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1913 vs. Today


After the 1913 flood, citizens in the Miami Basin resolved to never experience such a disaster again. The Miami Conservancy District was formed, and led by Arthur Morgan they designed an expansive flood control system which was the largest structural project of its time. The project was completed in five years, costing just over $30,000,000. Since being implemented in 1922 the flood damages to the protected areas is $0.Slogan used by citizens of the Miami Basin during campaign to raise $2M for flood prevention.

The actions made during and after the flood of 1913 in the Miami Basin proved to be a role model for the country. In Dayton the actions of John Patterson, the president of the National Cash Register company (NCR), turned him into a national hero. He shut down his business and turned it into a shelter/hospital. Patterson also directed his employees to aid as rescue and relief workers. His quick action likely saved hundreds of lives from the floods, fires, and exposure that occurred during that horrible week in March.

Organized emergency response and relief are now routine in natural disasters, but this was not always the case. Most communities during the Great Flood of 1913 had to depend on neighbors to get them through the hard times until the Red Cross arrived.

In the immediate aftermath of the Great Flood, the main concern was organizing relief work rather than focusing on permanent protection. Once the floodwaters receded, the Red Cross came in to provide relief. The Red Cross still plays a vital role in disaster relief as noted during the recent Superstorm Sandy which hit the northeast. 

At the national level, former President Roosevelt took exception to all the federal dollars being spent on relief aid for flood victims while not “one cent” was being spent for flood prevention. His recommendation to Washington was that an extensive study and network of multi-purpose flood systems be installed. “All of this might be done by one act of the Federal Congress. We can lift the rivers out of politics by enacting a single adequate measure, establishing a policy, and providing continuing funds, exactly as was done in the case of the Panama Canal.”1

The Great Flood of 1913 attracted Congressional interest and investment in controlling or managing flood-prone areas that later resulted in the Flood Control Act of 1917. This was the first of several 20th century legislative actions that eventually resulted in the creation of the National Flood Insurance Program of 1968, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in 1979 and the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Act of 1988. The Stafford Act defines to this day how FEMA responds to disasters.

What would happen if the same storm occurred today?

With modern forecasting and weather tools a storm of this magnitude and duration would be seen days in advance. Watches and warnings highlighting the hazard would be disseminated through radio, internet, and television to alert citizens of the approaching risk. Emergency Management and Responders would pull resources in from across the country in advance of such a storm. Citizens in low lying areas would be assisted in evacuating ahead of the floods and given shelter if needed.

Once the rain begins to fall there would be little that could be done to prevent many of the same communities from experiencing a similar flood. The rainfall in 1913 was unprecedented, and that rainfall falling over a more urbanized region today would result in river levels meeting if not exceeding the levels reached during the storm 100 years ago. Some communities have taken efforts to reduce their flood risk by installing flood walls or levees, implementing zoning laws to prevent building in flood plains, and the purchasing of flood prone properties to preserve the floodplains. These steps would greatly reduce the impact of such a flood today.

It is true that if a storm with the rainfall similar to the March 23-27th 1913 storm occurred today there would be significant damage. Flood waters of this extent would meet or exceeded a 500 year flood event over a large swath of Ohio and Indiana with thousands of homes potentially affected. However, in the last 100 years improvements in floodplain conservation, flood control projects, flood warning systems, emergency response, and recovery programs would greatly reduce the level of devastation. The most notable difference between the Great Flood of 1913 and a similar storm today would be dramatic reduction in loss of life.  Though the agencies in the Silver Jackets try to provide the best available information to reduce the risk of loss and life, it is ultimately up to the citizen to heed the warnings of local, state, and federal officials so as to completely eliminate the risk of loss of life.

Does mitigation and preparedness really save money?

There is no way to calculate how much money is saved in the U.S. annually from foresight in flood mitigation, emergency preparedness, and advanced warning systems. As witnessed in the Miami Basin, the $30,000,000 investment has doubtlessly saved residents many times that amount over the last 100 years. The advance warning times for most natural disasters allows citizens and businesses to prepare their property and remove themselves and their families out of harm’s way.

Effective and continuous collaboration between local, state, and federal agencies is critical to successfully reducing the risk of flooding and other natural disasters in the United States and enhancing response and recovery efforts when such events do occur. No single agency has all the answers, but often multiple programs can be leveraged to provide a cohesive solution.

Please take a moment to read about some of the flood programs that have been developed over the last 100 years to protect citizens today.


The Conservancy Act and Organization of Ohio's Donservancy Districts

Citizens of the Miami Valley would not waits for Congress to act and took active steps to turn their focus from tragedy to the prevention of future floods. As Dayton was the largest population center in the Miami Valley, and after word of John Patterson’s heroics during the flood, surrounding communities requested that the Dayton Relief Committee take the lead on organizing a plan with that purpose.

