LESSONS OF THE FLOOD
Among the lessons to be learned from the floods in the Ohio valley is that of the folly and danger of denuding our hills of their forest cover. Throughout the flooded district, all over the Middle West, the axe of the lumberman, wielded in the spirit of commercialism that disregards the future, has stripped the hillsides and left them bare of trees. Scientifically speaking, this has deprived the valleys of the district of their greatest natural means of protection against flood.
For many years the doctrine of reforestation has been preached by scientific foresters. Men like Gifford Pinchot and his associates and successors in the United States Forest Service have pointed out the dangers sure to follow the denudation of many of our states of their protective covering of tree growths.
But the warning has been laughed at, ridiculed and disregarded even though there have been annual floods of greater or less extent, distinctly traceable to the lack of forest cover on the hills. Little attention has been paid by legislators to this important question, and their people are now reaping the reward of the shortsightedness or blindness of their representatives.
Forests are scientifically regarded as in part a means of regulating water flow for irrigation and to this end national forests have been established in this country, following the example of older civilizations that have passed through similar experiences to ours in the matter of flood damages. And at this juncture, when death and desolation from flood have so recently been the sad experience of many communities in the Middle West, it is opportune to recall some of the important facts that have been given to the public time and time again by the Forest Service. The following quotations from recent bulletins of the service will, therefore, be read with much interest:
1. "It should be clearly understood that in regions of heavy rainfall—for example, on the Pacific slopes in Washington, Oregon, Northern California and Alaska, national forests are not made for the purpose of regulating the water flow for irrigation. In these localities there is plenty of water to spare. The forests here are created and maintained to protect the timber and keep it in the people’s hands for their own present and future use and to prevent the water from running off suddenly in destructive floods."
2. "What forests do, and this no one of experience disputes, is to nurse and conserve the rain and snow after they have fallen. Water runs down a barren, hard surface with a rush, all at once. It runs down a spongy, soft surface much more slowly, little by little. A very large part of the rain and snow of the arid regions falls upon the great mountain ranges. If these were bare of soil and vegetation, the waters would rush down to the valleys below in floods. But the forest cover—the trees, brush, grass, weeds and vegetable litter—acts like a big sponge. It soaks up the water, checks it from rushing down all at once, and brings about an even flow during the whole season.
"The forest cover is very important in preventing erosion and the washing down of silt. If the slopes were bare and the soil unprotected, the waters would carry down with them great quantities of soil, gradually filling up the resorvoirs and canals and causing immense damage to the great irrigation systems. The government engineers who are building these reservoirs and canals say that their work will be unsuccessful unless the drainage basins at the headwaters of the streams are protected by national forests."
3. "As far back as the sixteenth century there were local restrictions in France against clearing mountain sides, enforced by fines, confiscation, and corporal punishment. In the main these prevented ruinous stripping of hillsides, but with the French Revolution these restrictions were swept aside and the mountains were cleared at such a rate that disastrous effects were felt within ten years. By 1803 the people had become aroused to the folly of this cutting. Where useful brooks had been there now rushed torrents which flooded the fertile fields and covered them with sterile soil washed from the mountains. The clearing continued unchecked until some 800,000 acres of farm land had been ruined or seriously injured, and the population of eighteen departments had been reduced to poverty and forced to emigrate.
"By 1860 the State took up the problem, but in such a way that the burden of expense for reforestation was thrown upon the mountaineers, who, moreover, were deprived of much pasturage. Complaints naturally arose. An attempt was made to check torrents by sodding instead of by forest planting. This, however, proved a failure, and recourse was again had to planting, by the law of 1882, which provides that the State shall bear the costs. Since then the excellent results of planting have completely changed public sentiment. The mountaineers are most eager to have the work go on and are ready to offer their land for nothing to the forest department.
"In France, then, forestry has decreased the danger from floods, which threatened to destroy vast areas of fertile farms, and in doing so has added many millions of dollars to the national wealth in new forests. It has removed the danger from sand dunes; and in their place has created a property worth many millions of dollars."
