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Thousand-Year Flood
“David Welky has done a prodigious job of reminding us about the horror inflicted by the Ohio-Mississippi flood of 1937. At its heart, The Thousand-Year Flood is a Great Depression story not unlike the Dust Bowl tragedy. His scholarship is impeccable. Highly recommended!”—Douglas Brinkley, author of The Great Deluge

“A wonderfully written, engaging narrative about one of America’s greatest and often forgotten disasters. David Welky captures the people, places, and mood with apt turns of phrase, telling details, and careful attention to atmospherics.”—Matthew Klingle, author of Emerald City: An Environmental History of Seattle


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An Excerpt from
The Thousand-Year Flood
The Ohio-Mississippi Disaster of 1937
by David Welky


“They are all trying to blame this on me,” Nebraska senator George Norris laughed as he pointed at a knot of shivering reporters watching Franklin Roosevelt prepare to take the oath of office. Norris had championed the Twentieth Amendment to the Constitution, a modification that advanced the inauguration from March 4 to January 20. This wet, chilly gray day in 1937, the first day of FDR’s second term, marked the new date’s initial application. Inauguration morning brought more of the relentless precipitation that had turned Washington, DC, into a swampy morass. Residents scuttled through near-freezing temperatures and a nasty mix of rain and sleet. Tiny rivers streamed down Pennsylvania Avenue, and small ponds capped with skins of ice dotted the National Mall. Resentful correspondents ribbed the senator for forcing them into this mess. They groaned when a cheerful Norris reminisced about the March 1909 blizzard that had compelled William Howard Taft to recite the oath indoors.

President Franklin Roosevelt, smiling to the crowd from the rostrum, was oblivious to their carping. His aura of stolid resolution mocked both the storm and the thirty pounds of iron braces encasing his paralyzed legs. FDR had spent the past few days polishing his inaugural address in the comfort of the White House and was determined to put on a good show for a nation that was just now lifting its head after years of punishing economic hardship. As he had four years earlier, Roosevelt began inauguration day with a special service at St. John’s Episcopal Church. Rain hammered the roof as Reverend Endicott Peabody, his old headmaster from Groton prep school, asked God to grant Roosevelt the wisdom and strength to lead the nation through what was presumably his final term in office. The president’s family and close friends filled the pews behind him. They represented an array of faiths, an assortment of Catholics, Jews, and Protestants huddling in God’s house to seek shelter from the elements.

After the service FDR’s party returned to the White House to prepare for the public ceremonies. Advisers urged the president to read his address indoors rather than braving the elements. Roosevelt pondered their suggestion for a moment before asking whether anyone was waiting outside to hear him speak. Forty thousand or so, they replied. That was a small gathering by inauguration standards, far smaller than four years earlier, but many of those people had huddled for hours under soggy hats, umbrellas, and newspapers to catch a glimpse of the president. Roosevelt flashed his trademark smile and said, “If they can take it, I can.” The ceremony would go forward as planned. Manservants helped him into a limousine that was soon speeding down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the Capitol.

Roosevelt, for all his bravado, had no great desire to stand in a storm. Noon found him stewing in the Senate sergeant-at-arms’ office, chain-smoking cigarettes as he chatted with Secretary of State Cordell Hull about Japan and talked economics with Secretary of War Harry Woodring. Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau lightened the mood when he cracked open a flask of scotch. Morgenthau took a furtive pull before passing it to Interior Secretary Harold Ickes. Fortification against the weather, the old warhorses laughed. Roosevelt stalled until 12:20, twenty minutes after his first term expired, before giving the sign to go. Aides helped the president to his feet as his son James braced to receive his father’s weight. The two locked arms, steadied themselves, and shuffled into the downpour.

Temporary shelters erected over the Capitol’s main portico offered little protection against the weather. A frigid wind hurled the downpour sideways under the roof, leaving the luminaries beneath it as wet as the thousands gathered below. Roosevelt pressed on against the storm, twice halting his speech to wipe his face but otherwise refusing to acknowledge the rain. Millions in dry living rooms listened to the patrician voice emanating from their radios. Some of them nodded when the president lamented that one-third of Americans remained “ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished” and beamed when he promised to use the nation’s “great wealth of natural resources” to elevate living standards. The throng outside the Capitol ignored these applause lines. Heavy rain and ankle-deep mud dampened their enthusiasm, and the substandard amplification system prevented most of them from hearing anything Roosevelt said. The seats behind the president were nearly empty by the time he finished speaking. Apparently few of the dignitaries could “take it.”