On April 8th, the Ohio Legislature passed an emergency act authorizing the Mayor of any city or town affected by the floods to appoint a committee to assess the extent of repairs needed to recover. The committees were able to use engineers and surveyors to get an accurate assessment of the damage. On April 20th the numerous committees in the Miami Valley combined into one entity called the Citizen's Relief Committee. The group soon passed a resolution stating the committee’s intent to “apply the maximum of human knowledge and scientific skill with the necessary measure of financial resources to prevent the recurrence of a similar calamity.”3 In this resolution, the committee requested a voluntary gift from the people of Dayton on the order of $2,000,000 to accomplish its mission. May 25th and 26th were designated as “Dayton Days” which was able to raise the $2 million necessary to design a flood protection system that would prevent a flood of this magnitude from occurring again.

The committee hired the Morgan Engineering Company from Tennessee to oversee the project. Morgan devised a plan to protect the valley from a storm 40% greater than that of the 1913 flood. This highly involved plan, the first of its kind in the country, would solve this problem by building five dry dams, miles of levee, and making improvements to the river channel.

Several engineers who came to Ohio to help improve flood prevention were familiar with some of the European techniques. The Oder River, Wupper River, Ruhr River and several other basins in Germany, France, Spain, and Russia had centuries-old flood control systems encompassing reservoirs, masonry dams, and open dry dams all used to mitigate flooding and control navigation. No less than thirteen extensive European flood designs were reviewed for use in Ohio flood mitigation.

For decades, Europeans had already adopted these flood control measures within associations that were formed under special law composed of cities, villages, and even private interests. This system of cooperation to prevent floods was one that the Flood Prevention Committee of Dayton was quick to adopt. The Flood Prevention Committee of Dayton drafted a law that would allow for the formation of conservancy districts in this country that could be locally run and could carry out large-scale flood prevention plans.

Despite all the plans being discussed in Dayton, at this time there was no law in Ohio allowing for the implementation of these cross-jurisdictional flood control systems. Arthur Morgan, the chief engineer in Dayton, collected existing laws from 20 different states2 and those used in Europe in similar flood control programs. The law was drafted by Dayton attorney John A. McMahon, who for years was referred to as the "dean of the Ohio bar"2 and submitted it to the Ohio House. The governor signed the act into law on March 17, 1914. The Ohio Conservancy Act allowed for the establishment of conservancy districts. These conservancy districts would then be given the authority to implement flood control projects in their jurisdictions.

Immediately after the law was passed, opponents launched a legal battle. The Supreme Court, however, upheld the law, paving the way for several conservance districts to form. Upper Scioto Conservancy Distrct was the first conservance to form in February, 1915. The Miami Conservancy District (MCD) soon followed in June, 1915. MCD covers parts of 10 counties in the Great Miami River Basin. MCD began construction of its extensive flood control project in 1918, and completed it in 1922 at a cost of more than $32 million. The entire project was paid for through the seling of bonds.

The Muskingum Conservancy District, covering one fifth of Ohio’s runoff, was soon to become the most extensive district in the state. By 1938 the district boasted 14 flood control dams and retention ponds to prevent flooding and store water for times of drought. “The Muskingum Conservancy District is probably the greatest example up to now in all civilization of man’s understanding of how to develop his natural environment to his greatest good.”3

The Ohio Conservancy Act passed after the Great Flood had far-reaching impacts outside of the state. The act opened the door to cooperative flood control development in watersheds. It was referred to as the nation’s number one example of how a watershed may be developed and managed for public benefit, and a shining example of local people and their state and national governments working together for the good of their community and the United States.”3 The act was soon copied by several other states like Indiana, New Mexico, and Colorado.

The Chief of the Army Corps of Engineers at the time of the flood was in favor of comprehensive waterways improvements in the Ohio Valley and across the country, and even before congress authorized funding, he ordered each Corps division to have comprehensive plans in place for its jurisdictions. The Secretary of War Garrison also instructed the Chief Engineer to “report on the most practicable and effective measures for prevention of damage by floods to works constructed for the improvement of navigation, of interference with interstate commerce, and of other disastrous results thereof.”3

The Ohio River Flood Board released its final recommendations in 1916 emphasizing the federal government should not be based “on the uncertain and indefinite benefits that may accrue to navigation, but on the certain and positive benefits that may accrue in the protection of life and property from loss and in the prevention of the interruption by floods of general interstate commerce and the interference with the mails.”4

The federal government was not prepared to open the door on providing funding for flood control on a national scale, but they did authorize funding for studies on flood control starting on the Mississippi River in 1917. The authorization was part of House Document 308 of the 69th Congress. This was expanded to most major rivers in the United States by 1925, all becoming part of the “308 Reports” for congress.

