The Great Flood of 1913 occurred between March 23 and March 26, after major rivers in the central and eastern United States flooded from runoff and several days of heavy rain. Related deaths and damage in the United States were widespread and extensive. While the exact number is not certain, flood-related deaths in Ohio, Indiana, and eleven other states are estimated at approximately 650. The official death toll range for Ohio falls between 422 and 470. Flood-related death estimates in Indiana range from 100 to 200. More than a quarter million people were left homeless. The death toll from the flood of 1913 places it second to the Johnstown Flood of 1889 as one of the deadliest floods in the United States. The flood remains Ohio's largest weather disaster. In the Midwest damage estimates exceeded a third of a billion dollars. Damage from the Great Dayton Flood at Dayton, Ohio, exceeded $73 million. Indiana’s damages were estimated at $25 million (in 1913 dollars). Further south, along the Mississippi River, damages exceeded $200 million. Devastation from the flood of 1913 and later floods along the Mississippi River eventually changed the country's management of its waterways and increased federal support for comprehensive flood prevention and funding for flood control projects. The Ohio Conservancy Act, which was signed by the governor of Ohio in 1914, became a model for other states to follow. The act allowed for the establishment of conservancy districts with the authority to implement flood control projects.
The storm system that produced the flood in late March 1913 began with a typical winter storm pattern, but developed characteristics that promoted heavy precipitation. Strong Canadian winds stalled a high-pressure system off Bermuda and delayed the normal easterly flow of a low-pressure system. In the meantime, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico moved into the Midwest through the Mississippi River valley as a second Canadian high-pressure system arrived from the west, creating a low-pressure trough that stretched from southern Illinois, across central Indiana, and into northern Ohio. At least two low-pressure systems moving along the trough caused heavy rain over the four-day period between March 23 and March 26. As the storm gained strength on Sunday, March 23, high winds, hail, sleet, and tornadoes arrived in the Great Plains, the South, and the Midwest. Major tornadoes hit Omaha, Nebraska; Lone Peach, Arkansas; and Terre Haute, Indiana. On Monday and Tuesday, March 24 and 25, 3 to 8 inches (76 to 203 mm) of rain fell in Ohio, Indiana, and southern Illinois. Major rivers in Indiana and Ohio experienced heavy runoff. Downstream, where the Ohio River enters the Mississippi River, the water level broke record highs to that time as the water flowed south to the Gulf of Mexico. By Tuesday, March 25, the Ohio River and its tributaries flooded cities such as Indianapolis, Indiana, and Cincinnati, Youngstown, and Columbus, Ohio. Dayton, Ohio, was particularly hard-hit. On Wednesday, March 26, the storm moved east into Pennsylvania and New York, while heavy rain continued in the Ohio River valley. The heaviest rainfall, 6 to 9 inches (150 to 230 mm) or more, covered an area from southern Illinois into northwestern Pennsylvania. As the storm continued eastward, flooding began in New York, Massachusetts, Vermont, and Virginia. The Potomac River overflowed its banks in Maryland.
State and local communities handled much of their own disaster response and relief in 1913. The American Red Cross, a small organization at that time, focused its efforts in more than one hundred of Ohio's hardest-hit communities, including Dayton, and served six of Indiana’s hardest-hit counties. Ohio governor James M. Cox called on the state legislature to appropriate $250,000 (about $11 million in today's dollars) for emergency aid. Indiana governor Samuel M. Ralston appealed to Indiana cities and other states for relief assistance. Many communities cared for their own flood victims with Red Cross assistance, charitable donations, and contributions from local businesses, industries, and service organizations.
|Great Flood of 1913|
Main Street in Dayton, Ohio during the flood
|Date||March 23–26, 1913|
|Location||Alabama, Arkansas, Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Vermont, and Virginia|
The storms that created the floods in 1913 continued over several days and produced record-breaking rain. It remains Ohio's "largest weather disaster" and triggered Indiana's worst flood on record. Storm-related flooding affected more than a dozen states: Alabama, Arkansas, Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Vermont, and Virginia. The same weather system caused major tornadoes in the Great Plains, the South, and the Midwest, most notably in Omaha, Nebraska; Lone Peach, Arkansas; and Terre Haute, Indiana.
