The cost of any flood is not measured only in dollars. It is also measured in loss, heartbreak and heroism. Communities come together to line levees with sand bags, pass out clean water, and, most important, evacuate residents. Citizens run on adrenaline, confronting their limits under the worst of conditions.The effects take decades to ebb. Even today, with improved weather modeling and evacuation plans, a catastrophic flood will exceed most expectations of misery.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Great Flood of 1913, “the most widespread natural disaster in the history of the United States” and the subject of journalist Geoff Williams’ fast-paced and action-packed “Washed Away.” More than 1,000 deaths were attributed to the flood, which affected 14 states, and hundreds of thousands of residents were displaced. Nine billion gallons of water, weighing 33 billion tons, fell across 8,000 square miles of the country’s midsection. In three days in late March, Ohio and Indiana alone saw 280 billion cubic feet of rain, “enough to raise the level of Lake Erie four feet.”
Reminiscent of Timothy Egan’s books, which recall historic natural occurrences such as the Dust Bowl and the Big Burn, Williams’ “Washed Away” presents hundreds of vignettes — some just a few sentences in length — from the initial cluster of deadly tornadoes around Omaha, Neb., to the epicenter of the author’s hometown of Dayton, Ohio, to the aftereffects felt a month later, when all that rain headed down river to create a 900-square-mile lake in Louisiana.
The meticulously researched account covers dramatic rescues, sorrowful endings, dishonest scams and political machinations. James Thurber, Orville Wright, Ben Hecht and other famous people make appearances, but at the heart of the stories are ordinary people performing extraordinary feats. Negro League baseball player Bill Sloan saved 317 lives in Dayton, using a steel-bottomed boat and working “for 68 hours before surrendering to exhaustion and sleep.”
In the wake of disasters such as Sandy and Katrina, and the devastating Midwest floods of 1993 and 2008, Williams builds a convincing argument that we continue to ignore lessons concerning the treatment of our beleaguered planet. Even a century ago, Americans saw the correlation between paving over water-retaining riparian areas and the out-of-control river currents during spring floods. As one newspaper put it, “Wherever the balance of forces is upset, Nature sooner or later takes revenge.”
Stephen J. Lyons is the author of “The 1,000-Year Flood: Destruction, Loss, Rescue, and Redemption Along the Mississippi River.”