EVANSVILLE, Ind. — It was 50 years ago, but people in the Ohio Valley still talk about the "superflood" that killed 137 people and caused hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of damage in 12 states.
Half the usual annual rainfall fell on the Ohio Valley in January, 1937, and the flood lasted well into February.
It was the most extensive flooding ever recorded on the Ohio River, said Robert Reid, a professor of American history at the University of Southern Indiana. "For the older people today, this may have been the most significant event in their lives."
An American Red Cross report prepared the year after the disaster counted 37 deaths in Arkansas, 34 in Missouri, 22 in Kentucky, 10 in Illinois, 10 in Ohio, 9 in Indiana, 8 in Tennessee, 6 in West Virginia and 1 in Louisiana.
In a 1974 publication, the Army Corps of Engineers called it the "superflood."
It also inundated parts of Alabama, Mississippi and Pennsylvania, where it affected 1.5 million people, according to the Red Cross report.
Households Broken Up
"Our family had to split up," said Janet Wagner, who was 19 at the time and living in Evansville. "I went in with my friend in the country. My dad was working in town. My mother and my younger brother took the last train out to go up to West Lafayette."
The damage in Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois came to more than $14 million, including thousands of head of livestock and other agricultural losses.
Jack McClure, who was extension agent in Daviess County, Ky., at the time, said that many farmers were powerless to save their animals.
"A lot of them stood in the water up to their bellies until their legs gave out," McClure, now 89, said of the livestock. "Others were just swamped by raging waters closer to the river, just swept away."
Stories about the disaster have been handed down for years and have been featured, along with pictures, at 50th anniversary exhibits in several river communities.
The Corps of Engineers blamed the flood on an extraordinary coincidence of conditions: the worst ice storm in decades was followed by near-torrential rains, with melting snow adding to the deluge.
The Ohio crested in Evansville on Jan. 31 at 53.74 feet, nearly 19 feet above flood stage, and remained at flood levels until the middle of February.
Martial Law Conditions
"Drinking water had to be trucked in because of the danger of typhoid," Reid said.
Gov. M. Clifford Townsend put 25 southern Indiana counties under martial law.
A meteorologist at the weather bureau in Evansville, McLin S. Collom, died at his post Jan. 24. His death was attributed to overwork and strain due to the flood.
The Cincinnati waterfront was flooded for 19 days. The Ohio crested there Jan. 26 at 79.99 feet, about 9 feet above the mark set in 1884.
About three-quarters of Louisville, Ky., was flooded, a Corps of Engineers report said, and troops enforced martial law there too.
Water was four feet deep in the second story of the Cobb Hotel in Paducah, Ky., half a mile from the river. About 93% of the city was under water and 33,000 residents were evacuated, the Corps of Engineers reported.
The Red Cross estimated flood damage to the lower Ohio and lower Mississippi valleys at $300 million; the organization raised $25 million in relief donations.
Victor M. O'Shaughnessy of Lawrenceburg, Ind., told the U.S. House Committee on Flood Control in April, 1937, that the losses were measured not only in money:
More Than Money
"The record refers to the horror and personal shock sustained by the citizens, to the unprecedented suddenness and height of the water, to the trapping of people in their homes and upon roofs in winter with no heat, no light, no communication, the noises around them of rushing water and disintegrating buildings."
Since the disaster, 20 major flood control reservoirs and 41 flood walls and levees have been built to control tributaries to the Lower Ohio, said Chuck Schumann of the corps district office in Louisville.
Wagner remembers herself and other refugees volunteering to help the Red Cross. "They would carry us in on boats," she said.
Most people were neighborly and considerate.
"If you had any kind of space, even the floor, and somebody needed a place to stay, they had it," McClure said. "If you had food, you shared it.