From the Chillicothe Gazette, March 15, 2013
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Public largely has forgotten Ohio’s Flood of 1913
Written by Russ Zimmer CentralOhio.com
By any measurement, the Flood of 1913 was the most significant catastrophe in Ohio’s history. One that left an indelible mark on transportation infrastructure, humanitarian missions and, of course, flood planning.
This image was taken during the Flood of 1913 on Seventh Street in Chillicothe.
Forty-two percent of Dayton was underwater. The water was 17 feet deep in parts of Columbus. Five hundred bridges were washed away. Ohio was changed forever.
However, outside of Dayton, there isn’t much talk about the week of March 23, 1913, when at least 600 people died, 250,000 people were left homeless, and hundreds of millions of dollars in damage (billions in today’s dollars) was wrought, according to the Silver Jackets, a collective of local, state and federal agencies involved in flood planning and response.
“This event was so historic, but it really has slipped through the public consciousness,” said Sarah Jamison, National Weather Service hydrologist. “If you think about the scale of this event, it was a (Hurricane) Katrina or a (Hurricane) Sandy.”
Eight to 12 inches of rain fell across the state starting on March 23, Easter Sunday, and ending midday March 27. Data from the NWS says a typical March in Ohio has 2.5 to 4 inches of precipitation. Ohio seemed star-crossed as pretty much everything that could have gone wrong did, starting March 21, Good Friday, when a strong windstorm swept through with hurricane-force winds in the north and sustained winds up to 40 mph elsewhere in the state.
“That knocked out power lines and telephone lines,” said Jamison, who works at the Cleveland NWS station. “There was no way of relaying information once the flooding started (Sunday).”
Before it was all over, not a single river in Ohio remained contained within its banks and no corner of the state was immune from the effects of the flood.
“In the case of 1913, it was pretty much the entire state of Ohio,” said Julie Reed, a hydrologist at the Wilmington NWS office. “It remains to date the single most deadly and devastating disaster in Ohio history.”
In the old parlance, Jamison said the series of storms that caused the 1913 flood would have been called a 500-year or 1,000-year event. Spearheaded by Daytonians, plans quickly took off to make sure Ohio would be as ready as it could be for the next one.
Within a year of the flood waters receding, Dayton had developed a plan to build large reservoirs that would capture excessive rainwater, but officials found they didn’t have the legal authority to construct flood-control structures. The Ohio Conservancy Act was approved in February 1914 and the Miami Conservancy District was born a year later. (One in Kenton with a much smaller footprint was established first.)
Today, there are 20 conservancy districts in Ohio, including the massive Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District, which encompasses about 20 percent of the state. Its dams and reservoirs have been tested many times since its first dam was built in 1935, but perhaps not more so than during flooding in January 2005, when 8 inches of rain fell in a 10-day period
The pools at seven of the 16 dams in the district set record highs, according to district spokesman Darrin Lautenschleger, and there was some flooding in the easement areas behind the dams.
“However, the system operated exactly as it was designed, as there were no significant reports of property damage and, most importantly, there was no loss of life reported from this event,” he said.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates property owners were spared $400 million in damage from that flood and a total of $10.4 billion through the history of the Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District.
Flood planning today, however, is geared more toward “keeping people away from the floods instead of floods away from people,” said Alicia Silverio, a senior environmental specialist at the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. Silverio provides guidance on floodplain management to local governments.
“We have so many communities where their downtowns have rivers running through them,” Silverio said. “They knew areas like that were flood prone. They were low-lying and next to channels, but it was a risk they had to take, to be close to those waterways.”
Ideally, land inside what the federal government has identified as the 1 percent floodplain — areas that have a 1 in 100 annual chance of flooding — would be used for open space, picnic areas and ball fields.
The reality is much different for many cities, which were designed around water access for commercial uses, so it becomes about mitigating the damage to new structures. As development increases, so does the flood risk, Silverio said, because more parking lots, roofs and other impervious surfaces means less ground to soak up rainfall.
“Flooding is going to happen,” Silverio said. “It’s when we have people and development in the way of that flood that it becomes a problem.”
