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1913 flood compared to today’s storms

April 8, 2013
By Evan Bevins ( , The Marietta Times

How the flooding and tornadoes in the spring of 1913 stack up with recent natural disasters depends on what measures one uses.

In terms of the number of states affected, 1913's disastrous weather touched at least 19, slightly more than the number impacted by last year's hurricane and superstorm Sandy. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina hammered Louisiana and Mississippi and a handful of other states, but the number of lives lost (1,800) was more than the 1913 storms and flooding (more than 1,000) and Sandy (at least 147) combined.

In terms of damage, Katrina is the costliest in U.S. history at $108 billion, according to National Hurricane Center records. Science writer Trudy E. Bell, author of "Our National Calamity," a blog outlining the 1913 flood, has estimated the total damages then - to homes, infrastructure and more - at a minimum of $300 million to $333 million.

Article Photos

LEFT:?Photo courtesy of Dean Shepherd
This photo, from a collection of pictures belonging to the family of Marietta resident Dean Shepherd, shows Sacra Via in Marietta during the 1913 flood.
RIGHT: AP Photo/Mari Darr-Welch
Lacombe, La., residents Adeline Perkins, Lynell Batiste, Kewanda Batiste and Ulysses Batiste swim through the flood waters of Hurricane Katrina from their Lacombe home on Aug. 29, 2005.
BOTTOM:?Times file photo
Brian Wolfe adjusts a troll motor on his boat on Pike Street in Marietta following the 2004 flood caused by the remnants of Hurricane Ivan.

When adjusted to current dollars using a method based on relative share of gross domestic product, that eclipses Katrina by $8 billion to $22 billion, Bell said.

"The numbers don't lie, and the numbers are (a) minimum," she said.

Bell said initial damage estimates were tremendously under-counted. In her blog, she notes two popular weekly business publications placed the tally between $50 million and $56 million, but left out some of the hardest-hit cities - like Zanesville, Indianapolis, Wheeling, W.Va., and Cairo, Ill. - because estimates simply weren't available.

Many of the organizations counting the damages had different areas of focus, Bell said. Some did not take into account the tornadoes that struck Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Missouri and Nebraska, even though they were acknowledged as part of the same weather system, she said. Others paid attention only to particular geographical areas.

Bell came up with her preliminary estimate by comparing data from all known reports, but said that can only be considered a minimum.

"This is a floor. It's only going to get bigger than this," she said.

Bell said she initially expected Sandy, which also swept into the northeast, to be a better comparison to the 1913 flood than Katrina, but was surprised to see the official damage estimate for that storm at nearly $50 billion.

So instead, she uses Katrina, which is not only closer in terms of death and destruction but is just "so damn famous," Bell said.

Counting deaths presented similar challenges to estimating property damage for 1913.

"First, to count a death, you have to know about it," Bell writes in one of her blog posts. "Drowning in the flood or being crushed under tornado wreckage is obviously a death directly attributable to the disaster. So clearly is dying of a heart attack from terror, or succumbing to exposure after 48 hours in subfreezing temperatures on a roof or in a tree."

But some deaths that could be linked to the storms - from disease or injury caused by them - might not have happened until after official reports were published or were not reported if the individual died at home, she says.

While Katrina and Sandy might be the most familiar benchmarks for the 1913 flood on the national level, they had little or no effect in Marietta and Washington County. The nearest touchstones for the area are likely the floods of 1937, 1963 and 2004, said local weather-watcher Charlie Worsham.

The highest amount of rain on record for the month of March in Marietta is 10.24 inches, but the records for March (and April) 1913 are incomplete because the floodwaters washed away the rain gauges, Worsham said.

"There's about an 8-day span there where the records don't exist," he said.

Reports place the rainfall at the end of March 1913 at eight to 10 inches over a four-day period led to that flooding. Only one of those days remains on the record books for the rainiest days in the city's history - March 26, when 1.33 inches fell.

The single rainiest day on record for Marietta came on Sept. 17, 2004, when the remnants of Hurricane Ivan drenched the area with 4.87 inches.

"I didn't think it was ever going to quit raining that day," Worsham recalled.

Coming on the heels of leftovers from Hurricane Frances dumping 3.57 inches on Sept. 8, that precipitation contributed to the worst flooding in the city in 40 years, with the Ohio cresting at 44.97 feet. Shifting forecasts by the National Weather Service resulted in a false sense of security for many people, leading to more damage than might have been experienced if precautions had been taken in a timely fashion.



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