Washed Away: How the Great Flood of 1913, America's Most Widespread Natural Disaster, Terrorized a Nation and Changed It Forever

Washed Away: How the Great Flood of 1913, America's Most Widespread Natural Disaster, Terrorized a Nation and Changed It Forever

by Geoff Williams

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The true story of a catastrophic weather event that will “interest readers who enjoyed Erik Larson’s Isaac’s Storm” (Booklist).

This is the incredible account of a flood of near-Biblical proportions in early twentieth-century America—its destruction, its heroes, its victims, and how it shaped natural-disaster policies in the United States for the next hundred years.

The storm began March 23, 1913, with a series of tornadoes that killed 150 people and injured 400. Then the freezing rains started and the flooding began. It continued for days. Some people drowned in their attics, others on the roads when they tried to flee. It was the nation’s most widespread flood ever—more than 700 people died, hundreds of thousands of houses and buildings were destroyed, and millions were left homeless. The destruction extended far beyond the Ohio Valley to Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana, Kentucky, West Virginia, New York, New Jersey, and Vermont—fourteen states in all, and every major and minor river east of the Mississippi.

In the aftermath, flaws in America’s natural disaster response system were exposed, much as they would be nearly a century later in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. People demanded change. Laws were passed, and dams were built. Teams of experts vowed to develop flood control techniques for the region and stop flooding for good. So far, those efforts have succeeded—it is estimated that in the Miami Valley alone, nearly two thousand floods have been prevented, and the same methods have been used as a model for flood control nationwide and around the world.

This suspenseful historical tale of a dramatic yet little-remembered disaster “weaves tragic and heroic stories of people in the various affected states into an almost hour-by-hour account of the deadly storm” (Booklist).

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781453271636
Publisher: Pegasus Books
Publication date: 02/05/2013
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 400
Sales rank: 450,996
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Geoff Williams is a longtime newspaper and magazine journalist, and the author of C. C. Pyle’s Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America (Rodale, 2007). His writing has appeared in National Geographic World, Life, the Cincinnati Post, and much more. He has appeared on CNN and NPR’s Talk of the Nation. For most of his life, Williams has lived less than an hour away from the Great Flood’s epicenter in Dayton, Ohio.     
Geoff Williams is a longtime newspaper and magazine journalist, and the author of C. C. Pyle’s Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America (Rodale, 2007). His writing has appeared in National Geographic World, Life, the Cincinnati Post, and much more. He has appeared on CNN and NPR’s Talk of the Nation. For most of his life, Williams has lived less than an hour away from the Great Flood’s epicenter in Dayton, Ohio.

Read an Excerpt

Washed Away

How the Great Flood of l913, America's Most Widespread Natural Disaster, Terrorized a Nation and Changed It Forever

By Geoff Williams


Copyright © 2013 Geoff Williams
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4532-7163-6


Heading for the Cellar

March 23, Rock, Wisconsin, 5 P.M.–5:12 P.M.

Edward Suchomil deserved a lot more in life than to be struck down by lightning.

At least, the faint remaining paper trail that represents his life suggests that he didn't have this coming. The 24-year-old had made many good friends ever since moving two years earlier to the tiny town of Rock from his home base of Jefferson, just twenty-seven miles north. Suchomil remained close to his parents, visiting them often.

Unfortunately, he had the misfortune to step into the middle of an elaborate weather pattern that began two days earlier when a high-pressure system from the Arctic Circle invaded Canada. From there, the system brought in severe winds from the west and stormed most of the Midwest and much of the East and Northeast of the United States. Hundreds of telephone and telegraph poles were uprooted in half a dozen states. Sleet followed, and many of the telephone and telegraph wires that were still standing were felled by the ice weighing down the wires.

Had those telephone and telegraph poles and wires remained standing, historian Trudy E. Bell has suggested, the U.S. Weather Bureau might have been better able to collect information or send warnings to neighboring communities and come to a quicker understanding of what was befalling the country. The flood still would have occurred, of course, but more lives might have been saved with advance warning.

