David Welky’s well-researched, plain-speaking The Thousand-Year Flood: The Ohio-Mississippi Disaster of 1937 (University of Chicago Press, $27.50) follows a quest to understand why an unlikely disaster happened and what we have learned — and have failed to learn — from it.
Rain took up a month-long residency along the Ohio River Valley beginning late December 1936, initially over-spilling the River’s banks onto the floodplain. Soon the unabated downpour overburdened the River, which unleashed 165 billion tons of water over towns, villages and cities in 196 counties in 12 states. On January 24, 1937, now known as “Black Sunday,” from Cairo to Portsmouth, the Ohio River was two to three times above flood stage, rising to 80 feet in Cincinnati.
From West Virginia to Louisiana, 1,495,287 people were directly affected, immediately made homeless or eventually returning to a house no longer habitable, with belongings long-since washed away. Some people stuck it out and miraculously survived. Others did not. Some businesses, industries and farms ceased operation entirely, some limped along to partial recovery.
It was an unprecedented disaster bringing more than $25 million in worldwide contributions. Indianapolis, along with other cities far enough away from the Valley became Red Cross sheltering locations and supply centers for clothing, food and medical care for flood refugees.
Welky shares the real travails of people living through the disaster, while showing why previous personal choices and governmental decisions made on all levels led to raging flood conditions.
While almost every affected community has produced its memory album of the ’37 flood, Welky’s book is the first to assess effects from Pittsburgh to Cairo, and the first to examine our collective attitudes towards living with nature as opposed to trying to conquer the unconquerable.