Flood Control Act of 1936

The Corp had completed most “308 Reports” by 1936. Though ready to start work on many of the projects, funding was not available. Then the flood of 1936 hit the northeast U.S. over the Potomac, Susquehanna, Delaware, and upper Ohio Valley in March. Though the involvement of the federal government in flood control had been long debated, the devastation from the 1927 Mississippi flood and the 1936 floods revived national support. A senator from New York introduced the bill that placed flood control as an appropriate activity of the federal government in the interest of the general welfare. Congress soon directed the Corps to start on about 270 national flood control projects.

The Superflood of 1937

As devastating as the flood of 1913 was in the Ohio Valley, the lower Ohio Valley experienced an even worse flood in 1937. The flood started in January of 1937 after nearly half the area's annual rainfall fell in one month. Flood records were shattered in Cincinnati, Louisville, and Paducah. Flood damages at the time were estimated around $400,000,000 and resulted in hundreds of fatalities.  

Disaster Relief Act of 1950

It was not until the Federal Disaster Relief Act of 1950 was passed that the federal government formally provided assistance to states impacted by a disaster. The governor of an affected state had to officially request aid from the President.

National Flood Insurance Program 1968

The National Plan for Emergency Preparedness, enacted in 1964, and the National Flood Insurance Act of 1968 created the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). The first addressed the continuity of the federal government while the latter encouraged communities to implement flood-resistant measures in areas identified as floodplains. This program is designed to reduce flood damages in three fundamental steps: requiring that new construction be designed to reduce flood damage; through use of flood insurance maps to guide new construction away from flood plains; and transferring the cost of flood losses from the taxpayers to the floodplain property owners through flood insurance premiums. A community that has taken steps to reduce flood risk is allowed to participate in the NFIP. Private insurance sells over 85% of policies on behalf of the NFIP.

Federal, state, and local flood mitigation and floodplain management fall under this category. The largest U.S. land use program is the floodplain management part of the NFIP. The restoration of a floodplain to its natural channels through the purchase of the land adjacent to the rivers has substantially reduced the loss of life and property from recent floods. The federal flood mitigation programs allow flood prone or damaged properties to be purchased by the government as a means of reducing repetitive flood insurance claims. The goal of floodplain management is to identify, prevent, and resolve floodplain concerns before the next flood.

The ink on these acts was still wet when they were tested by the landfall of Hurricane Camille in 1969. Hurricane Agnes in 1972 was at the time the most expensive natural disaster to strike the U.S. These two events led to improvements in the acts such as requiring federally insured lenders for flood insurance on property in floodplains.

Disaster Relief Act 1974

The Disaster Relief Act came out following Hurricane Agnes, but wasn’t passed until after the “Terrible Tuesday” tornadoes that swept through ten states. This act allowed for assistance grants to be given to individuals. The Federal Disaster Assistance Administration was established the same year within the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) 1979

During the Carter administration several disasters, some natural and some man made like dam failures, illustrated the need of an organized national emergency policy. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), established in 1979 consolidated over one hundred disaster relief offices and programs throughout the federal system. FEMA was given the following four primary responsibilitiesestablishing federal disaster policies; mobilizing federal resources for disaster response; coordinating federal efforts with those of state and local governments; and managing federal disaster response activities.  

Department of Homeland Security 2003

In March 2003, FEMA along with 22 other agencies, programs and office became the Department of Homeland Security. This new department, headed by Secretary Tom Ridge, brought a coordinated approach to national security from emergencies and disaster - both natural and man-made.

Flood Observing and Warning Systems

The United States has an array of natural disasters, but by far the most costly to life and property is flooding. On average floods and flash flood claim more than 100 lives per year, relocate over a quarter million residents, and cause over $2 billion dollars in property damage. The National Weather Service’s (NWS) goal has been to provide accurate flood warnings with enough time for the public to protect their property, or in the case of flash flooding move out of danger's way.

River flooding typically has a far more wide-reaching impact than flash flooding which tends to be more localized. The approach for forecasting river floods is in many ways different than warning for flash floods. The National Weather Service has 13 River Forecast Centers that are responsible for flood forecasts for over 4,000 river locations, or gauge sites, across the U.S. The River Forecast Centers use computer models to process ground conditions such as snow depth, soil moisture, streamflows and combines this with future rainfall and runoff to produce a predicted river level. A number of U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, NWS, and privately owned river gauges have established flood stages. The NWS will issue flood warnings for these river forecast points when it is predicted that the river will rise above flood stage.

Flash floods are produced by an intense period of runoff or rapid river rise in which the response time is greatly reduced to only a few hours. Flash floods can occur from torrential rainfall, rapid snowmelt, ice jams, or dam failures. Due to the increased risk with this type of flooding the National Weather Service puts flash floods in the same category as a tornado warning. Detection of flash floods are difficult due to the small nature of the events, and the decision to warn can come down to the minute for forecasters.

