Victims of the 1937 flood lined up for drinking water supplied by The Enquirer. People also filled buckets at ponds, springs and artesian wells.
At nearly 80 ft., '37 flood
got many changes flowing
BY OWEN FINDSEN and CAMERON McWHIRTER
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Floodwaters at Cincinnati have passed the 60-foot mark 21 times in the 20th century.
1913 brought two severe floods to Ohio, less than three months apart. On Jan. 14 the waters reached 62.2 feet, followed by a 69.9-foot flood, the third-highest flood in Cincinnati's history, and the worst in lives lost.
The flood came down the Ohio River from the east and swept through tributaries, including the Great Miami River. Without hills like those of Cincinnati, the cities of Columbus, Dayton, Hamilton and Middletown, Ohio, were inundated. Panic in those communities was widespread. Early estimates put the death toll at more than 7,000 in Ohio, 5,000 in Dayton alone.
As the days went by, rumors were squelched and the number of dead was found to be 454, with 40,000 left homeless. But Daytonians never forgot the horrifying images of hundreds of drowned and bloated horses that were found when the waters receded.
1918 brought more back-to-back floods: 61.2 feet on Feb. 1 and 61.8 on Feb. 12. The floods followed a quick thaw of the river. Huge chunks of ice floated down the Ohio and crushed the hulls of many steamboats, effectively ending the era of steamboat commerce on the Ohio.
Floods came again during the 1930s, reaching 63.6 feet on March 21, 1933; 60.6 feet on March 28, 1936; and, in the worst flood in the city's history, 79.9 feet on Jan. 26, 1937. Two days before the crest was reached, the city experienced its worst day, the day called ''Black Sunday.'' At least 10 gas tanks exploded, and there were oil fires on the Ohio and in the flooded Mill Creek Valley.
''Valley is Inferno as Gasoline Burns,'' said an Enquirer headline. ''Disaster is Worst in City's History.''
The city's power plant was shut off and emergency power tapped in from Dayton, Ohio. Residents were urged to use only one light bulb and one radio. No water came from the taps. People filled buckets at ponds, springs and artesian wells. The Milling Machine Co. was converted to a water bottling plant with volunteers working on the production line.
Cincinnati was a city under siege, sliced in thirds by water for 19 days. Travel between neighborhoods was only by boat. The entire population was divided into two groups, those who were victims of the flood and those who volunteered to help them.
At the '37 flood's crest, nearly one of every eight people in the Tristate was left homeless. Almost one-fifth of the city was covered by water. In Northern Kentucky, about one-third of the river communities of Kenton and Campbell counties were flooded. In Indiana, Lawrenceburg, Aurora and other river towns were inundated.
Damage was about $20 million.
Seven months before the flood, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had signed legislation ordering the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to begin constructing flood protection for the Ohio and other major rivers. The '37 flood sped that effort.
The Army Corps of Engineers, with regional headquarters in Cincinnati, operates 76 anti-flood reservoirs in the Ohio River basin. Set along various tributaries of the Ohio, they have a combined winter capacity of more than 5.48 trillion gallons.
As a result, the corps' Water Management Division estimates that it can reduce most floods at Cincinnati by about 9.6 feet. But the system covers only about one-third of the 180,000-square-mile drainage area of the Ohio River.
Floodwalls have been built along Cincinnati's riverfront. A barrier dam protects the Mill Creek Valley. Covington, Newport and Dayton all have levees able to withstand an 80-foot flood.
There were 39 anti-flood reservoirs in place in 1964, when the river crested at 66.2 feet. The Mill Creek barrier dam kept the flood waters away from Crosley Field and the new Fort Washington Way doubled, for the first time, as a floodwall. The increase in cars since 1945 created a new flood problem, traffic jams.
The river passed 60 feet eight times between 1937 and 1964, but never since 1964 . . . until the flood of 1997.
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