Sunday, November 25, 2012

The First Punch

Before dawn on Good Friday, March 21, the mammoth Easter 1913 storm system slammed the nation with its first knock-out blow...
Sensing something dreadfully wrong, A. L. Slaughter instantly and instinctively came fully awake. The clock read only 4 AM. Outside his bedroom window, brilliant moonlight from the setting nearly-full moon bathed his tree-lined yard and his neighbor’s house in Lower Peach Tree, a prosperous small southern town on a bluff overlooking the Alabama River, home to about 1,800 souls. But the wind was rising too fast. Chickens and other birds were frantically flapping and calling, the dogs yapping urgently. Moonlit clouds were deep and darkening to the southwest. Fearing the worst, Slaughter dressed hastily, keeping an eye on those roiling, building clouds, praying he would have time to shepherd his family downstairs to huddle in the cellar.
With a sickening roar like a speeding railroad train, a tornado 400 yards wide veered out of the dark southwest, splintering houses, uprooting and stripping bark from trees, reeling through Lower Peach Tree in a drunken S-shaped path that alternately destroyed warehouses on one side of a street and then the Baptist church on the other side. As the deafening tempest careered northeast, wailing from the bereaved and injured trapped in the wreckage pierced the pre-dawn sudden rain.

When the sun finally rose, its feeble rays illuminated the full scale of the tragedy. Mangled bodies of the Bryant family—even little Sadie—lay 100 to 150 yards from their house, smashed by flying timbers from their own home as the five were running for safety. In minutes, 27 vital people had been slain; 60 more lay injured. Miracles also happened:  young W. S. Irby Jr., his wife, and toddler were awakened by their house violently rocking; swept out a window, they landed in the chicken coop instants before their home collapsed around them. When rescuers pulled the clapboards and beams away from the chicken coop, all three emerged alive.
The Lower Peach Tree tornado of Good Friday, March 21, 1913, still ranks among Alabama’s top 15 deadliest over the past two centuries. It was one of nine twisters that churned across Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi that morning, altogether killing 48 and injuring 150.

It was also a harbinger of even worse to come.
All nine tornadoes were part of a mammoth Good Friday windstorm that swept the eastern U.S. from the Canadian border to the Gulf of Mexico, the first punch of what would become a calamity for a third of the nation. After more than a week of unusually high and sultry temperatures across the Midwest and eastern U.S.—reaching well into the 80s in the Ohio River Valley—an arctic high-pressure system swooped down from Canada, bringing hurricane-force winds and heavy sleet. In less than 12 hours across the Great Plains, temperatures plummeted up to 40 degrees. Sustained winds from that massive cold front reached 60 mph in Indianapolis, 66 miles per hour in Louisville, KY, 84 mph in Toledo, OH, 86 mph in Detroit, MI, and 90 mph in Buffalo, NY—all records; Toledo even recorded 1-minute powerful gusts of 100 mph.  Across the Midwest, the furious windstorm toppled brick chimneys, blew carriages off roads, uprooted trees, carried off fences, and unroofed buildings. Flying debris killed half a dozen people in several states.

The windstorm and accompanying sleet also blew down or pulled down overhead wires, cutting electric, telephone, and telegraph services. In northern Illinois and elsewhere, at least 5,500 poles of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company and its subsidiary companies were uprooted or snapped like toothpicks, virtually shutting off Chicago from the rest of the world. In 1913, long-distance communication was dominated by the wirelines: telegraph and telephone. Radio was still a fledging technology (only a decade earlier, young electrical engineer Guglielmo Marconi made history by sending and receiving the first transatlantic radio messages between U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt and England’s King Edward VII); on the floor of Congress, Bell Telephone and Western Union were strongly defending their monopolies by resisting up-and-coming potential competition from wireless telegraphy and broadcasting.
At that time, main telegraph lines followed railroad tracks. The Pennsylvania Lines West of Pittsburgh—just one division of one railroad—reported at least 55 broken connections where telegraph poles had been downed or trees blown across wires. Even where wires were not cut, swaying poles swung wires to cross other wires, fouling signals so remaining connections were essentially useless. Thus, by Holy Saturday—a calm night graced by a total eclipse of the full moon—communications were silenced across the middle of the country.

That silence was deadly. The downed poles and wires—along with a lack of commercial radio—had two immediate and critical consequences. First, the U.S. Weather Bureau had little communication with the Midwest and none west of the Mississippi River, so it could not gather timely data about the unusual powerful weather system massing and spreading eastward from the Rockies. Second, there was almost no means for communicating timely weather warnings.
Thus, the arena was set for the second colossal punch of the nation’s most widespread natural disaster—just as families across the Great Plains and the Midwest were sitting down to what many innocently anticipated as a serene and joyful Easter dinner…

Next time:  ‘My Conception of Hell’

Caption to newspaper: The tragedy of the Lower Peach Tree tornado ran from top to bottom on the front page of the March 28, 1913 issue of The Alabamian. (Although the original death count given was 28, it was later revised downward to 27.)

Caption to photograph: The strength of the wind storm across the eastern U.S. is clear from this catastrophic damage to telephone and telegraph poles; photograph appeared in the special May 1913 "Flood Edition" of the Bell Telephone News. 

Selected references
Bell Telephone News.Vol. 2, no. 10. Flood Edition. May 1913.
Garrett, C. W. (compiler), Pennsylvania Lines West of Pittsburgh: A History of the Flood of March 1913. Pennsylvania Co., 1913.

Grazulis, Thomas P., Significant Tornadoes, 1880-1989. St. Johnsbury, VT: Environmental Films, 1991. Classic and fascinating two-volume reference detailing virtually every U.S. tornado F2 and greater for more than a century. Grazulis now runs The Tornado Project.
The Heritage of Wilcox County, Alabama, Clanton, AL: Heritage Publishing Consultants, Inc. and Walsworth Publishing Company, 2002.

Monthly Weather Review, vol. 41, No. 3, March 1913.
With thanks to the late historian Craig B. Waff, who photocopied March and April 1913 newspaper articles for me about the Lower Peach Tree tornado from five local Alabama newspapers on microfilm (The Clarke County Democrat, The South Alabamian, The Thomasville Echo, Wilcox Banner, and the Wilcox Progressive Era) while he was on business in Birmingham. Thanks also to ASSNE editor Spence Blakely for helpful comments on the manuscript.

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.