The following editorial in the St. Louis Times, March 26, called attention to disregarded warnings of danger:
"Scientific men have been sounding warnings to the American people a good many years past, the tenor of which has been that the general deforestation of millions of acres must inevitably bring about changed and dangerous conditions in the American valleys and lowlands.
"While the prevailing storms, not unexpected during the equinoctial periods every year, may be regarded in part as being quite extraordinary, and not to be traced to the cutting away of the forests, it is reasonable to suppose that changed conditions may have something to do with the vastly increased degree of havoc that is being wrought.
"It is reasonable enough to suppose that the removal of the forests has given fuller sweep not only to the winds but to the waters resulting from heavy rains. Thus it may be concluded that an immediate need throughout the whole of the Mississippi Valley is the establishment of more reliable channels for the rivers.
"Local floods are always traceable to the fact that the channel of a near-by stream has failed to perform its duty; and general floods are merely the accumulation of many local disturbances.
"In the meantime, the evils to be guarded against throughout a vast territory in the Mississippi Valley are those which always follow a period of flood, after the waters have subsided: fevers and other kinds of disease.
"These may be combated successfully by the liberal use of lime or a solution of carbolic acid, and by strict attention to the water supply.
"Ultimately, however, there must be an attack at the root of the evil of flood conditions, so far as those conditions are a result of man’s recklessness and thoughtlessness."
The disastrous floods in Ohio and Indiana are a terrible reminder of the peril which comes from denuding the country of its forests, said the Chicago Daily news, March 27. It is well established that floods in river valleys are largely prevented by a heavy forest covering along the headwaters of the streams. The humus, roots and litter of the forest floor collect and hold the moisture in sponge-like fashion. Consequently there is better and slower distribution and flow and the destructive influences of the waters are practically eliminated. Moreover, snow melts slowly in forests.
Prof. John Gifford, of Cornell University, an authority on forestry, writes: "Although it is possible for floods to occur in regions which are forested, they are uncommon, and the damage is usually slight." He points out that it has been demonstrated in Europe that forests play an important part in flood prevention.
To what extent amends might be made in Ohio and Indiana for the general destruction of the forests is problematical. Aside from the building of levees to protect the surrounding lands from overflow, there seems to be little other recourse save that of reforestation. But one great obstacle to this in Ohio is that there is practically no waste land. Farms occupy 94 per cent of the State’s area and over 78 per cent of these farm lands are improved. Agriculture is likewise Indiana’s main interest. Its farms cover a large part of the State’s area and are extremely valuable. The low watersheds of these States are raising crops and cannot be turned back into forest tracts.
One of the policies adhered to by the National Forest Reservation Commission, authorized three years ago by the Weeks law, has been to consider for purchase only cheap lands that are practically useless for cultivation. Yet the movement for forest conservation and the replacing of cutoff forests is being constantly stimulated and encouraged, partly because European countries have found reforestation not only necessary but profitable. In 1911, for instance, Prussia’s net income from its forests, controlled by the State, was estimated at $18,500,000. So it is found that up to 1912 more than 2,000 acres of forest land had been planted in Massachusetts under the direction of the State forester and 1,300 acres by private individuals. Many other States are becoming interested in forestry.
Doubtless the annual recurrence of destructive floods will quicken the reforestation movement, though almost insuperable obstacles are presented to it in such level and fertile regions as those in Ohio and Indiana that suffer from disastrous floods.
The calamity at Omaha has been swiftly eclipsed by the disaster at Dayton. The West seems to be in the grip of a combination of untoward circumstances beyond human foresight to have avoided and almost beyond human ingenuity to prevent.
That something must be done on a large scale when the waters recede and the wreckage is repaired is evident. That it will tax the ingenuity of the best engineering skill we have no shadow of a doubt.
But it is cheering to remember that the United States is fortunate enough to possess a corps of world-beaters in those who built the Panama Canal. These are now about to be released from their great task. Will it not be the part of wisdom to summon them to the aid of our always threatened and now sorely afflicted fellow-citizens of the Mississippi Valley?