Suchomil was probably a goner nonetheless. Even if he had known that he was walking into an evening storm affecting not just his own state but Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Vermont, and New York, he probably would have assumed he could beat the weather. There was the whole invincibility of youth mentality to contend with, after all, and don't we all think we can beat a little old lightning?

Suchomil left a neighboring farm to go back to the farm of Edward Ellion, where he undoubtedly planned to partake in a fine Easter dinner. Suchomil noticed the clouds—how could he not?—but it was a short walk through the wet, melting snow, especially if he made his way through the cornfield. He must have figured he could reach Ellion's home.

He almost did.

Suchomil's right palm was in his pocket when he was struck, a pose that suggests that he may have been in mid-stroll, hands stuffed in pockets and fairly unconcerned about the clouds. The buttons ripped off his rubber boots, which were otherwise unharmed. His cap blew into smithereens and flew off his head. His pocket watch stopped. His hair was singed, and as the clothes on his body burned, Suchomil fell face forward into the snow, which extinguished the flames. The coming rain also cooled him off.

Ellion and the dinner guests worried about Suchomil, but, given the night and the nature of the storm, they didn't venture out until the next day where they discovered him, forty rows deep in the middle of a cornfield.

March 23, 1913, Omaha, Nebraska, approximately 5–6 P.M.

Thomas Reynolds Porter mentally wrote down everything he saw. The 43-year-old had almost the perfect name for his profession. He went by the name T. R. Porter, and if one ignored his first initial, you could almost read his middle initial and his last name—R. Porter—as in "reporter." He was a freelance writer, actually, reporting and writing for both newspapers and magazines.

Porter thought the skies looked ominous. The weather had been questionable all day, warm and muggy, with rain here and there, plus the requisite thunder and lightning. At the noon hour, however, the sun came out warm and bright. Churchgoers flooded the streets in their Easter Sunday best and strolled to their homes, or friends and family. The clouds quietly returned, but that didn't trigger any suspicions among most of the city's residents.

But Porter wasn't most city residents. He was trained to watch the world from the moment he was knee-high. After his father died when he was three, Porter's mother, Elizabeth, had taken over his father's job of deputy postmaster and was at the center of the action in Russellville, Kentucky. Then Thomas Porter followed his older brother, Garnett, to Omaha and landed an assistant manager's job with the city court, where he continued his training, studying and learning about the human condition. But it was when Thomas followed in his older brother's footsteps and became a newspaper man that observing the world was actually part of his job description. And for the last sixty minutes, instead of relaxing on the porch and reading or tending to his garden and clipping the pergola or watering his climbing roses or clematis, Porter was studying the weather.

There was good reason to be concerned. It had already been a month with frightening weather. March 15 brought blizzards to the Midwest. A hurricane hit Georgia and Alabama, the day after. March 17, a cold wave hit in Tampa, Florida, of all places. On March 21, the first day of spring, a blizzard hammered twenty states, from as far north as Montana and south as Arizona, and ended twenty-one lives. On March 23, in an article written before Omaha's destruction, The Washington Post published a lengthy essay about tornadoes that began: "Not since 1884 has there been such an outburst of tornadic storms as that which occurred in the west and south last week."

The article was referring to a pair of tempests that, two days earlier, had left behind dozens of people dead across several states, including twenty-eight bodies in Mobile, Alabama, and five more in Michigan, where two young boys skating on a river were blown off course and right into the grip of the Straits of Mackinac's icy waters.

Porter couldn't be sure if a tornado was coming. Nobody alive had actually seen a tornado in Omaha, according to a newspaper account of the time, which made the observation that an old Indiana prophecy that had been handed down for centuries stated that Omaha was immune. That wasn't quite true. The newspaper reporter apparently had forgotten that there was a tornado in September 1881 that had leveled a few blocks in the city, although the loss of life, according to an issue of The American Architect and Building News that came out that month, was "trifling." Still, Omaha didn't have an intimate relationship with tornadoes, and its residents felt no danger or fear toward tornadoes.

That was about to change.

