Book Review Thursday: Washed Away: How the Great Flood of 1913, America’s Most Widespread Natural Disaster, Terrorized a Nation and Changed it Forever

washed awayThe early twentieth century was known for some horrific natural disasters – in 1900 Galveston, Texas almost 8,000 people were killed by a hurricane and in 1906 the San Francisco earthquake killed about 3,000.  One of the most devastating and widespread natural disasters to occur in the early decades of the twentieth century was what came to be known as The Great Flood of 1913.

March 23, 1913 was Easter Sunday.  The month of March had already brought terrifying weather across the country – blizzards, hurricanes and unexpected cold weather in Florida.  The deadly storm had its beginnings in Omaha, Nebraska and spread eastward all the way to Vermont.  Early that evening a tornado began a rampage through Omaha, destroying houses and livelihoods.   Years later, a meteorology professor at the University of Chicago, Tetsuya Fujita, would formulate a scale for measuring the intensity of these types of storms.  According to the author, Geoff Williams, “a sign from a store in Omaha was found in Harlan, Iowa – sixty miles away.”

The aftermath of the Omaha tornado stood at 140 people dead, 322 injured and over 2,100 homeless.  The U.S. Weather Bureau had issued an alert for a storm on the East coast on Tuesday and Wednesday following Easter Sunday – however, no mention was made of either tornadoes or flooding.  From Omaha the storm spread across the country going east for the next four days.  Every river and creek in Ohio overflowed its banks and Indiana and Pennsylvania were among the states most affected by the flooding.

1913 flood_cleveland plain dealerOne famous family was impacted by the storm – the Wright family of Dayton, Ohio.  Wilbur had died the year before of typhoid fever, but Orville and his sister Katherine lived with their father, Bishop Milton Wright.  The Wrights had to flee their home and when they were finally able to return they found a bowl of moldy oranges on the table.  The table with the bowl of oranges on top had risen as the water rose, and when the water had gone down so did the table with the bowl of oranges on top.  The Wright brothers’ original plane had been disassembled years before and sustained water damage, but was later sent to The Smithsonian.

The flood was devastating across a wide swath from Nebraska to the East Coast.  Even states unaffected by the storm demanded intervention and change.  Local communities formed flood control committees to address local problems and states became more serious about flood control projects.  The Ohio and Erie Canals were destroyed and abandoned and a series of dams and levees were put in place to prevent such massive flooding in the future.

Author Geoff Williams’ detailed history of this cataclysmic event isn’t merely a recitation of storm facts.  He delves into the survivors’ and victims’ stories and the sheer panic people felt.  I had never heard of this devastating flood and I found the book a fascinating read, especially with all the interesting facts and background interspersed throughout the book.

Rating:  ★★★★★

Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!

© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2014.



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