After making all allowances for incomplete information and inevitable exaggerations due to excitement it is evident that the destruction of life and property in the Middle West has reached unparalleled proportions. Never before has desolation spread over such a wide area.
In past years there have been many floods with great losses, but generally along the Ohio and Mississippi banks. Through some culmination of natural forces the deluge of rain for days has been along the upper reaches of the affluents of these rivers and the damage has been caused by the rush of this immense amount of water to reach the great rivers through narrow and deep natural channels. As a result banks have been overflowed, and cities, towns and villages have been damaged or destroyed.
Much of the destruction is due to the fact that the States of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois have been almost denuded of such forests as originally stood there. No impediment is offered to the flow of water and disastrous results follow. But in any event there would have been great floods because of the location of the rainstorms as noted. The situation was all the worse because in a good portion of the inundated region the ground had frozen during a recent cold snap. Seven inches of rainfall spread over many millions of acres makes a mass that is almost inconceivable.
Although such a disaster may not soon recur because the recent combination of circumstances is unusual, it seems certain that it must lead to a scientific study of the problem of controlling so far as may be the great water courses of the country. It is certain that in a few days the lower Mississippi will be flooded once more, and it is feared that the loss will be greater than ever before. Government engineers have studied the problem a long time and have made many recommendations, none of which have been put into effect save in a few special localities.. A commission of experts ought to be put to work by congress to undertake one of the greatest conservation problems which confronts the nation.
A leading Chicago preacher who spoke March 30 on the flood situation to the members of his congregation, said:
"The country is willing and anxious to spend money for the maintenance of an army and navy, yet it is almost impossible to gain an appropriation for the building of dikes and levees.
"If part of these millions were spent in aiding to tame nature a repetition of the Indiana and Ohio disaster could be avoided in the future. It is time that the municipal, state and federal governments took some action toward protecting the lives and property of the citizens."
Ohio’s floods are unusually early this year, and the most destructive both of life and property ever experienced. No like disaster was ever known in this country before, not even the awful Johnstown flood, as the loss of so many hundred lives in Dayton caused by sudden rise in flood waters and the breaking of levees and dams. But Dayton is not the only sufferer, several rivers in Ohio as well as in Indiana being out of their banks and floods causing enormous losses in many towns.
Such things are frequently reported from the Chinese Empire, but seldom or never from Europe. The "old world" in fact is not wealthy enough to be able to afford letting things go, or saving immediate expenditure of money in every safeguard and protective measure that can be taken, and thus to be faced with the danger of severe loss in a critical time. Europe’s cities, in short, learned long ago that a dollar spent today in permanent works will save a score of dollars from the elements, water, fire or disease. On the other hand, it is true that in haste to grow and thrive such permanent matters have been overlooked in our own country and our cities have, as has often been said, "just growed." These protective measures will in time be taken. Floods will be prevented or guarded against. Perhaps flood waters will actually be utilized, becoming a blessing instead of a calamity.
It is the consideration of such problems, and in fact all the problems of a rational plan of development and growth, that has brought out the project, very common among Europe’s cities, and becoming popular here, of the so-called Survey. Disastrous floods, imperiling life every year or so in a region so thickly settled, rich and intelligent as the Ohio or Mississippi valley are not creditable to the country. These calamities of nature are excusable in the Chinese empire or India, but not in the United States.
The floods on the Ohio and its tributaries emphasize again the danger to which many cities and immense areas of land are exposed by the rising water of American rivers. Some districts are endangered by weak levees, incapable of withstanding the strain of extreme flood conditions. Others are exposed because of the lack of levees.
The present costly experience will serve to call attention again to a more definite, systematic and liberal policy on the part of both the state and federal governments, for the strengthening of the levee systems of the country. Combined with a scientific drainage system, this will save thousands of lives and millions of dollars worth of property that are now lost by floods, and add immensely to the area of land which the American farmer can bring under cultivation.
