'Washed Away': The great flood of 1913, drop by drop

Geoff Williams recounts a massive natural disaster in minute human detail

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One hundred years ago this month, America's second-deadliest flood stretched its arms from the Midwest through Pennsylvania and the Northeast, taking hundreds of lives and leaving even more homeless. Journalist Geoff Williams takes us day by day, from March 23-29, 1913, through the experiences of the ordinary people who found themselves unable to escape its wake, along with nearly a dozen tornadoes in the opening days of the storm.


By Geoff Williams
Pegasus ($28.95).

The most epic American flood took place in Johnstown in 1889, claiming more than 2,209 lives. But of course, there were others, like the Philadelphia flood of 1843. Rather than place the flood of 1913 inside a long list of others, Mr. Williams invites us into the hour-by-hour circumstances of those who were forced to camp out on roofs or those who canoed through streets, offering a possible exit for the trapped.

However conventional it may seem to recount the acts of the brave or the deprivations of the helpless, Mr. Williams offers a handful of miraculous moments, which gives the book its cinematic arc.

There was Charles Allen who was walking down the street in Omaha, Neb., right before a tornado hit, only to catch a tiny girl around the age of 4 who fell out of the sky, dead. There was the infant in Terre Haute, Ind., who was lifted from the bed and carried a block in the wind, only to be set on the ground, unharmed.

But as amazing and unbelievable as these incidents are, Mr. Williams does not allow us to become emotionally attached to the tales. Instead of growing closer to these people, we look back on the work recognizing the bulk of how many similar stories Mr. Williams offers. Charles Allen and the infants do not still haunt us. They only confirm how common, how typical these experiences actually were in those brutal days of spring in 1913.

Water, even in the wake of the flood, was in short supply. Tons of garbage and excrement were continuing to be dumped into the Mississippi River and most water pipes were still made of lead. It would be another 35 years before the Federal Water Pollution Control Amendments of 1948.

Mr. Williams chronicles how utterly unprepared local and state departments were when this disaster struck, and shows how much the flood informed not only citizens but also officials about what would be required if something like it ever happened again.

The flood made communication in river-torn cities virtually impossible. Telephone lines were down for days, which not only inhibited the ability to help those in troubled waters, but prevented those who knew what was heading for others from warning them.

Some were spared and others, such as 76-year-old Mary E. Smith, were not. Authorities surmised she had been standing on top of her bed for 18 hours before drowning.

At least her house had not been carried down the stream of a road. Some people "willingly opened their front and back doors and windows of their home, and then, most painfully, some even cut a hole in the ceiling of the first floor."

Pregnancy also added another element of the incredible to this history. There was a Mrs. Olmstead who gave birth in a boat in Columbus, Ohio, and a Mrs. McSweeney, who delivered in a tree, in the rain and cold, the water only continuing to rise below her. An estimated 70 women lost unborn babies during the flood.

Such events, among the other spectacular episodes, create the longing that Mr. Williams would stick with them longer. With most vignettes barely lasting more than a page in length, it becomes hard to follow -- or rather, it becomes harder to care about the particular story at hand -- when countless others await in future pages.

But what makes "Washed Away" worth picking up is that it reminds us -- now troubled by the rising number of natural disasters, from tornadoes in the Midwest to hurricanes in the Northeast -- that the reign of Mother Nature is nothing new. If anything, we should be thankful we are more equipped to weather the weather when it strikes next.


Evi Heilbrunn, a graduate of Shady Side Academy and University of Pennsylvania, is a writer living in Philadelphia (eviheilbrunn@gmail.com, twitter @eviheilbrunn).


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