Monday, June 1, 2015

Prayers and Lessons

The massive multistate flooding in the southern plains states in late May 2015 actually approaches the magnitude of the multistate Great Easter 1913 Flood in some ways. Message: Extreme, widespread, non-hurricane rain events in the middle of the nation can happen again. Are we ready?

The epic flooding across Texas still ongoing strikes personal alarm in my heart: my sister and nephew live in a suburb of Dallas. 

Flash floods can be as damaging as tornadoes, as evidenced by the smashed ruins of a home on the Blanco River after heavy rains caused flash flooding in Wimberley, Texas, May 24, 2015. Credit: Rodolfo Gonzalez/AP

But just because Houston, Dallas, Austin, Corpus Christi, Brownsville, and other Texas major metropolitan areas have riveted the public eye, let us not forget that also hammered were Oklahoma (my sister’s in-laws live near Oklahoma City), Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri—and even Kansas and Nebraska. Yet, just in the way the news focuses on Texas, one can see the forgetting is already setting in.
Radar mosaic of storm system marching across Texas and Oklahoma, May 24, 2015, causing multistate flooding. Credit: National Weather Service 
In fact, I’m willing to wager that this 2015 multistate natural disaster will be remembered as something like the Great Texas Flood, or worse, the Great Houston Flood—thereby diminishing its significance to history—instead of with a name befitting its scale, such as, say, the Great Memorial Day 2015 Flood. And with a diminished name comes forgetting. After all, we’ve seen it all before: in what has been handed down to us with a name diminished to be one city’s flood—the Great Dayton Flood—instead of the Great Easter 1913 Flood, so vast that it engulfed more than a quarter of the nation, and yet has been virtually forgotten.  
Left: Rescue personnel grab the hand of a man stranded in rushing water at the northwest corner of Lamar Blvd. and 15th St. in Austin, Texas. Shoal Creek overflowed its banks and inundated the major traffic artery with rushing water. Several cars were stalled under and near the 15th St. Bridge on Monday, May 25, 2015. Credit: Alberto Martinez/Austin American-Statesman via AP 
Right: After floodwaters had receded perhaps six feet at Burns Avenue and Catherine Street south of downtown Dayton, Ohio, stranded people could be rescued in one of the National Cash Register flat-bottomed boats. Note the dark staining on the sides of the brick buildings showing peak flood height. Credit: Dayton Metro Library
Despite differences in the regions and eras, the tragedy playing out in the southern plains states right now bears such striking parallels to what happened across the Midwestern, eastern, and northern plains states a century ago that a few comparisons are instructional. Moreover, the comparisons point up two additional, chilling cautionary messages for our future.

