Water Over the Bridge
THE THOUSAND-YEAR FLOOD:The Ohio-Mississippi Disaster of 1937.
By David Welky.
Univ. of Chicago Press. 355 pp. $27.50
Almost 75 years ago, the city fathers of Portsmouth, Ohio, ordered the sewers opened so that high water from the Ohio River would inundate the town gradually rather than violently. As a journalist of the time commented, “The people knew better than to argue with the river.” Triggered by days of torrential rainstorms that astounded even many veterans of earlier floods, the waters in January 1937 would eventually crest 15 feet above flood stage and earn the engineering designation of “thousand- year flood,” one statistically expected to occur once in a millennium.
Farming tracts and urban neighborhoods long classified as safe havens were inundated. Railroad and highway traffic was interrupted and power stations stopped working as waters spread where planners had never imagined they could. (In this respect, the Ohio-Mississippi Flood of 1937 resembles the tsunami in Japan earlier this year as much as it does the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.) All told, financial losses were estimated at a billion dollars (roughly $15 billion today). A million people fled their homes. Hundreds died, mostly from pneumonia and other flood-related illnesses.
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Edward Tenner, a contributing editor of The Wilson Quarterly , is the author of Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences (1996) and Our Own Devices: How Technology Remakes Humanity (2003). He is currently at work on a book about positive unintended consequences.more from this author >>
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