Between March 23 and 25 heavy rains and rising waters from the Great Miami River burst levees on Dayton's south side and flooded 14 square miles (36 km2) of the city. Dayton's downtown streets experienced water 10 feet (3.0 m) deep. On March 26, as floodwaters reached their crest, Dayton's business district suffered more damage after an early morning fire and gas explosion. An estimated 123 people were killed in Dayton. Downstream in nearby Hamilton, Ohio, about 100 people died after water 10 to 18 feet (3.0 to 5.5 m) deep flowed into its residential neighborhoods.
Approximately 6 inches (150 mm) of rain fell on Indianapolis over the period of March 23 through March 26, inundating nearly a 6-square-mile (16 km2) area and causing five known deaths. On March 26 floodwaters estimated at 19.5 feet (5.9 m) above flood stage destroyed Indianapolis's Washington Street bridge, the main connection over the White River. High water forced 4,000 to flee their homes on the city's near west side when an earthen levee failed and a 25-foot (7.6 m) wall of water flooded an area nearly a 1⁄2 mile (0.80 km) wide around Kentucky Avenue and Morris Street. The city's transportation and water supply were disrupted for nearly four days in flooded areas and as many as 7,000 Indianapolis families lost their homes.
The weather pattern that triggered heavy rains over the Midwest began after strong Canadian winds stalled a high-pressure system off Bermuda and delayed the normal easterly flow of a low-pressure system. As moist air from the Gulf of Mexico moved into the Midwest through the Mississippi River valley, a second Canadian high-pressure system arrived from the west and squeezed the low into a trough that stretched from southern Illinois, across central Indiana, and into northern Ohio. At least two low-pressure systems moving in quick succession along the trough dumped one rainstorm after another. The weather pattern changed little over the four-day period of March 23 through March 26 and caused heavy rain over the Ohio River valley. The heaviest rainfall, 6 to 9 inches (150 to 230 mm) or more, covered an area from southern Illinois into northwestern Pennsylvania. Louisville, Kentucky, experienced the storm’s heaviest recorded rainfall rate of 1.05 inches (27 mm) in twenty-eight minutes on March 25.
Other factors contributing to the extensive flooding were the storm's size, its duration, and existing ground conditions. Rivers and streams affected by the flood were at near normal or below flood stage levels two days prior to the major flooding in Indiana and Ohio. Some experts argue that the ground may have become quickly saturated, resulting in runoff and flash flooding. Others have suggested that frozen ground in tributary watersheds may have contributed to the flooding along the rivers. Up to 8 inches (200 mm) of snow followed the heavy rain in northern Indiana. In some areas thawed ground and a lack of snowpack may have minimized the destruction from runoff and flooding.
Rivers rose several feet above previous high-water marks in Ohio and Indiana after heavy rains at the headwaters of the region’s rivers moved downstream. The area's rivers experienced heavy runoff, especially along the Muskingum, Scioto, Great Miami, and Wabash rivers. The Scioto River basin in central Ohio recorded a flood level of 21 feet (6.4 m), which remains a record of nearly 4 feet (1.2 m) higher than its other recorded floods. The Great Miami River and its tributaries, including the Whitewater River in Indiana, rose at least 10 feet (3.0 m) higher than previous flood levels in many locations. Downstream from Indiana and Ohio, where the Ohio River enters the Mississippi River at Cairo, Illinois, the water level reached 54.7 feet (16.7 m) and broke record highs to that time. High waters continued to flow south to the Gulf of Mexico, causing some levees to fail in Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Missouri. Water from flood-crested rivers flowing into the Mississippi River in April set new height records downriver and caused cities such as Memphis, Tennessee; Natchez, Mississippi; New Orleans, Louisiana; and elsewhere along the Mississippi to prepare for flooding.
