated Omaha and Council Bluffs, the same monumental weather system swept an enormous dust storm across Oklahoma and Kansas, igniting major prairie fires—and baffling thousands in Nebraska, Iowa, and Missouri with rains of red mud (see “Great Easter 1913 Dust Storm,Prairie Fires—and Red Rains”).
Indeed, the calamity was part of a whole year of meteorological extremes of total weather whiplash (see “1913’s Wild Weather”). The epidemic of disasters was punctuated with an unusual Midwest earthquake (see “Earth-Shaking Mystery”) and precipitated a catastrophic mine explosion (see “Explosion at Equality”).
The human toll
At least 1,000 people died (see “‘Death Rode Ruthless’”), more than perished in the 1871 Chicago fire. Property was devastated over an area greater than that afflicted by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake (to which it was compared at the time). The destruction to infrastructure exceeded that of Hurricane Katrina (see “‘Like a War Zone’”), in places resembling the ferocity Hurricane Maria visited on Puerto Rico in September 2017. And it was a rolling disaster, as over the following weeks, flood crests surged down the Mississippi, bursting levees.
Its most prominent national hero was a crook: John H. Patterson, founder of National Cash Register (NCR) in Dayton, Ohio; although technically a felon, his actions transformed him into a national hero (see “The Villain Who Stole the Flood”). Another major figure was Ohio’s Governor James M. Cox, “boy publisher” of the Dayton Daily News, who used the blockbuster story of Dayton’s flooding to save Ohio (see “The Governor’s Ear”). Whether by accident or design, the two men 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 the Red Cross, encamped across Ohio until the following August, five months later. 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 (see “Morgan’s Cowboys” and “Morgan’s Pyramids”).
But there were also hundreds of less-recognized heroes and heroines, such as the handful of police in West Indianapolis who rescued more than 600 people (see “Men of the Hour”). Simultaneously, the city of Cleveland, crippled and without power itself, was first responder in rushing the first aid to Dayton and Zanesville, while the city’s major newspaper The Plain Dealer became a lifeline for distributing essential information across inundated northern Ohio (see “‘Clevelanders Responding Nobly’”).
|Credit: Cleveland Leader, March 28, 1913, p. 2|
Hundreds of miles southwest, nearly a thousand prisoners in an Indiana state penitentiary were charged by their beloved warden to save the town of Jeffersonville from being engulfed by the Ohio River; the residents were so grateful that they feted the inmates with a bountiful feast (see “The Prisoners’ Feast”). Legions of telephone operators stuck to their switchboards despite personal peril (see “Heroism of the ‘Hello Girls’”).
There were members of Rotary, a business service organization less than a decade old, whose 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 (see “Service Above Life”). And fast (if unorthodox and desperate) work of public health officials during the record flooding along the Hudson River at Albany, New York, ended up convincing the nation of the value of chlorinating drinking water to prevent typhoid fever and other waterborne disease (see “Rescuing Albany’s Water”).
Even young teenagers were heroes. In northern Indiana, 60 high-school-aged cadets rescued more than 1,400 people—transforming both the city and their school (see “36 Hours: From Boys to Leaders”). And all around the flooded Midwest, there was raw personal courage of desperate men and women escaping flames by edging their way across icy telephone wires swaying above raging floodwaters—some even carrying babies (see “High-Wire Horror”).
… and villains
On the dark side, across the tornado-devastated and flooded regions, sufferers who had lost everything wrestled to be recognized as victims worthy of compassion and assistance, rather than turned away branded with the stigma of being undeserving paupers (see “Spurning Disaster Aid”).
And mean-spirited profiteers sought to make a quick buck on the backs of the suffering by plagiarizing newspaper stories to produce instant books (see “Profiting from Pain”) and hawking various products (see “Advertising Disaster” and “Grisly Souvenirs”).
