State officials are using the 100th anniversary of a devastating and deadly flood to encourage Ohioans to prepare for potential high water emergencies by reviewing their response plans and insurance coverage.
On the heels of the state and national Flood Safety Awareness Week, March 23 marked the centennial of the 1913 storms that rolled through the Midwest and hung over the Ohio Valley for several days, creating the state’s worst weather disaster.
Several days of rain flooded all of Ohio’s rivers and streams and more than 35,000 homes and left at least 400 people dead in the state, or perhaps 600 by some estimates. It washed away or damaged docks, bridges, railroads and trains, wreaking havoc from Cincinnati to Portsmouth to Cleveland and hindering efforts to get aid to damaged areas. Levees broke, drenching various cities and leaving parts of Dayton and Columbus with 10 feet of water or more.
“There’s nothing to prevent a storm like this from occurring again,” said Sarah Jamison, a hydrologist with National Weather Service. “Mother Nature has her own way of dealing with things, so it’s our role to try to be prepared and react appropriately to that.”
The system, which led to significant flooding in more than a dozen states, from Illinois through Connecticut, stands out not just because of how much rain fell but also because it encompassed such a large geographic area, said Jamison, who studied the flood and found many Ohioans know little about it.
“It’s really fascinating to think, `How did the collective mindset really not remember this event?’ It’s an answer I don’t have,” said Jamison, part of the Ohio Silver Jackets, a group of local, state and federal representatives focused on flood control.
In hard-hit southwest Ohio, the disaster spurred a regional pursuit of solutions to area flood problems and eventually led to the Miami Conservancy District, which focuses on flood protection, water quality and promoting recreation along waterways in the Great Miami River Watershed. The area’s flood protection system was designed to protect against flooding even more severe than what happened in 1913.
Angela Manuszak, the district’s special projects coordinator, calls it a tale of resilience and sacrifice for the benefit of the larger community and says many families in the area have passed down stories about the flood. She has one, too – a tidbit about how her grandfather helped with the cleanup as part of the Ohio National Guard out of Toledo and later kept in his home a “very uncomfortable Victorian chair” supposedly taken from the floodwaters.
The district, historical organizations, libraries and other groups are commemorating the centennial with a variety of events, some hopeful, others more somber. In Dayton, an exhibit about the flood was unveiled Saturday at Carillon Historical Park.
Members of the Silver Jackets acknowledge the conditions that led to the 1913 flood are rare but say it’s important to remember the possibility of similar rainfall still exists, albeit in an environment with greatly improved measures to prevent flooding, protect property and warn residents.
Some of those improvements began with the public outcry over the 1913 flood, which started a larger-scale conversation about flood mitigation, Jamison said.
That conversation continues as state officials use the anniversary to bring up that topic.
“Whether 100 years ago or today, flooding can be devastating on a personal and material level,” Department of Insurance Director and Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor said in a statement urging Ohioans to re-evaluate whether they might need flood insurance, which is not part of traditional homeowner’s or renter’s insurance.
The annual cost of residential flood insurance policies, which are purchased through private insurers but administered by the government’s National Flood Insurance Program, can range from less than $200 to $500 or more depending on the extent of the coverage, up to $250,000. Such insurance is available in communities that participate in the program and meet certain guidelines, such as agreeing to adopt measures that reduce flooding risks.
About 42,000 Ohio households have insurance through the federal program, according to government data, and about 1,500 claims totaling $29.6 million were closed in Ohio in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30. The mapped flood plain areas in Ohio include about 280,000 structures, and about 10 percent of those are covered by flood insurance, according to the government.