Roosevelt insisted on returning to the White House in an open touring car so the crowds lining the route could see him. He smiled and waved all the way home. Eleanor tried to do the same as she sat beside him in a saturated fur coat. FDR accepted a brief alcohol rubdown before presiding over a buffet luncheon for six hundred. He then clamped on his sodden hat to go review the ninety-minute inaugural parade. Declining a chair, he stood at attention as dripping cadets, midshipmen, and Marines marched before him. Rain fell on president and plebe alike.

Once the last soldier passed, the Roosevelts went back inside to host a tea for three thousand wet guests. The festive mood inside the White House stood in stark contrast to the atmosphere four years earlier, when fears of a complete financial meltdown had cast a pall over the proceedings. Economic indicators were favorable, the Depression appeared to be waning, and the lopsided election results suggested that a broad majority of voters favored the New Deal. Roosevelt’s guests knew that, unlike the financial storms of 1933, the squall beating the White House today would soon blow over.

Roosevelt excused himself from the celebration late that evening to indulge in a rare moment of privacy. His extended family had already retired for the night. Eleanor was enjoying a concert at Constitution Hall with former first lady Edith Wilson. A master of compartmentalization, FDR resolved to savor a few untroubled hours rather than worry about the perils ahead. An autoworkers’ strike that had brought General Motors to a standstill, his as yet unannounced scheme to pack the Supreme Court with liberal justices, his plan to slash the federal budget in response to improving financial conditions, his upcoming initiative to reorganize the executive branch—these issues could wait. He probably paid no attention to the weather, as he had done his best to ignore it all day.

Press secretary Stephen Early found Roosevelt in a buoyant mood when he phoned to relay the newspapers’ reaction to the inaugural address. “You can’t guess what I’m doing,” the president teased. “Playing with your stamps,” Early replied. “That’s right,” FDR laughed, “rather a nice contrast to inaugural evening four years ago.” They reminisced about that first night in office. Early recalled the panic that gripped FDR’s economic team as they debated the national emergency into the wee hours of the morning. Roosevelt and Early agreed that things were better now and that even sunnier days lay ahead. After wishing the president a good night, the secretary sat down at his typewriter to record his thoughts. Two decades of working alongside Roosevelt had not diminished his amazement at the president’s uncanny serenity. “He had brought about such changed conditions, that he could sit alone… with nothing more to do or worry about than [to] toy with his stamp collection,” Early typed. He reminded himself to keep FDR’s schedule light over the next few days. He had earned a break. Early, his tasks for the day completed, turned out the lights and collapsed into an exhausted sleep.

Outside his window, the rain pounded the streets of Washington, DC. It filled every low spot, overflowed gutters, and poured into the rivers that carried it toward the sea.

About eight hundred miles west of the capital’s meticulous grid of streets and a world away from the festivities surrounding the inaugural, northeast Arkansas and southeast Missouri cowered as rain muddied the region’s dirt paths and fallow fields. Most who lived in these places epitomized Roosevelt’s ill-housed, ill-clad, and ill-nourished class. They saw no marble monuments outside their homes, only vast treeless tracts waiting to receive cotton seeds. Despondent shacks, an occasional plantation manor, hulking cotton gins, and weathered barns with ads for patent medicines painted on their roofs interrupted the monotonous landscape. Other than these markers, the area was so flat and featureless that people could discern the curvature of the earth on the horizon.

Recent troubles had bedeviled a region where all times were hard times. A tremendous Mississippi River flood a decade earlier had killed about one hundred people and destroyed tens of millions of dollars worth of property. The Great Depression struck just as memories of the inundation were fading. Disastrously low cotton prices crippled tenant and landowner alike. Most farm families earned less than two hundred dollars a year. They survived on a meager diet of cornbread, molasses, and fatback. Malaria and pellagra ravaged a society more familiar with folk remedies than with doctors. Uneducated croppers, day laborers, and backwoods squatters ascribed medicinal qualities to turpentine, lard, and hog-hoof tea. They wasted their pennies on love potions, carried lucky bones in their pockets, and wore red flannel next to their skin to ward off rheumatism. Their housing was so shoddy that, according to an old saying, they studied astronomy through the holes in the roof and geology through the gaps in the floor.

