Twenty feet of water. That’s what people in parts of Dayton faced during the 1913 flood.
WHIO Stormcenter 7 Chief Meteorologist Jamie Simpson said, “Statistically, (it) is considered a thousand year flood.”
And it wasn’t just Dayton, but most of the Miami Valley as well as Ohio that suffered.
During a presentation last week, Simpson said several factors contributed: It had already been a wet winter, then 8 to 11 inches of rain fell in five days across the Great Miami River Basin.
As farming increased, fewer trees were around to absorb the water. And the confluence of rivers in Dayton brought a massive amount of water to the Gem City.
Simpson pointed out that 10 major floods occurred prior to 1913. After each one, levees were built and as the floods worsened, more and bigger levees were built. But this time, some of the levees broke, allowing water to flow into the city.
Fires also broke out as natural gas lines ruptured and crews couldn’t get to the blazes.
The seeds of the disaster were sown during a wet January. February was drier, but Simpson reminded us cold air locks in moisture.
On Good Friday, March 21, 50 miles-per-hour winds knocked out telegraph lines, hindering the dissemination of information and advance warnings. Three days later, 3 to 4 inches of rain fell on the saturated ground. The next day saw another 1½ to 2½ inches as the front stalled. More heavy rain fell on Wednesday, followed by snow on Thursday.
While significant flooding occurred in much of Ohio, “Dayton got the worst of it,” Simpson said. He indicated 600 people died around Ohio, 457 in Dayton alone.
But it wasn’t just Dayton that was plagued by high water. At East Ash Street in Piqua, the Great Miami River measured 15 feet deep. And many people around Clark County dealt with high water.
The Miami Conservancy District — created in 1915 to develop a flood prevention system — says every city along the Great Miami River was inundated and property damage exceeded nearly $2 billion in today’s dollars.
Simpson said the 1913 Flood would change Dayton forever. James Cox, who had become Ohio governor just two months before, declared martial law and led recovery efforts in the city where he owned newspapers.
John Henry Patterson, who owned National Cash Register, had previously considered moving the company. Instead, he and NCR — which escaped the flood waters — played a major role in rescuing stranded residents and contributed money to later flood-prevention efforts.
Simpson was adamant that downtown Dayton will never see such a flood again, pointing to the river and dam system that would come later.
He says the dams were over-built to handle even more water. And he adds there is better advance warning today — computer models that meteorologists use, along with much greater communication and floodplain maps that regulate building.
The conservancy district also built a system of five dry dams that now protect tens of thousands of people in five counties and more than $5.1 billion worth of buildings and land.