In natural sequence to the reports of floods due to the overflow from small rivers come warnings of damage to be expected along the great rivers to which the lesser streams are tributary. With such a volume of water rushing toward them, it is not to be expected that the Ohio and Mississippi will escape abnormally bad overflows this year. Nor is it to be expected that even the best efforts of forewarned populations living in districts which always feel the worst effects of spring floods will prevent loss of life and heavy property damage.
No concerted and effective effort has been made as yet to control these rivers when they run wild. Levee systems are inadequate and the temporary makeshifts used to keep the rivers to their banks often prove wholly insufficient. Since it is known that annual floods of greater or less intensity are to be expected, it is in order for adequate preventive measures to be taken. But who is to do the work and meet the expense?
There is unquestionably an important national aspect to the matter. Injury done by such floods as those of last year from Cairo to the gulf work direct and reflex harm to the nation. Further, the waters come from forty-one states and furnish a startling illustration of the nation’s past indifference to reforestation and the other elements of flood prevention.
The nation’s responsibility in the matter is recognized in the so-called Newlands bill, which passed the senate but was not brought up in the house at the recent session of congress. This measure provided for an annual appropriation for ten years of $50,000,000 to control and standardize the flow of rivers by every feasible means—through storage, through drainage, through perpetuation and renewal of forests, through the construction of necessary engineering works. In short, a comprehensive plan was proposed in this bill for making the great river systems the servants of the people at all times instead of cruel masters at flood times. It provided, further and logically, that financial and other cooperation of state and local authorities should be sought in this constructive work, and that the extent of this expenditure should be "at least equal in amount to the sum expended by the United States." Manifestly, the federal treasury should not bear all the expense.
The subject of the use and control of rivers ought to be treated in this broad manner. Such treatment is advocated by the National Drainage Congress, which will soon meet in St. Louis, and it should have behind it the force of well developed public opinion.
That is the view generally expressed over the country—that it is time to take the lessons of recurring floods to heart and inaugurate scientific plans for their prevention.
Work toward the prevention of the recurrence of such catastrophes as the Ohio and Indiana floods was begun in Chicago March 28, by members of the National Drainage Congress, folllowing the receipt of a telegram from President Wilson. The chief executive, replying to an invitation to attend the meeting of the congress in St. Louis, April 10-12, agreed with the sentiments expressed in the invitation and asserted his hope that the deliberations of the drainage assembly would result in a plan of prevention.
The president’s message was as follows:
"Edmund T. Perkins, Chairman Executive Committee, National Drainage Congress, Chicago, Ill.: I regret that it is impossible for me to attend the sessions of the National Drainage Congress. The calamity in Ohio and Indiana makes clearer than ever before the imperative and immediate necessity for a comprehensive and systematic plan for drainage and flood control. I very earnestly hope that your deliberations may mark a long step forward in this direction. Accept my best wishes for a successful meet. "WOODROW WILSON."
The following reply was wired the president:
"The President, White House, Washington, D. C.:
Your message of March 27 received. Recognizing the unavoidability of your absence from St. Louis April 10, the National Drainage Congress, saddened by the tremendous flood disasters now inflicted upon our country, and knowing that such catastrophes are needless, accepts the responsibility of presenting to the people and the Congress of the United States a plan to alleviate and prevent the recurrence of loss of life and property."
The disasters in Ohio and Indiana prove the need of a comprehensive system of wireless telegraphy; a system that shall be floodproof and tornadoproof, and that will make it impossible for any considerable number of people or section of country to be cut off from the rest of the world.
Several hundred people are dead in the track of the floods. Thousands are marooned on hillocks or housetops; shelterless, fireless and hungry. Their friends can get no word of comfort to them, and they can get no call for help to their friends. Suspense caused by lack of communication doubles the agony of the disaster.
If this terrible experience ever is repeated, it should find the country prepared. The United States weather bureau could use a wireless system very handily in its daily work. The war department would need such a system in case of war. Unless private enterprise installs wireless as a commercial enterprise, government should do so as emergency provision against disaster.
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© 2001, Lynn Waterman