I know exactly when my fascination with floods took hold: the Spring of 1959. The Little Miami River was running at an enormously high level — the biggest flood at least since the epic floods of 1937 (which I do NOT remember, thank you very much). My dad put all of us in the car and drove us down Emmons Road into the valley to take a look. Normally, the Little Miami is a modest little stream with just enough water flowing to allow lazy canoe trips. In most places one can wade across it. Not then. The entire valley was awash with a roaring torrent of dark brown, frothing water, probably a dozen feet or more above the river’s normal level.
Dad pulled right up to where the waterline of the flood covered the little blacktop road, down in among the hills covered in bare, dripping trees, until the front tires of the Oldsmobile touched the water. We were still several hundred yards away from the actual course of the river. We rolled down the windows. 50 years later, I can still hear in my head that immense, rushing sound of hundreds of thousands of gallons of water as it flowed across fences, trees, bridges, houses. It was a scary, primal sound. I’ve only heard something to equal it when I was rafting on the very large New River in West Virginia.
I had not intended to write more about rain and water this week, but comments from some of you readers and the continuing rain that’s falling in California have kept me thinking about floods and our relationship with water. It’s central to all of us, not just in California or Ohio, but everywhere, whether on the banks of the Ganges or the desert of central Asia or the Delta in Louisiana. Our relationship with water is fundamental. We must have water, we locate our cities on rivers or lakes or oceans, because of the many benefits, and those same bodies of water that nurture us can destroy us.
When you see the news footage of mudslides in the hills of Los Angeles or the flooded Ninth Ward of New Orleans you probably think, “Why are they there at those places of high risk? Why didn’t someone just declare that those places are off-limits?” What you may not know is that in at least one place in this world, someone did just that.
In 1913, Dayton, Ohio endured a terrible flood on a monumental scale that inundated the city and caused untold numbers of casualties and loss of property. (Interestingly enough, the rains that caused the flood were the result of a temporary form of global cooling: a volcano in Alaska had erupted, sending up a vast amount of ash that cooled the atmosphere and prompted unusually bad weather.) In the aftermath, the civic leaders of Dayton and the surrounding area resolved to take action to prevent similar catastrophes in the future. The Great Miami River (which is larger than the Little Miami and runs roughly parallel to it, some miles to the west) runs right through Dayton, and would have to be dealt with in some direct manner.
The man who got the job to design the approach was Arthur Ernest Morgan, a pioneering civil engineer who specialized in hydrological engineering. Morgan’s approach was shockingly simple, direct and, so far as the intervening 90 years have shown, effective. First, Morgan’s plan stated the obvious: don’t build in the flood plain. Not only that, an organization named the Miami Conservancy District was created to enforce rules about where building would be permitted, and has done so to great effect for all the ensuing decades. Morgan’s plan acknowledged that rivers will rise, and that the water needs to go somewhere, and, so, he created somewhere for it to go. He did not dam up the river outright, creating reservoirs and lakes or tall levees. In normal or only slight floods, the Great Miami flows as it always did. Morgan cleared wide flood plains for a great length of the river and at intervals, where there was open land to permit it, he installed “dry” dams. These are earthen dams with wide V-shaped notches that, as flood waters rise, impound some of the water behind them, spreading it out into those wide flood plains, while some volume of the water continues to flow downstream to the next dry dam. It is a cascading series of impediments to flow, without totally stopping the flow. Brilliant.
This plan probably won’t work in intensely populated cities. It required moving houses and people and roads out of the flood plains, with the assumption that floods will eventually come and cover them. Los Angeles, New Orleans, Huntington, WV, scores of other cities COULD adopt such a plan, but it requires stern commitment and enforcement of the flood plain. Decades ago, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began walling the Mississippi behind higher and higher levees, they could have taken this approach, but it would have relegated some towns to relocation, some farmland to occasional flooding, and have resulted in a very different New Orleans than we know today. But, when one considers the disastrous loss of life and property — nearly the loss of the city of New Orleans, itself — perhaps it would have been worth it after all.
HERE is a link to Grand Eccentrics by Mark Bernstein, a book that includes Morgan among some other native sons of Dayton, including John H. Patterson, the Wright Brothers and Charles Kettering.