Side by side
Below are selected photographs of the severe flooding across the southern plains states in 2015, paired with similar photos from various states from the Great Easter 1913 flood. For all images, all rights remain with the original photographers and news organizations credited in the captions.
Incredible lightning strike seen in Kyle, Texas, on Monday, May 25, 2015. Credit: Twitter/@marteenee13 and @WarrenHughes13
First striking parallel: the storm system itself. In neither case was the flooding due to a hurricane or storm surge. In both cases, flooding was due to long-duration, intense rainfall from a monumental, slow-moving storm system featuring repeated lows following one right after another, concentrated over a region already saturated from previous intense rainfall so runoff was exceptionally high (for 1913, see “Be Very Afraid”; for 2015 see Weather. com). In both cases, the storm was accompanied by violent lightning (see image 4 at here) and tornadoes (for 1913 see “’My Conception of Hell’” and “Terror at Terre Haute”; for 2015 see Wikipedia.
Left: Woman climbing through the ruins of her tornado destroyed house in Oklahoma. Credit: NBC News. Right: Woman surveys ruins of a home destroyed by the Great Easter 1913 Omaha tornado. Credit: Omaha Public Library 
In both cases, rivers rose rapidly and descended on communities as veritable walls of water, even in regions not normally prone to flooding. Such flash flooding has the violence of tornadoes (see "An Unnecessary Tragedy").
Left: The level of the Blanco River at Wimberley soared from 5 feet on Saturday afternoon, May 23, to a record 40.21 feet at 1:01 am CDT Sunday, more than 7 feet above the prior record. The river gauge stopped reporting after this point. Credit: NWS Advanced Hydrologic Prediction Service. Right: The fast-rising Muskingum River at Zanesville, Ohio, in 1913 also wiped out the weather gauges, and also crested at nearly 52 feet (vertical line in the middle of the chart) – 15 feet higher than a previous record set by a flood 20 years earlier. Credit: NWS 
But here’s a big difference between the two storm systems. Communications still functioned in 2015 and warnings were issued and heeded, so “only” 28 lives were lost—actually, likely 28 and counting as more bodies turn up and as people injured during the violence of flash flooding perish from complications of their injuries. In 1913, the death count—over 600 in Ohio and Indiana alone—was much higher because the massive windstorm on Good Friday, March 21 severely crippled communications so that weather data could not be gathered nor warnings issued (see “The First Punch”). Moreover, some of the flash flooding occurred in the dark of night, sweeping away people in their homes with no warning (see “’Death Rode Ruthless…’”).
Left: In this aerial photo, water from the Arkansas River floods a farm shed in Faulkner County near Conway, Ark., Friday, May 29, 2015. Credit: Danny Johnston/AP.  Right: Dayton homes were submerged to their eaves in the Great Easter 1913 Flood. Credit: Dayton Metro
In both calamities, homes and buildings drowned, the floodwaters reaching midway up the first story or even to the eaves. Note the sheen of oil on the floodwaters surrounding the half-submerged farm building photographed in 2015. That points out a serious hazard of severe floods today—the fact that they can breach stores of chemicals and toxic waste dumps, so the chemical-laden floodwaters are themselves toxic (see “Benchmarking 'Extreme'”) Indeed, in Houston, 100,000 gallons of untreated wastewater and raw sewage spilled into the floodwaters when the Southwest Wastewater Treatment Plant was flooded. But perhaps that was no different than conditions during the 1913 flood when the human excrement from the vaults of thousands of outdoor privies (outhouses) contaminated the floodwaters.
More than 100,000 gallons of untreated wastewater has spilled after Houston's Southwest Wastewater Treatment Plant flooded Tuesday when a bayou overflowed its banks. Credit: Before It’s New
By the way, don’t be surprised if the flooding in the southern plains states also causes fires due to electrical shorts and broken gas mains—it happened in Dayton, Ohio, and Troy, New York, in 1913 and also after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 (see “Like a War Zone”) .
Left: Flooding in Norman, Oklahoma, on Saturday, May 23, 2015. Credit: StevenAnderson. Right: 1913 flooding photographed in Hamilton, Ohio. Credit: Michael J. Colligan History Project
In both 2015 and 1913, flooding brought transportation to a standstill, by flooding roads and streets, stranding vehicles, and destroying bridges. In 1913, railroads were also crippled as sections of track were washed away.
Floodwaters in May 2015 swept away an entire bridge in Wimberley, Texas. Credit: Twitter/@bez2012 Fifth Street Bridge over the Great Miami River in Dayton was completely destroyed in by the Great Easter 1913 Flood. Credit: Miami Conservancy District.
Altogether, rainfall for May 2015 in Oklahoma and Texas blasted through previous records, with totals exceeding two feet in that single month in Norman and between 18 to 24 inches widespread elsewhere. For perspective, that approaches triple the average winter monthly rainfall in Olympia, Washington, in the Pacific Northwest rain forest (about 8 inches per month). Indeed, in Houston and elsewhere, rain fell at a rate of more than 4 inches per day. A few places received rain at a rate of up to four inches per hour for short stints.

Some wag at the Fort Worth National Weather Service calculated that the rain that fell on Texas during the month of May amounted to more than 35 trillion gallons, enough to cover the entire state 8 inches deep. 

For comparison, in 1913, W. J. Cox, head of the Pittsburgh weather bureau, calculated that an average of 6.26 inches inundated the combined area of Ohio and Indiana in just four days  , amounting to close to 1.1 trillion cubic feet; at 7.48 gallons per cubic foot, that would come to about 8.2 trillion gallons. 

