DISASTER ON DISASTER
God moves in a mysterious way,
Hardly had the public recovered from the first shock of horror at the results of the tornado which laid waste an important section of the city of Omaha on Easter Sunday in the year of grace 1913, when Pelion was piled upon Ossa, horror upon horror, disaster on disaster, by the frightful floods in the valley of the Ohio.
The sympathy of the nation was pouring out in full measure to the stricken city of Nebraska. Only forty-eight hours had elapsed since the "devil cloud" had made its horrifying appearance in the outskirts of Omaha and had passed on, leaving death and desolation in its wake. The President of the United States had just been informed of the full extent of the damage. His condolences and offers of government aid for the sufferers were still fresh from the wire. Committees of relief were being organized, the Red Cross Society had barely begun its helpful work—in fact the fury of the tornado was scarcely spent—when the news of a fresh disaster, reported from the beautiful Ohio city of Dayton, turned all eyes in that direction, with its undeniable demands for the practical sympathy that should find expression in immediate measures of relief.
What had happened in Ohio of such terrible import as temporarily to divert attention from the scene of death and distress in Nebraska?
What was this fresh horror that thus dwarfed the devastation wrought by the wind’s fury? What mighty elemental force had been unloosed for purposes of destruction?
The quaking of the earth, the fury of flames, the giant sweep of the wind—all these have found their victims in American homes, have laid waste American cities and taken heavy toll of human life, but neither earthquake nor fire, nor storm of rushing wind had been the agent of destruction here. Water, let loose from bondage, had done the work.
Of course the telegraph and the telephone soon told their tale of woe. Crippled as the means of cormnunication were in the city where Death had stalked abroad for never-to-be-forgotten hours, working its ruthless will and reaping its greatest harvest, sparing neither age, sex nor condition,—from this center of widespread destruction there came falteringly on a single wire the fatal news of an overwhelming flood that had left mourning and misery in its wake.
A beautiful show-city, renowned for enterprise, for commercial prosperity, for the splendor and attractiveness of its environs, and above all, for its civic pride— Dayton lay prostrate beneath the crushing weight of wicked waters, suffering the fate of the house built upon the sand.
"The floods descended and the rains came, and beat upon that house; and it fell;
"And great was the fall thereof."
Then soon it appeared that the city of Dayton was not alone in its suffering. Unloosed from the bonds that Nature and man had contrived to hold them in check, the maddened waters had demanded more victims and speedily had found them in sad abundance.
A mighty deluge, an avalanche of waters, had suddenly stricken a wonderfully prosperous section of the Middle West, transforming the fertile fields and many thriving cities of Ohio and Indiana into a vast scene of death and desolation.
Fed by the copious rains of a stormy Spring and by the melting snows of the highlands, rivers had burst their banks, dams had ceased to do their duty, reservoirs had scattered their contents broadcast over the land, death-dealing waters were sweeping everything before them.
Human lives by the hundreds had been drowned out; houses had been torn from their foundations and swept away in the resistless flood, drowning their inmates like rats in a trap; property to the extent of untold millions had been destroyed; scores of thousands were homeless, and danger of death, famine and pestilence threatened on every hand.
Picture the horror of the rising water, as it mounted rapidly foot by foot to heights that threatened to overwhelm all but the largest and most substantial residences. Friends, relatives and neighbors, their houses forced adrift by the rushing element, disappeared from sight. Across the open spaces, through the parks, or down the street, there came the wreckage and the ruins of what had been, but an hour before, happy and prosperous homes. Not one house here and there, but whole blocks of houses, whole neighborhoods, were engulfed by the raging waters and washed away with them.
Oh, the horrors of the long night that followed!
Here a village under water; there a city full of people struggling to keep alive through the hours of darkness, without light, without heat, without water. "Water, water all around, but not a drop to drink." No food—no boats with which to get away or by means of which relief might approach. Only the bare hope of rescue and the barer chance that the waters might speedily recede from the face of the earth. No friendly gleam of lights in neighbor houses, telling of human proximity and power to aid.
And what is that? The shock of a passing house that threatens destruction to all it may encounter in its path. The bodies of horses, oxen, sheep and pigs are washed against the trembling walls and each shock racks the nerves of the sleepless inmates.
And then much more significant wreckage is borne along by the whelming current and glimpsed in horror by those whose whitened faces stare in agony through the upper windows of rocking buildings. Human bodies are borne along, poor torn tabernacles of human beings sacrificed to the topographical situation of their wrecked abodes,—victims perhaps of a state of preventable unpreparedness.
Here floats all that is left of a father, who but yestereve had gathered his children about his knee in a cozy home a mile upstream, and told them the old, old story of the dove sent forth by Noah from the ark of refuge during the first of all floods, and that returned, unable to find a resting place for the sole of its foot, because the water covered the earth.
Yon floating mass with trailing hair and lineaments a whitish blur in the yellow flood was but yesterday a happy, loving mother—until the rushing waters overwhelmed her home as she was going contentedly about domestic duties,—the little ones safe at school, and the breadwinner, beloved of all the little circle, hard at his daily work, with a heart filled with the joy of living in the possession of his loved ones, and brimful of hope for worldly advancement and prosperity in the future. And there—the bodies of little children, carried hither and yon at the mercy of the dark and turbulent waters— But the mind refuses to dwell upon the horrors of the scene as it was seen or felt—aye, felt—through the dark hours of the night and in the gray dawn of the morrow, by suffering thousands.
All the harrowing details of death and damage cannot be told within the space of a single volume, but enough to give a graphic idea of the conditions that followed the flood in the city of Dayton, which was the chief sufferer, and elsewhere in the states of Ohio and Indiana, will be found in the chapters that follow. May the lessons they teach be laid to heart and acted upon so that disasters of this kind may be foreseen and prevented wherever humanly possible.
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© 2001, Lynn Waterman