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Disastrous Floods A Part of Midwest History

UPDATED April 5, 2011

By WeatherBug Meteorologists, Andrew Rosenthal and Dustin Devine


The spring flood season is underway across the Upper Midwest, as mild temperatures dominate the northern Plains and Upper Mississippi Valley. Over the next several days and weeks, widespread melting of the snowpack across the Dakotas and Minnesota will turn roads into brooks and cause rivers to overtop their banks.

Flood Watches and Warnings are in place from North Dakota to Missouri. You can help keep the flooding to a minimum by clearing debris from around storm drains.

However, spring floods aren`t anything new across the central U.S. Here`s a look at a few historic floods that have impacted the Mississippi Valley and Midwest.

1913 - Worst Hit: Indiana and Ohio

The 1913 flood, caused by late-March heavy rains, impacted much of the central Ohio Valley. It caused hundreds of millions of dollars damage in Ohio and Indiana, including Dayton and Indianapolis.

Even before the rain fell, the soil of Indiana and western Ohio was already saturated and streams were running high following a snowy winter. A cold snap in mid-March caused the ground to freeze, which made the ground nearly impermeable to water.

Between March 23 and 27, abnormally heavy rain fell across Ohio and Indiana. Bloomington, Ind., received 6.56 inches of rain, while Washington, Ind., was soaked by 6.10 inches of rain. With the ground frozen, the water could not soak into the ground and immediately flowed into the nearby White River. Water levels rapidly rose as a result, spiking at Anderson, Ind., from 4.3 feet on March 22 to 20.6 feet on March 26. The Indianapolis river gage was swept away on March 26, but readings prior to that showed similar rises.

Further to the east, heavy rainfall inundated the Dayton, Ohio, area with heavy rain. Eight to 11 inches of rain fell across the Miami River watershed, pushing the river to its limits. River levels jumped from 11.6 feet on March 24, cresting at 20 feet on March 26.

In both states, the rivers easily jumped their banks, climbing more than 10 feet above flood stage and breaking previous high-water records. A gas explosion caused additional damage in Dayton that further worsened damage. Almost 400 people died as a result of the flooding, with damage estimated near $150 million (equivalent to about $2.5 billion in today`s dollars).

1993 - Mississippi Valley

The 1993 flood, caused by an extended period of above normal rainfall, impacted much of the upper-Mississippi River Basin.

A critical factor affecting the record flooding was the persistent nature of the rainfall. It is notable that the flooding was not the result of one large precipitation event, but rather a series of events. Rain fell 20 days or more in July across many Midwestern States, compared to a historical July average of 8-9 days.

From June to August 1993, rainfall totals surpassed 12 inches from the eastern Dakotas to Wisconsin and from Kansas to Indiana. Greater than 24 inches of rain fell on central and northeastern Kansas, northern and central Missouri, most of Iowa, southern Minnesota, and southeastern Nebraska. As much as 38 inches fell in east-central Iowa.

Flooding began on rivers in Minnesota and Wisconsin and eventually reached the Mississippi River, cresting at St. Louis on July 12 at about 43 feet. The Missouri River crested at 48.87 feet at Kansas City on July 27, which then moved down the Missouri River setting new records at Boonville, Jefferson City, Hermann, St. Charles, and other locations.

This record flow combined with the flood stage of the Mississippi River just north of St. Louis resulted in another record crest of the Mississippi River at St. Louis on August 1 of 49.58 feet, surpassing the old record by 6.35 feet. A new record crest (over 4 feet higher than the previous record) was measured on the Illinois River at Hardin on August 3. Every streamflow-gaging station on the Mississippi River from Rock Island, Ill., to Thebes, Ill., reached a new high water mark.

Thousands of acres were inundated as a result of the record flooding. The first levee was overtopped on June 7, but levee failures soon became common. Over 1,000 Federal and non-Federal levees were topped or failed during the flood. The Federal Government response and recovery costs for the Great Flood of 1993 exceeded $4.2 billion.

2008 Iowa, Central Miss. Valley Flood

In comparison, the 2008 floods were due to a series of heavy rain storms that repeatedly slammed Iowa and the central Mississippi Valley. Rainfall totals of 4 to 6 inches were common from Des Moines to the Mississippi. Unlike in 1913, the late-spring timing of this flood allowed some of this rain to soak into the ground, although much of the water still just ran off into streams and rivers. The flood was largely the same: most of the rivers in eastern Iowa crested 10 feet above flood stage, spilling over into major cities.

That said, many technological advances have occurred since these floods, lessening the threat of another massive flood. After the 1913 flood, the rivers of Indiana and Ohio were dammed, allowing for much more control of floods and preventing the regular pattern of flooding. The Army Corps of Engineers now oversees many of the dams of the Midwest and is responsible for keeping water levels low enough to prevent such catastrophic floods.

Following the 1993 flood, a significant amount of research was done into river and levee engineering, in an attempt to build bigger and stronger levees to prevent the massive failures seen during that flood.


Story Image: Tony Jacobs use a video camera to record Miss. River flooding as he tours La Grange, Mo., June 18, 2008. (Jeff Roberson, The Associated Press).

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