Expert: Repeat of 1913 Indiana Flood Would Be Disaster

By Seth Slaybaugh | March 20, 2013

What would happen if the rare and extreme series of storms that hammered Indiana 100 years ago this month occurred today?

There would be significant damage, according to the Midwest Regional Climate Center.

But with modern forecasting and communication, a storm of that magnitude would be seen days in advance, giving people in low-lying areas time to evacuate, The Star Press reported. And improvements in flood plain conservation, flood control projects, recovery projects and emergency response would greatly reduce the level of devastation, according to the center.

The biggest flood control projects in Muncie since the 1913 flood were undertaken in the 1930s and 1940s.

“Twenty-five years later, the Flood Control Project brought to the people of Muncie the protection they so earnestly petitioned (for) in 1913,” the Delaware County Democratic Central Committee said in a report prepared for the federal government in 1938.

President Franklin Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration, a New Deal agency that hired millions of unemployed people to carry out public works projects, dredged and widened the White River in Muncie, widened the bends in the river and built levees and flood walls. Storm sewers were also built.

In a foreword, the central committee reported, “These projects now a valuable part of our community stand as a monument to a great president and the democratic principles that instituted them – just one of the many reasons why Democrats belong in our city hall and court house.”

As a result of the project, the report boasted, the river carried away a “terrific cloudburst” followed by 50 hours of occasional rain on June 24, 1938.

“At no time during this period did the river ever reach alarming proportions, although the rainfall measured in inches was similar to the rainfall that caused the great 1913 flood,” the Democrats reported.

But less than a year later, on April 16, 1939, following three days of rain, a 600-foot-long concrete seawall on Wheeling Avenue cracked, leaned and sank 18 inches after being battered by floodwater.

The wall was described as “hanging on the ropes.” The buried railroad ties connected to the wall had been pulled out. The wall bulged 6 feet toward the river. On the land side of the wall, tons of earth and trees sank into the gaping ditch created when the wall leaned toward the river. A section of Minnetrista Boulevard crumbled into the river. Sandbagging began. City officials considered using dynamite downstream to relieve the pressure on the wall.

The levee as we know it today, including floodwater pumping stations, was built during the 1940s by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Construction began in June, 1940, and was completed and turned over to the city in May of 1950, at a cost of $907,835, according to corps spokeswoman Carol Labashosky.

The project included 19,020 feet of earthen levee; 3,480 feet of concrete wall; 4,870 feet of levee enlargement; 1,150 feet of concrete wall improvement; 20,000 feet of channel improvement; and four floodwater pumping plants.

“The rainfall in 1913 was unprecedented, and that rainfall falling over a more urbanized region today would result in river levels meeting, if not exceeding, the levels reached during the storm 100 years ago,” the climate center reported.

But levees like Muncie’s would “greatly reduce the impact of such a flood today.”

According to Al Shipe, a National Weather Service meteorologist, a repeat today of the 1913 flood volume would result in a crest of the White River about 5 feet lower than experienced in 1913.

“Flooding immediately upstream and downstream of Muncie would be disastrous,” he said.

During the 1913 flood, the White River in Muncie crested at 22.60 feet.

So according to Shipe’s estimates, if a storm like the one in 1913 occurred today, the river would crest at 17.60 feet.

The river reached 17.67 feet on April 16, 1939. Since then, the highest it has risen was 15.57 feet on April 21, 1940; 14.98 feet on April 21, 1964; 14.85 feet on June 14, 1958; 14.23 feet on Jan. 22, 1959; and 14.02 feet during the Labor Day holiday in 2003.

Imagine what would have happened in 2003 if the river had been 3.58 feet higher, or at 17.60 feet.

The river flooded more than 20 homes near where it enters Muncie south of Memorial Drive during the 2003 flood. Indiana-American Water Co. and city firefighters laid 8,000 to 10,000 sandbags on top of the levee to make sure the river didn’t flood and short-circuit the brick pump house that pumps drinking water out to the community.

“It appears to be about 21/2 to 3 feet before it would get to the top of the levee where we’ve been sandbagging,” Keith Morgan, a water company engineer from Kokomo, told The Star Press at the time.

 

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