Vicious weather punished the area during the opening weeks of 1937. Heavy precipitation coincided with a cold snap to unleash the worst ice storms anyone could remember. Each cloudburst pushed the Mississippi higher. Smaller rivers running parallel to it—the Black, the Little, the St. Francis—also rose. Flooding began in mid-January. Water covered farmland made fertile by millennia of overflows that had deposited vital nutrients into the soil. In a sense it was frequent inundation that attracted settlers to this region. Now that same phenomenon was driving them out. Rich and poor alike sought refuge in nearby towns or braved treacherous roads leading east to Memphis. Others fled west to Crowley’s Ridge, a line of hills arcing 150 miles from southeast Missouri to the river town of Helena, Arkansas. Evacuation proceeded at a deliberate pace. Floods were common here, so people with little to lose and nowhere to go stayed put until water lapped at their doorsteps.

By inauguration eve they knew this was no typical flood. National Guardsmen, enrollees in the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration (WPA), and local volunteers scoured riverbanks for danger spots in need of sandbagging. Armed patrols watched for anyone aiming to dynamite a levee to force water over one bank while relieving pressure on the opposite side. Some detachments received shoot-to-kill orders after a series of near-miss attempts to breach barriers. “We simply cannot afford to take chances,” one engineer explained.

Area officials and the Army Corps of Engineers believed the massive levees on the Mississippi would hold. They were less certain about the shoddier works lining smaller rivers. Thousands of men formed human chains that packed sandbags atop the walls. These gangs toiled day and night with brief pauses to grab some food, take a nap, or look heavenward and pose the question on everyone’s mind: When will it stop raining? Higher went the stacks, and higher went the rivers. Dozens of minor levee failures spilled brackish water across thousands of acres of farmland. A breakthrough in the Missouri bootheel swept two Corps of Engineers inspectors and a WPA supervisor into the river. The trio clung to a telephone line until rescuers arrived. “It was the best telephone conversation I ever had,” one survivor laughed.

Americans elsewhere gave scant attention to the crisis in the Midwest.

Bold headlines about Roosevelt’s inauguration relegated the flood to inside pages. Arkansans and Missourians living west of the Mississippi valley, in what was then the eastern edge of the Dust Bowl, worried more about a shortage of rain than a surplus. “My Dear Sir,” a farmer from Fryatt, Arkansas, sixty miles west of the flooding, wrote to newly inaugurated governor Carl Bailey, “The people of this country has elected you for govener with the faith that you will help the people in this drough stricken country and have ask me to rite you this is five years of straight drough with us of course.”

Miserable flood victims bagged levees, ran for high ground, or sat in refugee camps while Roosevelt waved to a bedraggled but spirited crowd in Washington. Anyone familiar with hydrology and meteorology knew the worst was yet to come. Confined by levees as it roared toward the Gulf of Mexico, the Mississippi had risen so high that the water acted as a wall preventing minor streams from emptying into it. The Mississippi instead backed up into its tributaries as if cascading over a waterfall. Arkansas and Missouri rivers could not drain to the sea until the Father of Waters first disgorged its load.

And more water was coming. The same storms that pummeled mid-western sharecroppers dumped billions of gallons into the Ohio valley. As streams from Illinois to Pennsylvania crept higher, Red Cross and Coast Guard workers swung into action along a thousand-mile front. Washington, however, remained distracted as officials enjoyed the inaugural celebration and weathermen convinced themselves the rain would end soon. There is “no threat of a serious flood,” one forecaster told a federal offi cial. His confidence made little sense, for all that water in the Ohio had to pass the waterlogged Missouri bootheel and Arkansas delta before it reached the ocean. Additional rain might transform an inconvenience into a disaster.

Mississippi valley residents saw black mountains of angry storm clouds bearing down from the southwest. They knew the rain was not letting up anytime soon. But neither the tenant farmer running for his life nor the president enjoying his stamp collection anticipated how bad the situation was going to get. Something was coming that would destroy towns, fracture communities, and forever change the Ohio valley. The worst river flood in American history was on its way.

