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THE THOUSAND-YEAR FLOOD by David Welky Kirkus Star


The Ohio-Mississippi Disaster of 1937

by David Welky

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-226-88716-6
Publisher: Univ. of Chicago

The story of the worst flood in American history and how it overwhelmed the Ohio river valley and much of the lower Mississippi in January and February 1937.

Writing that “the 1937 flood is a catastrophe lost to historians,” Welky (Univ. of Central Arkansas; The Moguls and the Dictators: Hollywood and the Coming of World War II, 2008, etc.) exposes the weaknesses in the Army Corps of Engineers’ approach to river management, many of which were known at the time. Had lessons been learned then, perhaps later disasters might have been avoided or had less-catastrophic results. The entire 981-mile length of the Ohio River was above flood stage at one point, along with tributaries from Pennsylvania to Illinois. Water surged 15 feet above previous records, covered 15,000 miles of highway and disrupted rail traffic across the eastern United States. Nearly 400 people died, and more than 1 million were forced to evacuate their homes. By the time of FDR's second inauguration, the flood was in full swing and was mentioned briefly in a radio address on January 30th, when the president called for a “national effort on a national scale…to decrease the probability of future floods and disasters.” Welky reviews the history of the process by which the Army Corps of Engineers institutionalized its role as the lead agency in river management. He argues that the Corps' insistence on building levees and floodways contributed to the scale of the disaster by channeling and accelerating the flood waters which easily over-topped the levees of towns across the valley. Unfortunately, nothing ever came of FDR's vision of a national-resources council to coordinate all aspects of river-basin management.

An eye-opening account of a national disaster that has been all but forgotten, as well as a shameful spotlight on the short-sightedness of humans in the face of the awesome powers of nature.