The Ohio-Mississippi Valley Flood of 1937

About the Ohio-Mississippi Valley Flood of 1937, history of the destruction and disaster, the aftermath.


In one month, bloated rainclouds dumped 156 billion tons of water to cause the worst flood in U.S. history.

When: January, 1937.

Where: In 196 counties of the 12 States that make up the Ohio-Mississippi Valley.

The Loss: 250 people died. The tab for property damage totaled $300 million.

The Disaster: Heavy rainfall and the Ohio-Mississippi Valley just naturally go together, especially in January. The natives call it "seasonal weather." In 1937 it was a bit more than seasonal. The main valve was left turned on and it didn't stop raining all month.

When the rains began in early January of 1937, they were expected. No one gave them a thought. But 3 weeks later, with the Ohio and Mississippi rivers approaching flood stage, the rains became the chief topic of conversation. Had the downpour, in a given 10-day period, focused on Pennsylvania, the entire State would have been submerged in 4' of water. More rain fell that January in the Ohio-Mississippi Valley than at any time in recorded history.

By midnight of the 24th, "Black Sunday," the situation was critical. Land transportation was at a standstill. Martial law was declared with the mobilization of public health units, CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps), WPA (Work Projects Administration), and the military. A 12-State area was rapidly approaching national emergency status. On the 23rd, the Ohio was running above 48' at Evansville, Ind., and rising.

All along the Ohio and lower Mississippi rivers, major cities awaited the inevitable. Tent-city refugee centers sprang up everywhere. Before the flood waters abated, these centers--1,754 of them--would care for 700,000 victims. In their records, the American Red Cross noted, "The Ohio-Mississippi Valley Flood of 1937 was, next to the World War [W.W.I.] the worst disaster in the history of the nation. In a sense, there were concentrated in one calamity as many problems as might be expected in 32 years of minor disaster activity."

January 25 saw 400 blocks in Evansville, Ind., under water. Boats were needed badly. In coordinated efforts, spearheaded by the American Red Cross, a flotilla of 7,000 boats was accumulated in 5 days, an unheard-of feat. All over the 12,700 sq. mi. of flooded area, in 196 counties, they were put to good use saving lives and property. Food, clothing, bedding, and medical supplies reached stricken areas via boats.

Hastily built kennels and corrals were put up near, or adjoining, refugee centers, for livestock, dogs, cats, and wild animals. Many thousands were saved from death. On January 26, the Ohio River was at 52.24'. Business, school, and water district activity ground to a halt. By the 29th, the last 35,000 victims, exposed to typhoid, were inoculated. Sterilized drinking water was strictly rationed. Food came into the devastated areas by rail, over repaired, but dangerous, tracks. On January 30, the Ohio River crested at 53.74'.

A flood relief chairman reported: "We got plenty of help from everywhere." The inmates of a Louisiana prison sent $63. The whole nation chipped in to contribute $25,565,680 through the American Red Cross--one of the largest donated sums for disaster victims ever collected in the U.S.

Aftermath: Though many floods have occurred in the Ohio-Mississippi Valley over the years, the magnitude of the 1937 disaster has dwarfed all others. Each year since then, hundreds of levees have been built to contain the big rivers partially. This has helped prevent another major disaster, but much remains to be done.

Tomorrow: Each winter some people in the Ohio-Mississippi Valley are evacuated from their homes, only to return in the spring to try it for another year. The inherent fighting spirit of humans cannot and will not accept defeat from any cause.

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