Friday, March 21
Saturday, March 22
Sunday, March 23
Monday, March 24
Tuesday, March 25
Wednesday, March 26
Thursday, March 27
Friday, March 28
In the immediate aftermath of the floods businesses and factories shut down, schools closed, government services were disrupted, and train travel was delayed or stopped throughout the Midwest. Newspapers in many communities were not published during the storm. Theaters around the country were showing pictures of the flood devastation in Dayton and other Ohio cities and tornado damage in Omaha, Nebraska, within weeks after the disaster.
In 1913, years before the federal government provided significant disaster relief, state and local communities handled their own disaster response and relief. Cleanup efforts were made even more difficult with increased fire and health risks, flood-damaged communications systems, disrupted transportation networks, debris-littered streets, and flooded utility systems.
The American Red Cross was still a small organization in March 1913, with a few full-time employees at its headquarters in Washington, D.C. and about sixty volunteer chapters in the United States, when President Woodrow Wilson named it "the official disaster-relief agency for the federal government". Flood reports in the country's newspapers carried an appeal from the president to help victims with contributions to the Red Cross. Wilson also sent telegrams to the governors of Ohio and Indiana asking how the federal government might help. Indiana governor Samuel M. Ralston did not receive President Wilson's telegram offering federal support due to flood-damaged communications. Ohio governor James M. Cox replied to the president with a request for tents, rations, supplies, and physicians and sent a telegram to the Red Cross requesting its assistance in Dayton and surrounding communities. Red Cross agents and nurses focused their efforts in 112 of Ohio's hardest-hit communities, which included Dayton, primarily along Ohio's major rivers. The Red Cross had less of a presence in Indiana, where it established a temporary headquarters in Indianapolis and served the six hardest-hit Indiana counties. Red Cross disaster relief in other regions of the United States, with the exception of Omaha, Nebraska, and Lower Peach Tree, Alabama, was limited or nonexistent.
Governor Cox called on the Ohio legislature to appropriate $250,000 (about $11 million in today's dollars) for emergency aid and declared a 10-day bank holiday. Cox, who was also the publisher of the Dayton Daily News, provided the press with daily briefings and appeals for donations. Governor Ralston appealed to Indiana cities and other states for relief assistance and donations of money and supplies. Ralson appointed a trustee to receive relief funds and arrange for distribution of supplies. Approximately one-half of Indiana's counties cared for their own flood victims. Railroads, most notably "the Big Four, the Pennsylvania Lines, and the Vandalia," put their equipment at the Indiana governor's disposal and had work crews rebuild the state's rail network.
The Chicago Association of Commerce wired $100,000 to the Red Cross on March 26, becoming one of many organizations that contributed funds for flood relief. Rotary clubs across the United States contributed more than $25,000 (half a million in today's dollars) to a Rotary Relief Fund, which was established for flood relief in Indiana and Ohio. It was the organization's "first cooperative disaster relief effort." In some areas independent local organizations helped with relief efforts. The Rotary Club of Indianapolis, chartered just a few weeks before the flood, and the Rotary Club of Dayton, chartered six months earlier, assisted relief efforts within their communities by helping to provide medical support, transportation, and shelter. Other Rotary clubs in the United States and Canada donated funds, supplies, and medicine. In Colorado stage actress Sarah Bernhardt and fellow actor John Drew, Jr. gave a benefit performance that contributed $5,000 to a $41,000 relief fund already raised by Colorado residents for Indiana and Ohio flood victims.
