The recent disasters of the Titanic sinking on April 15, 1912, the devastating San Francisco earthquake and fire on April 18, 1906, as well as the previous year’s Mississippi River flood which swept through the river valley killing two hundred people and causing $45 million in damages, all paled in comparison to this disaster that took place in the spring of 1913.
The aforementioned disasters were devastating in their own right, but the one that came to be known as “The Great Flood of 1913″ was the most widespread disaster in United States history. Thousands upon thousands of people were affected. The death toll was second only to the Johnstown, Pennsylvania flood of 1889 which killed 2,209 people. In 1913 this super-storm affected communities in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Michigan, New York, West Virginia, Kentucky, Arkansas, Missouri and Louisiana, and beyond.
That year the month of March had already seen more than its share of crazy weather. On March 15 blizzards had blown throughout the Midwest, followed by a hurricane the next day which hit Georgia and Alabama. On March 17, Tampa, Florida was hit with a wave of highly unusual cold weather. The first day of spring, March 21, a blizzard swept across twenty states from Montana to Arizona and killed twenty-one people. Also on that day tornadoes had cut a swath across several states, with twenty-eight dead in Mobile, Alabama.
Interestingly, the storm which began on March 23 and would continue for several days as it made its way east, started as a devastating tornadic event in Omaha, Nebraska. It was Easter Sunday and earlier in the day it had been warm and humid with a bit of rain. By noon the sun came out and churchgoers headed out for an afternoon with friends and family to celebrate the day. Later that afternoon the clouds returned and became progressively more ominous.
By 5:30 p.m. the clouds were dark, resembling a massive black wall. Unbeknownst to the residents of Omaha, the funnel cloud touched down in Kramer, Nebraska, eighty miles southwest and continued on towards Omaha. Shortly after 6:00 the tornado touched down in Omaha and began to carve its way through the city. As the storm crossed diagonally through the city, houses were blown apart and people lifted off the ground and slammed back down. This tornado remained low to the ground along a six-mile path.
Although the Fujita-Pearson scale had not been invented yet, scientists would later estimate the storm to be at least an F4, with winds of 207 to 260 miles per hour. A sign from a store in Omaha was found sixty miles away in Harlan, Iowa. One man, walking down the street, was startled when a lifeless four year-old girl fell out of the sky into his arms. One family was having an Easter party when the tornado hit. Before the family could head to a cellar, an object came through the window and crashed into the table set for dinner. The object, a naked man, sat up and grabbed the tablecloth and wrapped it around himself. He asked for trousers and received a pair from the homeowner, only to dash out the door without introducing himself.
The next day headlines across the country were filled with details (as many as were known in those days without “instant” news) of the storm. Little did they know that there was much more to come. The Portsmouth Daily Times (Ohio) depicted the event as “The Destroying Hand”:
The storm that started as a devastating wind event would now morph into a massive rain event which would be fueled by El Niño weather patterns. Oh, one more thing – less than two days after the tornado a storm out of the Rockies brought heavy snow to Omaha (click images to enlarge).
“Wild Weather Wednesday” is a new blog theme which will join the lineup of two other Wednesday article categories — “Ghost Town Wednesday” and “Wild West Wednesday.” Stay tuned next week for Part Two of The Great Flood of 1913.
Tomorrow’s book review will feature Washed Away: How the Great Flood of 1913, America’s Most Widespread National Disaster, Terrorized a Nation and Changed it Forever, a comprehensive account of this historic weather event.
Everyone have a great day — someday it will be history!