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October 23, 2013

New Albany Bicentennial: The Great 1937 Flood

NEW ALBANY — Editor’s note: This is part of an ongoing series about the people and events that have shaped the 200-year history of New Albany. Read all installments by clicking on the bicentennial link under the “seasonal content” header at newsandtribune.com

L. Frank Baum couldn’t have written a more fantastical tale than the real-life story that played out along the banks of the Ohio in January of 1937. Fully intact houses drifted down the river. Chickens roosted on the metal of moving boats. And a bridge composed of old bourbon barrels was built between the states.

Even Toto might have had to question if he was in New Albany anymore.

Tornadoes didn’t transport the city to another world in 1937, though. Rain was the culprit, and a whole lot of it. Four separate storms pounded the Ohio River basin that January, causing some residents to ponder if the skies would ever clear. For 10 straight days, it poured. And then, after a brief break, the clouds let loose for another eight. In all, 19.2 inches fell in Louisville that January, six times the normal monthly average.

But around the middle of January, warning signs of disaster became apparent. The river touching the banks of New Albany began to rise due to the plethora of rain. Not only that, the waters upriver in Cincinnati also started to creep higher and higher. As the saying goes, what goes up must come down. And the northern waters did, all the way downriver to Louisville and Evansville.

During that tumultuous time, the Ohio swelled 30 feet over its normal depth. Ten thousand of the roughly 25,000 inhabitants of New Albany were evacuated due to the widespread flooding, many traveling to other local towns by one of the only ways out of the chaos — trains. According to a Jan. 18, 1987, Courier-Journal article, 2,504 homes and 479 businesses in New Albany alone were affected amounting to $2,706,441 in damages. Jeffersonville and Louisville both suffered even greater losses.

In a January, 2012 News and Tribune story by David Mann, Rick Bell, author of “The Great Flood of 1937: Rising Waters, Soaring Spirits” noted 435 people region-wide were killed as a result of the catastrophe, a number that could have been much higher.

“The amount of rain was unparalleled,” Bell said in the article.

No other flood since has caused such an impact on the area.

Seventy-six years later, the ordinary citizen will find few actual remnants of the great flood that immersed much of the city in water for more than three weeks. But photos of the damage still can be seen in David C. Barksdale and Robyn Davis Sekula’s book “New Albany in Vintage Postcards.” In it, skiffs and makeshift boats float down Market Street. At the intersection of Spring and Silver streets, a traffic light dangles a foot above the crested river. Cows stayed warm in houses with families. Stranded residents fished from their front porches.

As the photographs illustrate, people did what they could to survive. But the weather made it tough. Following the incessant rain, a cold front blew into town dropping the temperatures during some nights into the teens.

“Added to the horrors of the night, while the river, lashed by a gale, whipped its mighty force against several miles of New Albany’s southern sector, sleet and snow followed days of torrential rains and made relief work difficult and caused untold suffering among many sufferers. Snow continued to fall during most of the night to leave a heavy blanket covering the ground and dwellings Saturday,” stated a January 23, 1937, edition of the New Albany Tribune.

With no electric, those stranded tried to stay warm. Soon, threats of fires forced the local fire department to place its truck on a pontoon so they could more quickly put out any blazes.

When the waters rose, residents moved upward. Businesses shifted their merchandise to second floors and higher ground. But other difficulties still occurred. Even with a river surrounding them, fresh drinking water became scarce. In fact, immunizations were given at the high school to combat typhoid.

For those that had no other choice, evacuation was necessary. Volunteers steered boats house to house to rescue those needing assistance. Trains were made available to transport the refugees to safer areas.

“The relief trains were trgic [sic]. We have been told 3,000 Jeffersonville people were placed in box cars, 30 cars in 15 minute[s],” said New Albany resident Roselle Stocker in a letter dated Jan. 27, 1937, a copy of which is available at the New Albany Floyd County Library. “The women and children were when possible put in passenger cars and the men in box cars. It was cold, you know and you can imagine, some had birds with them and some dogs. Children with wet clothes frozen on them. My telling you still cannot give you any idea — you just have to see these ruins to understand. We are all taking it on the chin, it is the only way.”

Aid began to flow in to the affected areas. Churches opened up their doors to refugees. Neighbor helped neighbor. The Red Cross and National Guard provided relief, as did the federal government including employees of the Works Progress Administration and Corps of Engineers.

After the river fully drew back to its normal banks during the first week of February, a mess remained. Mud encased much of what had been covered by the yellow waters. Much of the library’s collection was destroyed. Unclaimed houses that had randomly floated onto another property were dismantled, while many others were repaired.

Through it all, though, hope somehow endured, and saw the city through its reconstruction.

“There has been plenty of food, clothing and little avoidable suffering. There may be more of the last in the region of individual hearts as times shows that the ‘come back’ trail will be too hard for some,” said an article in the February 1, 1937, Tribune. “If the spirit of helpful co-operation can live after the chaos of today, nothing can stop New Albany.”

 

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