Great Flood of 1913 played its part in Daviess County

Looking east in the town of Elnora during the flood of 1913.

Easter of 1913 brought one of the most devastating weather events in American History and part of it played out in Daviess County. The flood of 1913 impacted areas from New Orleans to New York. It began with a massive and damaging storm that produced tornados and dumped massive amounts of water on the Midwest. By the time it was done, hundreds were dead and the country was trying to recover from hundreds of millions of dollars in damages.

“That system began with a lot of severe weather,” said WEVV meteorologist and Odon native Chad Evans. “It began with a killer tornado in Omaha, Nebraska and Terre Haute. “Then it dumped a 6-inch rainfall all over the Midwest that led to flooding from Ohio to Missouri and on down the Mississippi River.”

That same system produced flooding all the way to the East Coast of the United States and was responsible for an estimated 650 deaths including at least 100 Indiana. “They had a Bermuda High set up in the Caribbean and that was unusual for that time of year,” said Evans. “Then there was another high pressure system in Canada and it set up a basic atmospheric river that took water out of the Gulf of Mexico and dumped it on the Midwest. It just sat there and thunderstorms ran along a front.”

The early spring rains saturated the ground, then filled the ditches, the streams poured into the rivers and the rivers began climbing out of their banks. A bridge and factory were wiped out in Indianapolis. A railroad bridge over the Blue Hole west of Washington collapsed and at one point the community was completely cut off.

“You have to remember, back then there were few real roads,” said local historian Don Spillman. “Most goods and people moved by rail and a trestle to the east had already gone under water and then the one west of town collapsed and the town was cut off. There was even a sizable number of people who were traveling that wound up stranded in Washington.”

Higher floods since 1913

While the flood of 1913 may be considered by some to be of almost Biblical proportion, the truth is that most people in Daviess County have lived through much higher floods along the West Fork of the White River.

“Of the top 10 highest crests along the White River at Edwardsport, eight of them have happened since 1991,” said Executive Director Paul Goss with the Daviess County Emergency Management Agency. “The flood of 1913 ranks only as the 12th highest crest of the White at Edwardsport.”

Perhaps the thing that made the flood of 1913 memorable both in Daviess County and in other parts of the country is that the rivers and the way people dealt with them were much different than today. The flood of 1913 had a huge impact on the Ohio and Mississippi, sending cities like Cincinnati, Louisville, and Evansville under water. Few communities had any kind of flood control measures. The disaster was so large that the next year states began passing laws that allowed for the development of conservancy and flood control districts that led to the construction of levees all over the country.

“The 1913 flood fueled a lot of those measures,” said Evans.

Because there were fewer levees and other flood control measures, the 1913 event may have involved more water, but had some different results.

“You have to consider the geology of southwestern Indiana,” said Evans. “There may have been more water, but instead of going deeper, the rivers went wider. I can recall hearing stories of how the river reached back during the older floods and sent water into Plainville. When Indiana has a big rain event, the water drains into the Wabash and White and it all runs to the southwest part of the state trying to get to the Ohio. There just is not enough landfall, enough drop of elevation, for it to get away so it spreads out, almost like it is backing up. There was so much water during that flood that there were changes in the channels of both the White and Wabash Rivers. You can still see those today. There are some places where it happened again during the flood of 2008.”

The flood of 2008 may not have had as great an amount of rain as in 1913, but it did plenty of threatening to people in the White River basin. Much of that has to do with what has happened in the river basin during the past century. “There is so much more pavement and so many more buildings and houses now,” said Evans. “I have family that still farms in the Elnora area and they say every time Indianapolis gets a 3-inch rain, the fields in Daviess County get flooded.”

“We’re seeing a lot of changes in construction these days to deal with those issues,” said Goss. “Now if you build, you are required to have retention ponds. The federal government has changed its response to flooding disasters and won’t allow flood insurance for people who build in flood plains unless they are above the record levels for the river.”

Evans says that the simple fact is that no matter how hard people try to mitigate the impact of massive storms the end result can still be a disaster.

“We have to realize that the rivers will do what they want to do,” he said. “You can’t train the river. You have to learn to live with it. We’ll still have big rivers, but by using conservation efforts, building buffer zones and using retention techniques, we can cut down on the damage.”

Planning for future

That kind of planning is now under way in northern Daviess County. “We are lucky that our largest population is not susceptible to flooding,” said Goss. “We are doing some planning to try and mitigate any flooding in the future in Elnora.”

The flood of 1913 has been described as the second worst flooding disaster in the history of the United States, ranking only behind the Johnstown, Pennsylvania flood for the number of deaths, But the 1913 flood created a different approach to rivers, construction and infrastructure that is still impacting decisions in Indiana, Daviess County and the rest of the country today.

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