On 75th anniversary, flood of '37 draws parallels to, questions about last year's high water

Sunday, February 5, 2012
Boat crews depart Jan. 28, 1937, for a search of the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway area near Anniston, Mo., for people marooned by the high water. (Southeast Missourian archive)

"You can drown downtown, when the water is high

It's been happening here, since I was a child

There ain't nothing you can do to stop it

Just hope for the best, and mop up the rest."

-- "Get Down, River," by the Bottle Rockets

With the gauge at Cairo, Ill., at 58 feet and rising, an officer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has made the decision -- prepare the levee near Birds Point for blasting.

A team of engineers, working against the manic pace of the rising waters, place 1,000 pounds of dynamite into holes that are spaced 350 feet apart. The charges are blown, creating a 70-foot gap that allows the river waters to rush through.

A time later, they open a second gap. More water gushes in. The crews repeat the process, inundating 130,000 acres of Southeast Missouri farmland.

The scene seems singular, but it describes two events that are separated by more than seven decades -- the only two instances when the federal government opted to intentionally breach the Birds Point-New Madrid levee.

Friday marked the 75th anniversary of the crest of the Ohio River at Cairo, the high-water mark for what has become known as the Great Flood of 1937. The water topped out at a protection level of 59.5 feet and slowly -- so slowly -- began to recede after the corps took action.

That record would stand for the Ohio River gauge at Cairo until May 3, 2011, when the corps again activated the floodway when the water reached 61.72 feet, a new benchmark.

Some data suggests that, between those two pivotal flood-fighting decisions, the weather has gone haywire -- at least locally -- causing floodwaters to rise more frequently than at any time in recorded history.

Besides last year's record crest, historic high-water marks have happened at the Cairo gauge in 1997 (fifth highest), 1995 (seventh), 2002 (eighth) and 1994 (10th).

In Cape Girardeau, the 1993 flood along the Mississippi River holds the top record crest at 48.49 feet, which caused $15 billion in damage, second costliest nationally only to Hurricane Katrina. That flood caused 50 deaths and displaced hundreds.

Also noteworthy is the fact that the top five crests in Cape Girardeau have all happened since 1993, with records being set in 2002, 2011, 1995 and twice in 1993.

At 46, Bob Holmes is too young to have been around in 1937 when the rain began to fall in buckets, starting with a three-week period in January. But Holmes, the U.S. Geological Survey's national flood hazard coordinator, remembers his grandparents talking at length about it.

While Holmes now works for the USGS in Rolla, Mo., he grew up in Harrisburg, Ill. Some of his fondest memories are of his grandparents sharing their stories.

Some of the doozies are about the flood of 1937. They lived through it. Harrisburg was flooded, he said, even though it was 30 miles from the Ohio River.

"People came and lived with them," he said. "They didn't have a choice. If you had a house above water, you had to take people in."

The 1937 flood caused $20 million in damage, which is more than $300 million in today's dollars. People were left homeless for miles. It displaced people for months and some forever. Tent cities went up. The cleanup and recovery lasted years.

Those stories nudged Holmes toward his profession as a hydrologist and one of the leading authorities on flooding and flood-control. He was one of the specialists who was feeding information to the corps last year in the days leading up to -- and after -- the floodway activation.

"Obviously there are parallels," Holmes said. "There was massive flooding on multiple fronts. The Missouri, Mississippi and the Ohio were all kicking in a lot of water in both of those floods."

But in the end, Holmes says, flooding is simply a natural phenomenon that is going to occur -- even if it is taking place more often.

Locally, at least, the occurrence of flooding has increased, according to gauge readings at Cairo and Cape Girardeau.

According to readings compiled by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 21 of the top 40 historic crests for the Ohio River at Cairo have occurred since 2000. A similar story is true for the Mississippi River at Cape Girardeau, where 30 of the top 40 historic crests have taken place in the same period.

Charles Camillo, the historian for the Mississippi River Commission, says man is perhaps as much to blame as Mother Nature for the more frequent floods. He points out that levees and other flood-fighting measures have been constructed up and down both rivers.

"When you put levees on both sides of the river, it's going to cause the stages to go up," he said. "Without the levees, the crests would go down. But the river would be 18 miles wide."

The higher frequency of crests also has some wondering about the true meaning of a 100-year flood when flooding takes place every year or so. Holmes says he tries to avoid using the phrase "100-year flood" when talking to people because it is confusing.

What it really is, he said, is a 1 percent annual probability. In laymen's terms, Holmes said, a 100-year flood has a 1 in 100 chance of occurring in any one year.

And it's not all that precise, he said. Data used for making such predictions only goes back about 100 years, he said. If the record was longer, say 500 years or even 1,000, they could come a lot closer to making accurate predictions, he said.

As for the frequency of flooding, Holmes said, debate continues about global warming and climate change.

"Climate change is real," Holmes said. "But the big debate is what's causing it and whether people are to blame. But people say there's absolutely no such thing as climate change. We had an ice age. We know the climate changes through time."

For his part, Holmes believes it's cyclical. The Midwest happens to be in a wet cycle, he said. But in other parts of the country, the flooding frequency is stable or decreasing, he said.

"It's a very complex system," Holmes said.

So floods will continue to come, he said. Predicting them is difficult and dealing with them is worse. The worst part, he said, is when floods like the ones that took place in 1937 and 2011 come, the waters stay awhile.

"The thing about floods that are so devastating to people is they stay so long," he said. "They're like a bad house guest."



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