Monday, March 23, 2015

Deadly streams -- Part 6

Dayton library photo, 1913
As the flood of 1913 gradually eased its way out of the public's view (and some estimates contended that the March tragedy wasn't completely over until sometime in May) ... talk turned to flood control.

Sadly, the unique weather event that created the 1913 disaster could scarcely have been prevented. Perhaps some of its impact could have been modified with better preparation, better soil and water management, useful and practical river levees and more attention to how and where people lived and built their businesses. Better bridges would have helped.

All that to avoid what has become known as the 100-year flood, one that happened 102 years ago this week (as of this blog entry).

Actually, the 100-year flood came again in 1928 on the Mississippi River, and again in 1937 on the Ohio and Whitewater.

That was not supposed to happen.

In the years following the disaster, states across America acted to prevent a repeat occurrence. Indiana established a flood control commission, Pennsylvania approved the construction of new dams and flood control legislation in Texas and California was suddenly enacted.

Great ideas.

I can't find that Indiana's "commission" actually achieved much, but it was a wonderful thought. The problem was, in 1937, the flood came from somewhere else -- as it usually does.

Namely, Ohio.

Ohio's attempts to control flooding on the Miami and Ohio rivers were more interesting and peculiar. Dayton is generally considered to have suffered more damage than any other city along the brutal path of the Great Flood of 1913.

Geoff Williams, via the History Channel, tells in his "Washed Away" book:

Library of Congress, 1913 Dayton
"Perhaps no city was hit as hard as Dayton, where nearly a foot of rain fell upon the city. The Miami River rushed into the downtown area, and the floodwaters in some areas were 20 feet deep. Stranded citizens signaled messages with flags from the roofs of downtown buildings. In some neighborhoods, homes floated off their foundations, and residents jumped from one drifting house to another until they found a structure on dry land. In other sections of Dayton, the water rose so quickly that residents could only escape by scaling telephone poles and carefully crawling along the wires."

Stories of women carrying babies while tightrope-walking the power lines seem numerous, more difficult to prove.

"When the water receded, wrecked automobiles, capsized streetcars and dead horses littered Dayton’s streets. Property damage topped more than $2 billion in present-day terms, and more than 360 people perished."

Pressure mounted in the succeeding months to find a solution to prevent flooding, discounting the fact that Dayton's levee on the Miami was probably too weak to be of any value and probably, as a result, contributed to the loss of life because it presented a false sense of security.

Archibald Shaw, writing his Dearborn County history in 1915, discussed some of the chat that went on in Ohio, and plans that had yet to be enacted when Shaw finished his work.

"Hard-hit cities like Dayton and Hamilton keenly felt the onus of the flood. It was proposed by eminent engineers to construct enormous dry reservoirs for catching and holding the water back until the natural force of the rise had spent itself. This, it was argued, would act as a brake on the rise and prevent the terrible devastation of such a rush of water as attended the March flood of 1913."

Shaw said the plan, which wasn't universally popular, involved buying lowland farms and converting them into catch basins for floodwater. One would assume that nobody who seriously proposed this plan had any concept of the volume of water that traversed the Ohio Valley during that flood. If you can do the math, it's a lot of water.

A bunch of water. Seventy feet high. A half-mile wide.

"At the time this is written it is practically certain that the plan will be consummated. Committees have been appointed and trustees, to serve for varying terms of years, have been selected to direct the work."

Ohio eventually did act on flood control, setting up a conservancy program that was intended to study and plan for such events.

The Ohio plan initially aimed to do three things:

  • Improve river channel by dredging, widening and in some places straightening out the river’s course.
  • Build upstream dry dams on four of the Miami River’s five tributaries, all of them protecting Hamilton and Middletown.
  • Preserve the flood plain so that all land above the dams would remain green spaces with deed restrictions to prevent future construction.
As time went on, its role expanded.

To some end, the conservancy district programs have had enormous impact. writes:

"The communities around Dayton established the Miami Conservancy District and hired engineer Arthur Ernest Morgan to design a system of dams and levees that took five years to build. In the 1930s, Morgan applied his flood control knowledge to manage the larger Tennessee River system after President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed him the first chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority. Morgan’s greatest legacy may be that since his flood control system for Dayton was completed in 1922, the city has never again been deluged as it was in 1913."

The Whitewater Valley, less protected by legislation than by luck, would suffer again in future years. Finally, the government had endured enough.

And Fairfield went away.

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