Radar is the most utilized tool in the forecaster's war chest for determining where and how intense the rainfall is over a given area. Between 2011 and 2013 the NWS went through a radar upgrade, the first since the Doppler Radar installation in the 1990s, with the installation of Dual Polarimetric Radar. This latest technology increases the forecaster's ability to determine the amount and type of precipitation, a tool most useful for flood forecasting.

Local flood warning systems are also becoming more common as a means of detecting flash floods. Over 600 local flood warning systems are established over the U.S. which are composed of a network of rain gauges, river gauges, and an alert system for local officials and/or the National Weather Service. The Integrated Flood Observing and warning System and Ohio STORMS gauge networks are located in the Ohio River Valley. The networks integrate various county and statewide systems that have communication networks for transmission of near real-time rainfall.  There are a series of other automated surface observing systems (ASOS) sites across the U.S. A joint effort between the National Weather Service and Federal Aviation Administration support this network of surface temperature, wind, and rain gauges primarily located at airports. These gauges run 24 hours a day and will alert forecasters automatically if significant weather is occurring.
In additional to real-time observations, daily rainfall and snowfall information is collected nationwide. The National Weather Service sponsors a network of Cooperative Weather Observers (COOP), which is made up of volunteers who take daily temperature, rainfall, river, and other meteorological readings for climatological purposes. This information is sent to the NWS daily or monthly, and can be used in running hydrologic models used for river forecasting.

Education and Research

Likely the best tool in reducing flood fatalities and loss is through training and education on flood preparedness, risk, and safety. Agencies in the Silver Jackets have a wide variety of formal and informal training activities and public and professional awareness programs. By training those who must implement hazard mitigation measures, we ensure that those with in charge have all the knowledge and skills to get the job done. Information sharing strategies have been an integral part of the Silver Jackets members. Training is available on the use of GIS to identify flood plain areas. A cooperative training website has been established to help communities better understand and use weather information. Conferences and workshops are frequently used to supplement formal training.

Silver Jackets: An Integrated Team Approach to Flood Risk Management

“The people of the Miami Valley learned through the flood to do effective team work and to share their resources in furthering common interests.”4 A sentiment shared by modern day Silver Jackets.


The earliest flood control systems in the Ohio Valley were those implemented by private or local interests. Repeated flood disasters brought relief from the American Red Cross and other charitable organizations, or affected areas had to turn to aid from neighbors. Due to the staggering extent of damage the Great Flood left in its wake, it led to an era of flood awareness. New local, state, and federal agencies worked to develop programs that would help prevent or limit the impacts from this type of flood in the future.

After the flood of 1913, the acts of the local citizens and those from the federal government began to push for more comprehensive flood prevention. Though there is no way of preventing the rain from coming, there are many means of limiting the extent of the damage. However, many of these methods come with large price tags, too significant for many smaller communities to afford. Those who paved the way towards effective flood control systems after the 1913 flood set the stage for other flood-prone areas across the country.

The Miami Conservancy District, followed soon by several more conservancy districts across Ohio and Indiana, completed an unprecedented flood control system to protect its citizens from future floods. That system — built through local bonds and maintained through a special assessment on those who benefit locally — has functioned without fail or threat to its capacity for 90 years.

The federal government saw that each dollar spent on flood protection saved future flood relief dollars. Shortly after the 1913 flood, the federal government became interested in funding flood control projects. Agencies across the country became more invested in the mission to protect life and property against floods.

In the one hundred years since the Great Flood of 1913, there have been great strides in reducing the threat to life and property flooding causes.  It has been learned time and time again that through a combination of these areas that the loss of life and property can be greatly reduced in future floods. Arthur Morgan and the Miami Conservancy District knew that there is more than one solution to a community’s flood problems.

Some of these strategies include:

  • Prevention measures (building, zoning, storm water management, floodplain regulations)
  • Property protection measures (acquisition, elevation, relocation, flood insurance)
  • Natural resource protection (wetland protection, erosion/sediment control)
  • Emergency services (warning programs, disaster response)
  • Structural projects (dams, levees, channel modifications)
  • Public information (outreach, technical assistance, education)

The authority to implement these strategies is spread across various government agencies, the private sector, non-profits, academia, etc. Silver Jackets teams are comprised of organizations such as these that work together combining resources and expertise to manage flood risks. In order to know where you are going, you must know where you have been.

1. Origins of Ohio Valley Flood Control, page 195, reference 18.
2. Morgan, Arthur (1951) "The Miami Conservancy District," McGraw Hill, pp 181-182.

3. Miami Conservancy technical reports, part 2, page 17.
4. Origins of Ohio Valley Flood control, page 196.