By Jeff Statterly

Visit his blog at www.historicalnaturaldisasters.com

Spring 2013 marks the 100 year anniversary of one of the greatest – and least talked about – natural disasters to ever hit the United States, and the worst in Ohio history. A series of winter storms that hit the area the week of March 21st, 1913, started a chain reaction that began with more than 10 inches of rain hitting the already over-saturated Great Miami watershed area.

The resulting run-off then quickly swelled the Great Miami river and its tributaries to the breaking point, releasing a torrent of flooding that ultimately ended with hundreds dead, thousands homeless, and billions of dollars in damages inflicted upon much of the Midwest.

Dayton was hardest hit

Of the Ohio cities affected by the storm and resulting floods, Dayton was by far the hardest hit.

Situated along the Great Miami River bend, Dayton had always been prone to major flooding events every decade or so in the years following its establishment in the 18th century.

What happened during and after the storms of 1913, however, was like no flooding Dayton had seen before.

At approximately 6 AM the levees holding back the waters of the Great Miami River failed, and
water began to immediately rush into the city at speeds approaching 25 miles per hour. The water from the river filled the city so rapidly that most of the population was trapped inside their homes before they could flee, and many were forced to take refuge on their roofs as the waters filled the first and second floors of their homes.

The flood’s current was so forceful, thanks in large part to Dayton’s wide streets, that it ripped many homes and businesses from their foundations and carried them away.

Downtown

Downtown Dayton was among the areas with the worst damage, with floodwaters reaching 20 feet up the sides of buildings in some places, and eyewitnesses describing the central part of the city as ’looking more like a lake than a metropolitan area’.

Since many homes lacked direct sewer connections, human waste and garbage along with the corpses of some 3,500 horses and other animals mixed with the rising waters and turned the misery of the flood into a sanitation nightmare.

To make matters worse, what wasn’t destroyed by the raging flood waters was then threatened by fires, started and sustained by natural gas escaping from broken gas lines and fanned into infernos by the strong wind. An entire block of businesses and factories in downtown Dayton were burned down to the water line with the fire department rendered immobile and helpless by the flood themselves.

By the time the advance of the flood stopped on March 26th 1913, the damage was widespread.
14 square miles of the city were under water, over 360 people were dead, and some 20,000 homes were destroyed.

More than 65,000 Dayton residents were left homeless, and the city had sustained close to $100
million ($2 billion in today’s dollars) in damage. Cleanup efforts took more than a year, and Dayton’s economy wouldn’t recover to pre-flood levels until more than a decade later.

More information

We’d like to thank some of the great archives and archivists who have done so much to work to help preserve the amazing history of the 1913 flood, including the Dayton Metro Library and historian Trudy Bell. The amount of history compiled at these two websites is truly amazing.

Lastly, thanks to Jason from InsuranceTown.com, who lent us some of the resources we used to help prepare content for the web and publish our blog, and inspired our Mapping History Contest.

Don’t forget to check out HistoricNaturalDisasters.com for more images, and for information on
our Mapping History Contest – help us figure out the locations pictured in historic photos from 1913 and you could win $100!

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