Engineers label floods according to the likelihood of their occurrence. A “hundred- year flood” has a 1 perrcent chance of striking in any particular year and is far more severe than a “twenty-year flood,” which has a 5 percent chance of hitting during that same period. These designations represent odds rather than absolute predictions, since twenty-year floods could come in consecutive years and two hundred years might pass between hundred-year floods. Although important to professionals calculating the risk of damage to a given location, for the layman these designations serve mostly as informal guides for evaluating the magnitude of a disaster. So while there is no way to determine the truth of what river men said in January 1937, their assertions show how they viewed the inundation passing before them. In that eighth year of depression, in those first days of FDR’s second term, they said that what began in rural Arkansas and Missouri before spreading eastward across the Ohio valley was something no American, living or dead, had ever witnessed: a thousand-year flood.

A reporter for the Louisville Courier-Journal printed a conversation he had overheard between a sightseer and an elderly man who was peering at the river. “Some flood, eh?” the tourist remarked.

“The only flood I ever saw,” the gentleman said.

“Just move here?”

“No, lived here all my life. Went through five high waters, but this is my first flood.”

People groped for words that captured what they were witnessing. Major General John Craig did as well as anyone. “It’s the worst thing that ever happened,” he concluded after flying the length of the Ohio. Others spoke of the disaster in biblical terms, imagining themselves as modern-day Noahs subjected to God’s awful wrath. Victims recognized it as a once in a lifetime event, perhaps a once in many lifetimes event.

The overflow surpassed all estimations of the Ohio’s potential strength. At one point the river’s entire 981-mile run stood above flood stage, as did tributaries from Pennsylvania to Illinois. Communities gasped as water surged fifteen feet above previous records. Buildings, farms, and cities once considered untouchable disappeared beneath the waves. Water covered 15,000 miles of highway, disrupted railroad traffic across the eastern half of the United States, and ravaged communications networks. It devastated rural areas, decimated urban infrastructures, and gutted industries. Hundreds of people either drowned or died from pneumonia and other illnesses.

These events prompted an unprecedented relief effort. Red Cross officials dispatched the largest staff ever assembled for a disaster operation. Railroad companies shunted freight cars to clear tracks for trains stuffed with emergency supplies. East Coast fishermen heaved dories onto flat-beds headed for the valley. Sympathizers from around the world donated money and essentials.

Washington, DC, also mobilized its resources. Although previous administrations had put charities and local groups in charge of relief and rehabilitation matters, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal placed federal authorities at the center of national affairs. Americans now looked to their president rather than to a governor or mayor. Administration officials saw the flood as an opportunity to showcase their philosophy of government. The Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) paid hundreds of thousands of unemployed people to defend towns from inundation, transport victims to safety, and reconstruct the shattered valley.

As the presence of these public relief bureaus suggests, the thousand year flood was very much a New Deal catastrophe. It tested the New Deal’s assumption that an activist administration stocked with enlightened experts could guarantee all Americans a basic level of security. An ineffective response could undermine popular support not just for a government, but for an entire theory of government. New Dealers already operated under the premise that the government should provide cradle-to-grave protection against economic calamity. Flood damage widened that umbrella to include acts of God. The deluge also solidified support for centralized power over environmental matters and emergency relief. Discussions about preventing future superfloods assumed that Washington, not the states or private interests, bore primary responsibility for shielding citizens from natural disasters.

Washington-based officials worked alongside private entities and local leaders to manage the crisis, organize the recovery, and chart the Ohio basin’s future course. These interactions raised questions about whether the New Deal functioned more effectively when it acted from the top down or from the bottom up. Both the central government and the grass roots believed they knew what was best for the valley and they aimed to achieve their goals with minimal interference from the other side. The flood provides a chance to examine how well, and to what extent, New Deal policies operated on the local level. It resulted in a mixed bag of good works, dashed idealism, bureaucratic overreach, and stubborn parochialism. On the whole, New Dealers did a better job of navigating the short-term emergency than of realizing their long-term objectives. In the end, however, anyone who spends much time looking around the Ohio valley or other river basins should understand that much of what they see came from the Depression era. Legislation, physical structures, attitudes about coexisting with natural forces, the very parameters for how one lives alongside the river all reflect the New Deal world.