The scope of the post-flood transformation was not limited to just flood control, or even to just Ohio and Indiana, the two most deluged states. That makes its relatively small place in history all the more puzzling, said Trudy Bell, a veteran science journalist and author of several stories on the flood.
Bell is crisscrossing the region and giving talks about the catastrophe, but she said the attention the event is getting now wasn’t there in 2012 and probably won’t be there in 2014. Leave the Miami Valley and talking about 1913 flood might bring a lot of blank stares, despite its many legacies, she said.
For example, the American Red Cross, which was chartered by Congress in the preceding decade, cut its teeth in the flood, she said.
“The experience they gained through handling that broad of an area prepared them for handling all the casualties on the battlefield of World War I,” Bell said.
The United Way sprung from the model of federated giving — donating to an umbrella charity organization — that was pioneered by “community chests,” the first of which was established in Cleveland in 1913 as a response to the flood.
Bell said that what now are known as Rotary International clubs transformed from primarily business groups to community service clubs when they reacted to the flood with their first cooperative humanitarian response.
Radio, a relatively new technology at the time, became an integral tool in future disaster responses, as amateur operators at Ohio State University helped relay information to family members searching for their relatives, she said.
Bridges subsequently were built with their piers farther up the banks of the river or creek and with higher spans. Many bridges acted as dams in 1913 when debris became trapped against their pillars and decks, causing water to back up and then spill out in unintended places, Bell said.
Before the flood, there was an extensive system of canals in Ohio, she said. Goods on their way from New York City to the Gulf of Mexico would travel via canal from Lake Erie to the Ohio River at Portsmouth. Parts of the canals, whose owners were already feeling the pinch of competition from railroads, were intentionally destroyed during the flood and the system was completely abandoned for commercial purposes.
“Seldom can you say a canal era ended at one particular moment, but in this case I’m pretty sure if was either (that) Tuesday or Wednesday,” she said.
Experts: Weather conditions that created 1913 flood are rare
Climate change takes weather to the extremes, but it’s unclear if rising temperatures raise the odds of a repeat of the 1913 flood, Ohio’s state climatologist said.
Global warming is responsible for periods of prolonged drought, but also the increase in intense bursts of rain, he said. In recent years, we’ve seen both of those in Ohio.
“What the scientific evidence seems to be showing is that with global warming, we are getting more frequent high-rainfall events in Ohio,” said Jeff Rogers, a geography professor at Ohio State University and the state’s climatologist. “In Ohio and other parts of the Midwest, we’ve seen an increase in days with 1 inch or more of rainfall.”
However, that type of weather leads to flash floods and doesn’t describe what happened March 23 through March 27, 1913.
The Flood of 1913 wasn’t caused by one massive storm, such as a hurricane, but by a series of low-pressure systems from the Rocky Mountains that were stalled over Ohio and Indiana by an unusually immobile high-pressure system sitting on the East Coast, according to hydrologists with the National Weather Service in Ohio.
“We don’t know very much about what the role of global warming actually is in causing weather systems to stall,” Rogers said.
On Easter Sunday 1913, temperatures climbed from near freezing up to above 70 degrees. Winds from the south pushed warm, humid air from the Gulf of Mexico into the mix, providing an ample source of moisture to feed the storm. The entire state was soaked, not just one basin, which meant there was no relief to be found anywhere.
Sarah Jamison, a hydrologist at Cleveland office of the NWS, said the meteorological circumstances that caused the flood are rare.
“The rarity of those storms from a rainfall perspective — 6 to 10 inches on average and in some areas as much as a foot — we can get rainfall events like that on a local basis,” she said. “That it was so widespread is what makes this storm unique.”
About the only thing not working against Ohio that week was that the ground wasn’t snow covered or frozen, said Julie Reed, a hydrologist at the Wilmington office of the NWS.
Rogers, who has been the state’s climatologist since 1986, said the pattern of quick and intense storms tied to global warming already has revealed shortcomings in the storm water infrastructure.
“The shorter-term events are pointing toward improved needs for updating sewer systems and storm drainage and when the big events — the real nasty ones — come, it will help us be better prepared for those, too,” he said, “but sometimes you’re just never really ready for it.”