The exact death toll from the flood and its aftermath may never be known. One estimate of storm-related deaths from March 21 to March 28 is more than 900. Flood deaths in Ohio, Indiana, and eleven other states (Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Wisconsin) is estimated at approximately 650. This death toll places the flood of 1913 second to the Johnstown flood of 1889, when more than 2,200 people died, as one of the country's deadliest floods. Official reports of flood deaths are inconsistent. The bodies of some of the victims were never found and not all fatalities were reported to agencies collecting flood statistics. Some disaster-related deaths from injuries or illness were not listed in official counts if they occurred after publication of official reports. An estimate of 467 flood deaths has been quoted for Ohio, with the official death toll range between 422 and 470. Dayton's official death toll was not certain, but Ohio's Bureau of Statistics listed eighty-two people, while one flood historian puts the number at ninety-eight. Others reported Dayton's death toll at nearly 300, but this figure may have included other neighborhoods and cities. Estimated deaths for flood victims in Indiana is 100 to 200. Flooding in the Great Miami River basin caused at least 260 deaths, more than in any other river basin. Approximately seventeen people died in flooding in the Whitewater River basin.
Secondary to the flood itself, there were outbreaks of diphtheria and typhus in several flooded areas, such as the area in north-central Dayton, Ohio. It is likely that roughly 2000 additional hospitalizations were the result of these outbreaks, following the more directly physical damage of the flood. Although information for Indiana is not presently available, estimates are that an additional 1000 people were effected in that state.
Damage from the flood was widespread and extensive. The storm destroyed hundreds of bridges and railroad trestles and 12,000 telegraph and telephone poles. Flooding stopped communications between Chicago and New York for a day and a half, disrupted road and rail transportation, and slowed mail delivery. More than 38,000 homes and other buildings, plus thousands of schools, businesses, utilities, and city streets were damaged or destroyed. More than a quarter million people were left homeless.
In the Midwest alone, damage estimates, which one flood historian suggests were understated, were more than "a third of a billion dollars." The Dayton Citizens' Relief Committee's report documented damage in Dayton in excess of $73 million. Damage in Indiana was estimated at $25 million in 1913 dollars. Cairo, Illinois, where its citizens had advance knowledge of the oncoming high water that arrived the week after the Dayton flood, reported no fatalities, but damage estimates there and in smaller communities such as Shawneetown, Illinois, and Caseyville, Kentucky, was in excess of $5 million. Along the Mississippi River damages exceeded $200 million.
Devastation from the flood of 1913 and later floods along the Mississippi River in 1917, 1927, 1936, and 1937, eventually changed the country’s management of its waterways and increased congressional support beyond emergency flood assistance to include national flood control measures.
Following the flood of 1913, citizens and government officials took a greater interest in comprehensive flood prevention, managing flood-prone areas, and funding for flood control projects that would limit damage and save lives. Congress previously contended that floods were local events and flood control was the responsibility of state and local government. The Flood Control Act of 1917 was the first of several pieces of legislation that eventually led to the creation of the National Flood Insurance Program of 1968, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in 1979, and the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act of 1988. Federal funding for national flood control projects began slowly in 1917, with Congress authorizing funding for flood control studies in the Mississippi River as part of House Document 308. By 1925 it had been expanded to include other major rivers in the United States.
The Dayton Relief Committee began shortly after the flood of 1913 to raise $2 million to develop a comprehensive flood protection system that would prevent another flood disaster of the same magnitude. The committee hired Arthur Ernest Morgan and his Morgan Engineering Company from Tennessee to design a plan that used levees and dams. On March 17, 1914, the governor of Ohio signed the Ohio Conservancy Act, which allowed for the establishment of conservancy districts with the authority to implement flood control projects. Ohio's Upper Scioto Conservancy District was the first to form in February 1915. The Miami Conservancy District (MCD), which includes Dayton and surrounding communities, was the second, formed in June 1915. The MCD began construction of their flood control system in 1918. The project was completed in 1922 at a cost in excess of $32 million and has kept Dayton from flooding as significantly as it did in 1913. The Ohio Conservancy Act became the model for other states, such as Indiana, New Mexico, and Colorado.