RECENT AMERICAN FLOODS
FLOOD IN THE MISSISSIPPI VALLEY
One of the most destructive floods in the history of the Mississippi Valley occurred in the spring of 1912. Owing to the heavy and late snowfalls and the somewhat sudden melting of the snow in the latter part of March and the first part of April, a vast volume of water was poured into the Mississippi River by its tributaries. At some places the levees were broken and at other places they were overflowed, with the result that thousands of acres of rich farming lands were inundated. At Cairo, Ill., May 4, the river stood at 53.9 feet, which was 1.7 feet above the high water mark of 1883. At Memphis the high record mark was broken by 3 feet.
At the request of the mayor of Cairo troops were sent to patrol the levees at that city April 2. The soldiers were supplemented by hundreds of railroad and other laborers, and through their efforts the dikes protecting the town were strengthened sufficiently to withstand the pressure. The Mobile & Ohio levee broke April 4 and the drainage district north of Cairo was flooded, causing a damage estimated at $5,000,000. Railroad service was almost cut off, being maintained in some instances only by the use of tugs where the lines were under water. April 5 the Government levee west of Hickman, Ky., protecting the Reelfoot Lake district of Kentucky and Tennessee, gave way and a large area of country was inundated.
April 7 it was estimated by Government engineers and State Levee Boards that as a result of the floods, which then had continued two weeks, thirty persons had been drowned and 30,000 made homeless; that 2,000 square miles of territory had been inundated, and that damage had been caused amounting to $10,000,000. Several levees on both sides of the Mississippi above and below Memphis had given way and large areas of land in Tennessee, Arkansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Mississippi and Louisiana were under water. In the northern part of the city of Memphis twenty-five blocks were submerged, 1,300 persons were made homeless, and 3,000 were thrown out of work by the shutting down of factories. Railroad traffic was interrupted, and Hickman, Ky., for a time was on the verge of a famine on account of the lack of supplies. The destitution in the flooded districts was great until relieved by Federal and State aid.
In Mississippi, where the flood was at its worst about April 20, many deaths from drowning occurred. Fifteen persons were lost near Benoit in the flood that came from a break in the levee between that place and Beulah. It was reported that altogether about 200 lives were lost in Bolivar County, Mississippi. The majority of the victims were colored.
Congress, at the request of President Taft, appropriated $350,000, April 2, for the relief of the flood sufferers. May 7 Congress appropriated the further sum of $1,239,179.65 for the same purpose. The money was expended for supplies furnished by the quartermaster-general and commissary-general of the army.
Johnstown, Pa., is a city on the Conemaugh River, by rail fifty-eight miles southeast of Pittsburgh. Manufacturing of various kinds is extensively carried on, steelmaking being the most important industry. The plant of the Cambria Steel Company is one of the best equipped establishments of the kind in America. There also are the Lorain Steel Company, an iron and steel works, furniture factories, potteries, a wireworks and woolen and leather factories. Public buildings of note are Cambria Free Library, Conemaugh Valley Memorial Hospital, the city hall, high school, Franciscan monastery and several churches.
Johnstown is famous as the scene of one of the greatest catastrophes of recent years. By the bursting of a reservoir on May 31, 1889, the city was overwhelmed with a flood. The water descended through a narrow valley and destroyed everything in its path. The loss of life is estimated at 2,500 or 3,000. An appeal for aid was generously responded to both at home and abroad, the cash contributions amounting to more than $4,000,000. Johnstown today is a much larger and finer city than before her misfortune, of which but few traces remain. The city occupies the hundredth place in America’s large cities, its population being 55,482.
Galveston, in southeastern Texas, has an interest and importance exceeding that of any other city of the same size in the United States. Its special claim to distinction lies in the energy of its citizens in wresting prosperity out of unparalleled disaster, and, at the same time, initiating the business corporation form of municipal government, known widely as the Galveston plan. The situation of the city on Galveston Bay, which is 35 by 13 miles, gives it the best natural harbor on the Gulf of Mexico and makes of it a seaport second only to New Orleans. Its further growth must keep pace with the development of the great Southwest. It had the disadvantage of lying on an island which, although 30 miles long by 3 wide, rose but a few feet above the level of the Gulf, and was occasionally flooded. Proper paving and drainage were impossible. Lying in the same latitude as St. Augustine, Fla., its climate is subtropical. Groves of oleander and orange gave it beauty; but cholera and yellow fever were accepted as inevitable, as was corruption in the municipal government. It was a wide open, slatternly, unhealthy town, but no one thought of changing anything, for business flourished with the enormous shipments of cotton, wheat, lumber, tallow and hides, and life, if precarious, was easy and luxurious.
On the 8th of September, 1900, the city was almost destroyed by a cyclone and tidal wave. One-sixth of the population was drowned and one-third of the property destroyed. The rotten cedar block pavements floated off in rafts, laying bare the original sand. The treasury was empty, credit was gone, taxes could not be assessed on property that had ceased to exist. Thousands were fleeing from the stricken city, and, in the hour of extremity, the municipal government broke down. But that ill-wind had blown away indifference, greed and moral miasma. Out of the disaster sprang such energy, ability and civic patriotism as the world has rarely witnessed. The work to be done needed new, clean tools. The city was looked upon as a ruined business, and a business-corporation government was devised to build it up again.
A special act of the Legislature abolished the mayor and council and created a board of directors, or commissioners, of five members, one of whom is president, all being elected by popular vote. Salaries were nominal, for the commissioners were simply the responsible heads of departments with well paid expert managers under them to carry out the details. The same kind of men of independent means, position and reputation were secured as now serve for nothing on library, park and school boards in other cities. One commissioner was at the head of finance and revenue—a banker with an expert accountant, employed as city auditor, under him; one had charge of waterworks and sewage, with a civil engineer; one of fire and police; and one of streets and public property.
In the period since the catastrophe Galveston has built a sea-wall four and a half miles long and seventeen feet high, and raised the grade of the city to its top. It has paved the business section with brick and installed a sewerage system; drained the swamps; stamped out epidemics, and cleaned the town morally. In spite of this monumental work municipal expenses have been cut one-third. The credit of the city is above par. The population has been about restored, and the business has increased. Dallas and Houston have adopted the Galveston plan, and cities all over the country are watching the experiment with interest. The population of Galveston was, at the last census, 36,981.
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© 2001, Lynn Waterman