David Welky: When the Levee Doesn’t Break






David Welky, an associate professor of history at the University of Central Arkansas, is the author of the forthcoming book “The Thousand-Year Flood: The Ohio-Mississippi Disaster of 1937.”

VIOLENT thunderstorms have sent the greatest floods since 1937cascading down the Ohio and lower Mississippi River Valleys. Residents from Illinois to Arkansas have fled their homes as thousands of square miles of farmland have gone underwater.

But even if the river levels are nearly as high as anything seen in the 20th century, the extent of the damage probably won’t come close to the losses of life and property seen in the historic flood of January 1937. Indeed, while individual stories of calamity abound, taken as a whole the event is a watershed in American history — proof that after nearly 75 years, the federal government has finally gained the upper hand on a river system once thought uncontrollable.

In the Great Flood of 1937 torrential rains pushed rivers up to 15 feet above flood stage and forced a million people from their homes. Entire towns disappeared. Flooding caused around $1 billion in damages. Several hundred people died, mostly from pneumonia or influenza....

The government didn’t sit still once the floods hit, though. Hundreds of thousands of volunteers, soldiers and employees of New Deal job-relief programs were deployed along the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, building emergency levees and aiding displaced residents. On orders from President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Army was prepared to evacuate people from the entire Mississippi River Valley in the event of a catastrophic levee break.

Then, after the waters receded, the federal government assumed greater control over the nation’s waterways, a move Roosevelt had been advocating for years. Not only would Washington oversee flood control, but it would pay for it, too: over the following decades, the Army Corps of Engineers spent billions of dollars on a vast system of reservoirs, local floodwalls and pumping stations. (Roosevelt initially opposed paying for everything for fear the Corps would neglect issues like conservation and pollution, but once he saw how popular the effort was, he embraced it as his own.)

As this year’s flooding shows, the expense was worth it....

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