Actually, two years ago, Sarah Jamison, senior hydrologist at the Cleveland National Weather Service, recalculated that that 8 trillion gallons was runoff, produced by closer to 12 trillion gallons of actual rainfall. Yes, 12 trillion gallons is only a third of 35+ trillion gallons, but Ohio and Indiana together also have less than a third of Texas’s area (1/3.6 to be exact). More importantly: the 1913 calculations are for just four days, whereas the Texas ones are for the entire month. A more direct comparison would be the intensest four-day period over the southern plains states. And of course, for full storm volume, one really needs to add in the rainfall totals over all the other states deluged in both floods.

Two chilling cautionary messages
Still, at first glance, the rainfall totals point up an astounding revelation: the Great Memorial Day 2015 flood in the southern plains states likely approaches the magnitude of the Great Easter 1913 Flood for both intensity and multistate  
Left: May 2015 shattered rainfall records across both Texas and Oklahoma for the entire month of May—over 2 feet in some places. Credit: Weather. com  Right: modern reconstruction of rainfall across Indiana and Ohio for just "flood week" March 23–28, 1913. Credit: Midwest Regional Climate Center 
area—especially monumental as both natural disasters were due to rainfall alone, not to a hurricane (the heaviest rainfall ever in the U.S. was 43 inches in 24 hours, also in Texas, but during a hurricane).

The Great Memorial Day Flood of 2015 was a multistate event comparable in certain ways to the Great Easter Flood of 1913. Here they are shown side by side roughly to scale. Each deluge exceeded the other in some ways, but both were notable in being extreme non-hurricane rain events. Southern plains states map: USA Today; U.S. map with 1913 contours and tornadoes: ©2008 Trudy E. Bell
Let’s explore this 2015-1913 comparison a little further. In the southern plains, four inches per day comes to a foot in three or four days, comparable to the 11+ inches in four days in the most intense part of the 1913 flood over Ohio’s continental divide. Texas’s and Oklahoma’s overall monthly rainfall far exceeded any monthly total Ohio has ever experienced. 

In short, had the southern plains rain fallen over the same wide geography as the Great Easter 1913 Flood centered on Ohio’s continental divide, no question it would have precipitated a comparable repeat of that disaster. That is relevant because several recent (2012–2014) reports have cautioned that intense rain events are likely to increase both locally and regionally (see “Benchmarking 'Extreme'”).
In both floods, human beings were not the only victims. In 1913, thousands of horses, cattle, other livestock, and countless wildlife succumbed. In 2015, livestock, deer and alligators are in danger (see Click2Houston and the above Reuters video) while scores of pet animals are separated from their owners.
Moreover, if 1913 is any guide for today, recovery will be a long, tough slog. Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, Kansas, and elsewhere will not return back to normal as soon as the waters recede. The severe damage to infrastructure and homes will require months, if not years, for recovery. 

Moreover, today as in 1913, most people do not have flood insurance: normal homeowners’ policies do NOT insure against flood or groundwater. Flood insurance is required only in those areas designated as flood zones. As many 
8 Left: Rising floodwaters at Shoal Creek are shown after days of heavy rain on May 25, 2015 in Austin, Texas. Credit: Drew Anthony Smith/Getty Images. Right: Water rushing against the arches of the Court Street Bridge in Rochester, New York, in March 1913. Credit: Monovisions 
areas in Texas and Oklahoma that flooded were not in designated flood zones, most of those residents likely did not have policies. In other words, the destruction of their homes and all their contents and life's savings is a dead loss. 

Last: one unpleasant surprise from 1913 was: areas flooded that were not supposed to flood. The lesson from 2015 for the future is: how true that still can be.
My fervent thoughts and prayers go out to all the flood sufferers, with hopes that aid pours into them as it did to those in 1913.

©2015 Trudy E. Bell

Next time: Never Before Seen

Selected References
For discussion about the 1913 flood losses being especially severe because areas flooded that were not normally prone to flooding, see A. H. Horton and H. J. Jackson, The Ohio Valley Flood of March–April 1913, Water Supply Paper 334, U.S. Geological Survey, Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., 1918, especially pages 45 and 85.
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.