Monday, January 1, 2018

A Disastrous Year

2017 was a record year for natural disasters. Many were floods. What now?

UPCOMING TALK: “‘Deity and Disaster’: From the Great Easter 1913 Flood to Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria” will explore how pastors in March 1913 sought to draw lessons from Ohio’s/Indiana’s/Nebraska’s deadliest tornadoes and floods, as well as how modern theologians have tried to make sense of the September 2017 calamities in Texas and Puerto Rico. (no reservations needed, no admission charge; DETAILS HERE)

This gif looks of approximately the right era
for the 1913 flood, but the actual year or flood
is not stated. Credit: GIPHY
2018 marks the 105th anniversary of the Great Easter 1913 storm system and flood—and the 15th year of my own research on it. But the multistate 1913 natural disaster had enduring consequences and has present-day significance, notably setting benchmarks for extreme future disasters. 2017 hammered the nation and its territories with multibillion-dollar disasters. The start of 2018 is an apt moment to reflect on last year’s tornadoes and floods, their consequences, and warnings for the future.
Damages from 2017’s natural disasters approached
$400 billion. Credit: Javier Zarracina/Vox

February: Decaying dams 
Rainfall heavier than that in a century deluged California, ending the years-long dry spell (although not the overall long-term trend toward drought) with floods and mudslides. So fast and hard did the rains fall that California’s Oroville Dam—highest in the nation—nearly overtopped, forcing use of the emergency spillway. But the torrents of water were so forceful they damaged the spillway, forcing evacuation of nearly 200,000 people from the town of Oroville below the dam in case the dam gave way. This close call at such a large dam was a major wake-up call to the rest of the nation, because California’s dam  infrastructure is far better maintained than that in most other states (see “Brink of Disaster?” and “Brink of Failure?”)
EF-3 tornado near Washburn, Illinois, on
February 28—one of several EF-3 tornadoes
that formed during the same outbreak
with the violent EF-4. Credit: Cameron Nixon 

Tornado outbreaks
2017 was one of the most active years for tornadoes since systematic records began to be kept in 1950, especially during the first quarter of any year. More than 1,500 tornadoes were reported in the U.S., of which nearly 1,400 were confirmed. Nationwide, they wreaked more than $5 billion in damage and collectively claimed 38 lives. Two of the most severe outbreaks were February 28–March 1 when 72 tornadoes spun up in just over 23 hours, including a violent EF-4 that traveled more than 50 miles from Perryville, Missouri, to near Christopher, Illinois. A week later, another 63 tornadoes afflicted nearly the same area during 9 hours on March 6–7.
Tally of costs of natural disasters in the U.S. (billions
of dollars) shows that Hurricane Harvey blasted
past Katrina as the nation’s most expensive.
Because this chart was compiled in September 2017,
it does not yet include the costs of Hurricane Maria
to Puerto Rico and elsewhere; Maria likely would
fall between Irma and Katrina. Credit:

Harvey, Irma, Maria
According to Statista, which serves the insurance industry, 2017 was the nation’s most expensive year for natural disasters. The damages from Hurricane Harvey dwarfed those from Hurricane Katrina, the previous record-setter—and thus also the damages from 1913, since 1913 likely edged out Katrina (see “Like A War Zone”). Indeed, after adding in disasters in Asia, Mexico, and elsewhere around the world, globally speaking, 2017 was the third most expensive year on record.

Portion of I-10 in Texas during Hurricane Harvey.
Credit: Getty Images/Vox
Since Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico in September, power to about half the American citizens there has been restored, with estimates that others may not be able to turn on the lights until May. 

Hurricane Irma raging in the Brickell neighborhood of Miami.
Credit: Stephen Yang, Reuters

Lost in all the noise were some other amazing records set on a somewhat smaller scale—such as the record rainfalls in Missouri, Arkansas, and other states that dumped up to 12 inches of rain in 48 hours on April 28–30.

Damaged houses in CataƱo after Puerto Rico was slammed by Hurricane Maria. Credit: Hector Retamal/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images in The Wall Street Journal

And the National Flood Insurance Program, which expired on September 30 but has been given several short extensions, has yet to be put on a permanent footing: Congress has until January 19, 2018 to act.
Record-breaking intense rain fell over some areas
afflicted by the 1913 flood—in some places
dumping up to 12 inches in 48 hours.
Credit: National Weather Service

Get thee behind us, 2017. With hopes that 2018 may be kinder and gentler to all…

©2018 Trudy E. Bell

Next time: 'Christ and Calamity'

PERSONAL NOTE: I am working on a major book project unrelated to the 1913 storm system and flood (it is to be a reference on 19th-century U.S. astronomical observatories). Because of the demands of that project, until it is completed, I am able to post installments to this 1913 research blog only about every other month. My long-range goal, however, remains: to write a definitive analysis of the full scale and significance of the 1913 national catastrophe. Please feel free to contact me regarding either project!

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.