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TOP STORY: Thousands displaced by 1937 flood

Jan. 15, 2009 @ 08:38 AM

HUNTINGTON — On Jan. 27, 1937, the Ohio River crested here in the worst flood in local recorded history.

The Flood of 1937 caused the river to reach a depth of 69.45 feet, more than 19 feet above flood stage in Huntington. The snow cover of the previous December along with 19 straight days of warm rain in January and the normal wintertime lack of vegetation to soak up the water combined to create just the right conditions for misery of devastating proportions.

It was a flood that affected Ohio River towns from Pittsburgh, Pa., to Cairo, Ill., as well as along the Mississippi River.

The possibility of flooding first hit print on Jan. 5, 1937, but its severity was consistently underestimated as the water kept rising. People moved their furniture to the second floor of their homes  — and for some, that wasn’t high enough. Merchants moved their goods to higher ground, and the seats and carpeting at the Keith-Albee Theatre on 4th Avenue were taken up.

Since the worst flood up to that time had occurred almost a quarter-century before, many people weren’t prepared for what happened.

Houses were ripped from their foundations and reduced to piles of rubble that blocked streets.

Water became the chief mode of transportation; the Cabell County Courthouse lawn became a boat landing, and vessels tied up on parking meter posts. In Ironton, Ohio Gov. Martin L. Davey had to duck under traffic lights as he toured the downtown.

Ironically, Huntington’s drinking water was shut off for a week. Natural gas wasn’t available to 40 percent of the city for two weeks. Relief workers distributed lime and disinfectants as unsanitary conditions worsened.

Tempers flared as the wake from motor boats broke windows. Liquor sales were permitted only on the order of doctors or the Red Cross, and state troopers had to disperse angry men from liquor stores.

Many people who could just left. Shortages of gas, water and food forced Proctorville, Ohio, residents to flee to Huntington, only to find that more than 28,000 Huntingtonians were being chased from their homes. Some found refuge with family or friends in Charleston. Others rode an N&W train from Kenova to Williamson, Welch and Bluefield. Two-thirds of Ceredo and Kenova were evacuated; 70 people camped in Kenova’s Knights of Pythias hall.

People became creative and helpful. Owens-Illinois Glass Co. employees built and operated more than 50 two-oar boats and a pair of barges big enough for 20 people to carry groceries, water, coal, medicine and doctors to marooned families.

The plant — which the floodwaters spared by only a few inches — had secured blankets, cots, 250 pairs of hip boots and tons of food before most rail service was drowned out. Two company nurses gave free typhoid shots to employees and to anyone else who asked after serum was airdropped.

Food stocks were stacked in a room at the plant, and employees carried them home to their families. A line leading from the factory’s big well was placed outside the fence, and safe drinking water was supplied free to all comers.

WSAZ Radio moved from the Keith-Albee Building on 4th Avenue to C&P Telephone Co. offices on 6th Avenue so volunteers could keep answering phones and broadcasting messages round the clock —  such as assurances people were OK or needed help, instructions for safe handling of water and warnings of danger.

A long line of Chesapeake, Ohio, residents stood on the 6th Street Bridge to use the telephone in its toll booth — the only phone available to residents of the eastern end of Lawrence County.

The West Virginia Army National Guard, Works Progress Administration and American Red Cross all pitched in with relief efforts, with the Red Cross working out of the old Deardorff-Sisler Department Store building at 424-434 9th St. The American Legion helped police contain looting.

A refugee center was set up in City Hall for distribution of clothing and other necessities, and emergency hospitals were established at Ohev Sholom Temple, Highlawn Methodist Church and the McKesson & Robbins Inc. wholesale drug company headquarters. About 40 ill flood refugees were housed and treated at St. Joseph’s Central Catholic High School.

Food rations came from as far away as New York. Charleston sent a trainload of food, medical supplies, clothing and home furnishings. Women saved precious drinking water while keeping dinner plates clean by covering them with fresh wax paper before each meal, then burning the wax paper afterward.

Five Huntingtonians died; property damage here exceeded $18 million in 1937 dollars. But the flood also exacted a toll on the entire Ohio and lower Mississippi basins to the tune of 137 people dead, more than a million people homeless and property damages in excess of $400 million.

But it also prompted governments from the federal to the local levels to act quickly and cooperatively to build the floodwalls that have protected us — and other Ohio River communities — ever since.

Huntington was one of the first cities selected to receive protection when Congress passed the Flood Control Act of 1937.

Testimony before the House Flood Committee asserted that the city’s protection was essential because the Guyandotte section of the wall would protect the International Nickel Co. plant, which was shut down for 10 days during the ’37 inundation. Inco was the only plant in the country producing nickel alloys necessary for munitions and ordnance in time of war.

The project — calling for seven miles of concrete-and-steel wall and 41/2 miles of earth levees, with 45 gate openings and 17 pumping stations, to protect more than 7,000 acres — began in May 1938 and was turned over to the city for operation and maintenance in December 1943.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers figures the floodwall has spared the city more than $238 million in damages in the years since. Not a bad return for a project that cost the federal government $7.1 million.

Could the heart of the city be swamped again with flood waters? The answer is yes, but the Corps of Engineers says it’s highly unlikely.

For one thing, the 1937 event was a freak event. An icy Arctic front from the north and a warm front from the southwest met and didn’t move for days.

Secondly, the Corps has 39 flood control dams upriver from us on tributaries of the Ohio River in West Virginia and Pennsylvania that weren’t there in 1937.

Lastly, the floodwall was built to protect the city from floodwaters that go 3 feet above the depth of the ‘37 event. According to the Corps of Engineers, that decreases the odds of a flood on any given day to one in 1,000 — or 0.1 percent.

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