The disaster shines a penetrating light on New Deal conservation policies. More than any previous president, Franklin Roosevelt came into office hoping to reshape Americans’ relationship with nature. Dust storms, soil erosion, deforestation, waterborne pollution, and runaway rivers signaled a society living in dissonance rather than in harmony with the environment. Drawing on ideas dating to the time of his distant cousin Theodore and even further back, FDR aimed to put the country’s use of resources on a more rational, efficient, and scientific path. Ambitious New Dealers intended to centralize resource management through a national planning board tasked with maximizing Americans’ ability to harness nature’s gifts in ways that minimized environmental damage. Opposing them were entrenched interests that clung to older, which is not to say wrongheaded, understandings of government’s role in conservation and flood control. Planning advocates seized on the unprecedented overflow to press their agenda, but instead of serving as the climactic moment for a century-long discussion about conservation, resource use, and planning, it became a missed opportunity. A better one never came along. Different environmental priorities carried the legislative day, with enormous consequences for the Ohio valley and the entire nation.

Other conflicts rooted in the politics of the 1930s swirled around the inundation and its aftermath. Floodwaters exposed the limitations of New Deal agricultural and labor policies. FDR’s administration generally supported workers desiring to organize and bargain collectively. It also aimed to increase purchasing power and improve living conditions in rural areas, often without much success. A ragtag collection of sharecroppers called the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union (STFU) stood at the nexus of these two issues. One of the groups that emerged from the government’s new tolerance of unions, the STFU believed it could use the floodtime chaos to achieve victory in its clash with exploitive planters. Instead it suffered a grievous blow that deprived its impoverished members of their best hope for overcoming elite domination.

The flood also offers a snapshot of America’s racial mores under the New Deal. Rising waters awoke memories of the 1927 Mississippi River flood. African Americans had suffered disproportionately during that event, and they did so again a decade later. Black residents of the Ohio and Mississippi valleys dwelled in less desirable, more flood-prone areas and had fewer resources to draw on than whites. Black “flooders” encountered discriminatory treatment at the hands of prejudiced refugee-camp administrators. Authorities in some places rounded up African Americans as forced laborers. Roosevelt had an up-and-down relationship with African Americans, and at times the New Deal acted contrary to their best interests. But by inserting Washington further into local affairs, the flood also opened up possibilities for improving treatment and equalizing rights. The administration did its best to impose a color-blind approach toward flood victims. Although Roosevelt’s subordinates could not always enforce nondiscrimination edicts, their efforts at impartiality distinguished them from the Coolidge administration, which was generally apathetic toward the widespread bigotry that occurred in 1927.

Some communities handled the 1937 flood with relative aplomb and rebounded in good form. Others came apart at the seams and never recovered. Understanding why communities weathered the storm with varying success requires us to examine their histories in some detail. In some cases a town’s short- and long-term response to the catastrophe reflected historical developments that stretch back to its birth. This is not to say that cities were predestined to succeed or fail, but rather to note that the circumstances of their founding and the decisions earlier generations made established traits and characteristics that became more evident during moments of extreme crisis.

Hard times create opportunities for dramatic change. Ruined villages and shattered lives offered vivid reminders of the need for a new relationship with the environment. Humans cannot control the rains. They can only tailor their lives to avoid angry waterways. Nature causes floods, man causes flood damage. Decisions made long before sharecroppers occupied squalid cabins and long before Franklin Roosevelt delivered his inaugural address redounded against the valley. Hardy pioneers had taken up positions along the river for what at the time were rational reasons. They concerned themselves with how best to exploit the river, whether for trade, defense, or nearby resources, instead of asking how the river might affect them. In doing so they failed to consider the Ohio as an actor in their world. In 1937 that neglect backfired on their successors.

Hoping to avoid future catastrophes, Depression-era Americans debated ways to reconcile their way of life with the dangers of living near a river. Today millions of Americans from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to Cairo, Illinois, and millions more outside the Ohio-Mississippi valley, live in a world created in no small part by the choices made three-quarters of a century ago.

David Welky
© 2011, 384 pages , 18 halftones, 2 maps
Cloth $27.50 ISBN: 9780226887166 E-book $10.00 to $29.99 ISBN: 9780226887180

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