Recount of 1937 flood fascinates with suspense and period details

WPA men in boats hauling sandbags to a levee in south Memphis during February, 1937 flooding.

Photo by National Archives

WPA men in boats hauling sandbags to a levee in south Memphis during February, 1937 flooding.

The 1937 floodwaters crept near the door of a Piggly Wiggly store at Breedlove and Chelsea.

Photo by The Commercial Appeal files

The 1937 floodwaters crept near the door of a Piggly Wiggly store at Breedlove and Chelsea.

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The Thousand-Year Flood

By David Welky

University of Chicago Press, $27.50

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See if this has a familiar ring: As an immense flood rolls down the Mississippi River, national news media accounts make it appear that Memphis is utterly submerged, sending local leaders into a dither to proclaim that the city is mostly high, dry and open for business.

No, this wasn't 2011, with ABC anchor Diane Sawyer sloshing through Memphis in her waders while issuing shrill reports about the rising water.

The story that David Welky writes about occurred 75 years ago this month.

In his latest book, "The Thousand-Year Flood: The Ohio-Mississippi Disaster of 1937," Welky provides a taut, thoroughly researched and often riveting account of a deluge that tends to get confused with, or overlooked because of, the great flood of 1927, the subject of the widely acclaimed book "Rising Tide" by John M. Barry.

(Barry will be at The Booksellers at Laurelwood in Memphis at 3 p.m. today with his new book, "Roger Williams and The Creation of the American Soul.")

For all the fury of the '27 flood, however, the disaster that occurred a decade later was in many ways much worse. It was, as Welky puts it, "the worst river flood in American history."

While the '27 flood swept through a relatively sparsely populated Mississippi Delta, the '37 event devastated such urban areas along the Ohio River as Cincinnati and Louisville, while nearly sweeping away smaller cities such as Paducah, Ky., and forcing the relocation of two little towns.

Hundreds died from drowning, disease and other causes. And at the peak of the flood, the Red Cross sheltered 1 million people and provided food and clothing for another 250,000.

Not only did the disaster strike in the midst of the Great Depression, it came during bitter winter weather. All of which served to magnify the suffering and hazards faced by the "flooders," as Welky refers to victims.

And a mostly poor and downtrodden lot they were. Many eked out a desperate existence sharecropping, earning less than $200 a year and living in shacks so squalid that they studied astronomy through the holes in their roofs and geology through the gaps in the floor, as a saying from the time went.

"They had nothing before the flood," a reporter wrote. "Now they have less."

Welky, an associate professor of history at the University of Central Arkansas and the author of two other books dealing with the Depression era, provides solid context for the flood. The book includes a primer on the history of flood-control and river-management theories, and it vividly evokes the hard-scrabble 1930s.

Like the flood itself, the politics surrounding the disaster were rife with tricky cross-currents. In contrast to what Welky calls Calvin Coolidge's "tight-fisted" response to the '27 disaster, President Franklin D. Roosevelt saw the '37 event as a proving ground for his New Deal policies and mounted an aggressive federal effort.

In Welky's view, it largely succeeded, thanks in no small measure to the army of workers mobilized by the Works Progress Administration. But FDR's efforts to make the flood a catalyst for a far-reaching new approach to flood-control and environmental matters was thwarted by supporters of the Corps of Engineers, the longtime stewards of rivers, and critics wary of federal overreach.

In addition to the damage and casualties they cause, natural disasters often leave social, economic and political changes in their wake, and the '37 flood was no different. One of its most interesting legacies was here in Memphis.

By Welky's telling, the flood forever weakened the seemingly omnipotent political machine run by E.H. "Boss" Crump. The downfall began with Crump's heavy-handed criticism of his protege, Memphis Mayor Watkins Overton, for conditions at the Fairgrounds refugee center. Overton, overwhelmed by the 80,000 flooders who had poured into the city, bristled at the attack and distanced himself from the boss.

The falling-out led Overton to step down in 1940, when Crump himself was elected mayor. The boss immediately resigned, effectively giving the post to Walter Chandler, a congressman. But his newly picked mayor "proved even more aloof" than Overton, and his political organization was "forever weakened," Welky writes.

While Crump remained active in civic life, "the aging boss never regained control over the town he had both loved and dominated," the book says.

On a national level, the flood cemented the federal government's role as the nerve center for dealing with major emergencies, and it spawned a flood-control bill that funded reservoirs across the country. It also helped establish radio as a credible and invaluable news source as stations, particularly WHAS in Louisville, provided timely, accurate reports that Welky credits with saving countless lives.

"The Thousand-Year Flood" deftly mixes scholarly research with passages of utter suspense, such as when rising waters threaten to drown inmates in a Kentucky prison.

The book has flaws, but they are not of omission. If anything, Welky's fascination with Depression-era politics occasionally gets the best of him as he devotes more pages to congressional wrangling over flood-control legislation than an average reader will want to endure.

Memphis readers will notice a few minor errors, such as Welky's reference to Nonconnah Creek as a river and his statement that the city's pumping stations were designed to expel groundwater when their job really is to discharge impounded backwater along local tributaries.

But the book's biggest problem, accuracywise, may be the title. The 1937 disaster was a great many things, but as Welky acknowledges, there's no way of knowing if it was really a "thousand-year flood" -- one so rare it has only a 0.1 percent chance of occurring in any given year.

Welky adopted the term from the informal commentary of the time and sprinkles it throughout the book.

But it's his misfortune that a deluge roughly equal to the '37 flood -- and even worse along the Mississippi River -- occurred just as his book was coming out last year. The 2011 event was an approximately 200-year flood, according to the National Weather Service.

The lesson of Welky's book is that rivers demand vigilance from those living near them. Calling the '37 flood something as rare as a "thousand-year" event tends to blunt that message.

-- Tom Charlier: (901) 529-2572

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