March 23, 2013
LIMA — One hundred years ago today, the rains that led to the Great 1913 Flood began, destroying bridges, submerging houses and displacing families all over the region.
The storms that started on Easter Sunday that year stretched over five days, accumulating anywhere from 6 to 10 inches of rain in the west central Ohio region. To put things in perspective, 10 inches of rain is roughly three months' worth.
There were flooding impacts from Louisiana to Vermont, causing one of the biggest casualty floods and Ohio’s worst weather disaster on record. In Ohio alone, roughly 600 people died. Twelve states had major flooding.
According to the National Weather Service, every drain, river and creek in the state flooded.
“It’s probably comparable to Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy” in terms of impact and destruction, said Sarah Jamison, a senior service hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Cleveland.
More than 250,000 Ohioans were displaced from their homes. The state's total population was about 5 million.
“That is statistically significant,” Jamison said.
Back in the day
Overall, Ohio was a very different place a century ago. Many of the roads drivers use every day didn’t exist. The same can be said for many of the drainage systems that now are used widely. The disaster revealed a need for more complex dikes, dams, levees and retention ponds.
This was particularly the case for Dayton, where the flood had the most devastating effects because of dangerous levee systems that broke when pushed beyond capacity. Floodwaters there surpassed the second story of some homes, many of them built in known floodplains because the levees were deemed sufficient.
“You have your conservancy districts established, and of course, more major drainage improvements were initiated,” said Douglass Degen, drainage engineer with the Allen County Engineer’s Office. “There’s a lot of effort after a tragedy of this nature, and then people are more on board to really want to do something. So our documentation would show a lot of improvements happening in 1913.”
The Upper Scioto Drainage and Conservancy District in Kenton and the Miami Conservancy District in Dayton were the first such organizations of their kind in the country, spearheading projects in attempts to counter flooding. And at the Allen County Engineer’s Office, the petition ditch process flourished in the County, mapping all approved water rerouting projects.
Although Ohio has been developed extensively over the past century, weather conditions then were similar to today's. Much of the flooding was due the ground being unable to absorb much of the water.
“You just don’t have the soil to soak up storm water,” Degen said. “Most of it is going to hit the frozen ground and start running.”
Is flooding now preventable?
Advanced forecasting and warning systems alone would make a flood of the same caliber a very different situation if it were to happen today. However, some aren’t so sure that things would be any better.
“Floods are the most common natural disaster there is, and some things just aren’t preventable,” said Troy Recker, construction and planning manager with the Putnam County Engineer’s Office.
Recker said flooding could be worse than it was then. He said there would be significantly more runoff because of modern developments like paved roads and parking lots. He wasn't sure the Army Corps of Engineers' Blanchard River Watershed proposals would remedy the issue.
“It’s been flooding ever since the days of Noah,” Recker said. “We’ve just been keeping records for the past 100 years.”
There have been major floods since then — 1959, 1981 and 2007 — but they’ve never to the same degree as the 1913 flood.
Despite Auglaize County's improvements, including bridge openings and hydraulics, there’s still no guarantee against flooding.
“You’re never going to design yourself out of a flood. You can have retention basins, a retention pond,” said Dan Bennett, bridge engineer with the Auglaize County Engineer’s Office. “If we got a flood like that again, of the 1913 magnitude, we would still have a lot of things flooded, just because you can’t design for a major event like that.”
The flood levels from 1913 are still used as a point of measurement today. In many counties, those flood levels are used by FEMA as a benchmark to determine floodplain areas.
Back then, there was no quantitative method for estimating such a flood. Now, floods often are measured by the 100-year flood plan, meaning there is a one percent annual chance a flood of the similar caliber could be equaled or exceeded in any given year.
To read more about the flood’s history and more details about archival reports in Lima, read Greg Hoersten’s story in the Reminsce section Wednesday.