Coping with loss
Some loss was as heart-rending as it was unusual, such as the elephants, big cats, and 500 other animals that drowned in Peru, Indiana (see “Tragedy at the Circus”).However, it was therapeutic to people in 1913 to demonstrate publicly how they were roaring back bigger and stronger than ever; to that end, not two years after the Great Easter 1913 flood, Dayton declared its comeback with an exhibit about the flood in the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco—another city also celebrating a comeback after the 1906 earthquake (see “Exhibiting Disaster”)
Recognizing that sometimes words are inadequate to express grief and other deep emotions, in 1913 artists depicted national mourning and other truths in powerful editorial cartoons (see “Eloquence Beyond Words”). The 1913 flood inspired one of James Thurber’s most famous short stories (see “The Day the Dam Broke?”). Today, the 1913 flood is among the Midwestern memories memorialized by talented artists in miles of murals on flood walls along the Ohio River (see “Magnum Opus”).
Why does the 1913 disaster matter today?
When NOAA senior hydrologist Sarah Jamison plugged March 1913 measurements into 2012 computational climate models to reconstruct just what kind of mammoth weather system caused the Great Easter 1913 Flood,
she made a chilling discovery: Such a weather pattern could readily recur (see “Be Very Afraid…”). Indeed, climate models call for intensifying rainfall and runoff in the eastern half of the country, and the 1913 storm system brought tornadoes and flooding still holding the record set in many places in the interior of the nation.
Indeed, massive multistate flooding during the past five years actually approaches the magnitude of the multistate Great Easter 1913 Flood in some ways (see “Prayers and Lessons” and “Misery in Missouri” and “Texas Torrents”). Message: Extreme, widespread, non-hurricane rain events in the middle of the nation can happen again. Are we ready?
Dayton, for one, seeks to be prepared by bringing 1913 high-water measurements into today’s GIS computational tools (see “Mapping Disaster”). One significant difference: in 1913, one reason the death rate was so high was that people had no warning. Today, however, weather satellites and computer models, plus warning systems and weather safety awareness days help the public prepare (see “Days of Warning”).
On the other hand, should a 1913-scale storm system recur in the same geography, today not only much larger population but also internet servers, dams, nuclear power plants, and toxic waste dumps would all lie in harm’s way—all with the potential of magnifying the disaster (see “Benchmarking ‘Extreme’”). Moreover, engineering assessments reveal that thousands of dams across the nation today are poorly maintained, threatening populations downstream (see “Brink of Disaster?”)—and too many dam owners are still practicing magical thinking and denial instead of preventing disaster (see “An Unnecessary Tragedy: The Johnstown Flood”). Yet, perversely, humans are steadily increasing their exposure to natural hazards (see “Floods and Other Disasters:Knowing More, Yet Losing More”)
New (in 1913) technologies played a heroic role. The need for emergency radio sprang to the nation’s attention when high school and college ham radio operators in Ohio and Michigan relayed urgent communications when the telephone and telegraph wires were downed (see “Wireless to the Rescue”). And 1913 may have been the first natural monumental natural disaster filmed and photographed while the catastrophe was still unfolding—and the images shown and publicized, in part to fundraise donations (see “Screening Disaster”)
|Natural disaster can
happen again and could disable |
However, old technology also can save the day. When electric power, transportation, and communications infrastructure is devastated for days or weeks, orchestrating evacuations, aid, relief, and recovery can’t rely on electricity, internet, and electronics (see “Crisis Communications in a Communications Crisis”). Moral: Use every tool available.
How does something so monumental as the 1913 natural disaster get forgotten? Seeking answers to that profound question remains a goal of this research blog.
Please 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.
©2017 Trudy E. Bell
Next time: Desperate Medicine
All previous installments list references consulted for that individual analysis. In addition, some three dozen books and half a dozen documentary films developed over the past five years are summarized in “Great Easter 1913 Disaster Library”.
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.
All my published articles on the 1913 flood are referenced on my 1913 web page; most can be downloaded as PDFs. Links also go to a number of interviews and documentary films.