By Mary Giorgio
The largest flood ever to strike the Ohio River Valley occurred in January, 1937. Leaving over one million people homeless and over $500 million ($8.7 billion in today’s dollars) in property damage, the flood caused catastrophic destruction to cities and towns located along the banks of the Ohio River. Many communities in Southern Indiana were severely damaged or destroyed by the flood’s waters.
On January 5, 1937, water began rising in the Ohio River. It had been unseasonably warm and rainy in the preceding days. By January 9, the weather changed course, turning cold. The next day, the skies dumped the worst sleet and snow storm that Southern Indiana had seen in several years. The river swelled close to its banks, and soon flood warnings were issued.
At first, most people assumed that the flooding would be mild. That soon changed as record rainfall pelted the region from January 13 through January 24. Sixteen inches of rain fell in just 11 days. The Ohio River rose to its highest level ever recorded, cresting at 54 feet.
On January 24, flood conditions were so bad that martial law was declared in Evansville, Indiana. Tell City, Cannelton, and New Albany were also hit hard. In Jeffersonville, 90% of the city flooded. Numerous other small river towns in Southern Indiana were severely damaged or destroyed.
Works Progress Administration workers across Indiana were sent to aid flood victims, clear debris, and rebuild cities. One thousand WPA workers alone were sent into Jeffersonville.
Across Indiana, these workers created sanitary toilets, evacuated stranded flood victims, brought in relief supplies to devastated areas, cooked meals, and served as guardsmen as the flood raged on around them. Their help was instrumental in saving lives, and later, in cleaning up and rebuilding devastated cities and towns.
With so many homeless flood victims, trains carried thousands of people to Indianapolis, where many were housed at the Indiana State Fairgrounds. A hospital was set up in the fairground’s Colosseum.
Floodwaters slowly receded, and by February 19, the Ohio River had finally sunk below flood level. The damage was surveyed. Some towns in Southern Indiana had been destroyed. Others needed extensive repair.
Because the flood occurred during the Great Depression, funding for restoration and rebuilding was tight. Some smaller towns in Southern Indiana were never fully rebuilt. In Evansville, a gas boom the following year aided the city’s full recovery. The city later built a levee system to prevent future disasters.
The Ohio River Flood of 1937 remains one of the largest floods in American history. It devastated numerous cities and towns in Southern Indiana and neighboring states, far surpassing the damage caused by the great flood of 1913. Hopefully, the precautions put in place in the aftermath of the flood will continue to be enough to prevent a future flood disaster.