Porter called for his nineteen-year-old niece, Clem. Porter had doted on her ever since his older sister, Fannie, a poet from Glasgow, Kentucky, had come to Omaha in 1905. Fannie, forty-seven years old and a widow since the turn of the century, had been sick for the last two years, traveling the West and hoping the warmer climates would improve her health. Whether she came to say good-bye, or if it was unexpected, she died close to her family members. Clem, named for her father, Clement, an attorney, was thirteen years old and all alone. Porter, unmarried, was too. That is, until he met Mabel Higgins a short time later. She was a 28-year-old clerk at a law firm. Both late bloomers for a married couple in 1913, three years after saying "I do," they still weren't parents yet. Clem was all they had.

Her uncle showed Clem the skies and explained why he believed a tornado was coming.

Exactly what Clem said next is left to the imagination, but one has to conclude that they probably discussed Mabel and whether they should alert her. Mabel was with her parents, 63-year-old William, a business owner, and Ella, 61 and in poor health, and possibly both of her siblings, her older sister, Bertha, and her younger brother, Leslie. It's possible that Clem or Porter or both ran the five blocks and reported their concern about the tornado, but they knew Mabel and her family were aware of the weather and probably didn't want to worry anyone on just a hunch.

At about 5:30 in the afternoon, the clouds became considerably darker—almost green—and then the clouds formed one massive, dense, black wall.

Porter wasn't the only one who noticed the skies. F. G. Elmendorf, a traveling salesman from Indianapolis who had just arrived from Chicago, discussed with some fellow salesmen the ominous-looking dark clouds that had shown up after a little rain, and they were nervous. Still, Elmendorf went about his business and picked up something to read, killing time in his hotel's lobby.

Another visitor to the city, a man who gave reporters the name of F. J. Adams, didn't like how the sky looked. He decided he was going to get out of the city.

It was a smart decision, made a little too late. As Adams walked toward the train station, the temperature plummeted, and the sky turned black. There were a few drops of rain. It was windy. Still, when the funnel cloud barreled toward him, having first touched down fifteen minutes earlier, eighty miles southwest at Kramer, Nebraska, before racing past Lincoln and into Omaha at six in the evening, nobody, not even Adams, could say that they had been expecting it.

Inside Elmendorf's hotel lobby, the traveling salesman was sitting next to a window. Then he noticed that the sun seemed to have disappeared. He could hear a humming sound, "the most fearful and peculiar sound I ever heard," he would say later, and thunder crashed over the city, as did rain. But he wasn't sure exactly what was happening outside his hotel.

Porter and Clem ran downstairs to the basement. But it was for Clem's benefit only. Porter sprinted back upstairs to watch the tornado. If it developed into anything important, he wanted to be able to give his readers a first-hand account of the storm.

Porter stood on his porch, amazed at what he was seeing. There was a tornado, all right, and it was beginning to carve up his city.

F. J. Adams was thrown against a building, and it must have saved his life, for he was able to remain where he was and watch the world collapse around him.

"I saw a man picked off his feet and blown through a plate glass window of the Odd Fellows' Temple," Adams said. "He was killed. A taxi careened around a corner, seemed to be running solidly, and in the next instant, it tilted and rolled and then lifted over a sidewalk wall about six feet high. The chauffeur, I believe, must have been killed, as the machine was smashed to kindling."

Adams watched the entire roof of a small store blow away. Seconds later, a man who decided he was better off outside than in, charged out of the store. The man was lifted into the air, spun around for more than a hundred feet, and body-slammed back into the earth. The man didn't get up.

Similar to Elmendorf's recollection, Porter would write that "a billion bumblebees could not have equaled the giant humming which accompanied the storm."

Of what it looked like, Porter called the tornado a "black storm cloud" that "rode a great white balloon of twisting electric fire."

Houses, according to Porter, collapsed like cards or simply disappeared. Another house, a three-story residence, was split in two, as if a giant sword had sliced it. Porter watched a cottage sail through the air and strike the fifth story of the Sacred Heart convent and smash apart the south wing as if it had been made out of paper.

Then a house was picked up and hurled a quarter of a block and directly into the house of William and Ella Higgins.

Where Mabel was.

Then the tornado was gone. Porter ran for the pile of rubble that used to be his in-laws' house.

There was no warning of the tornado, no explanation from Mother Nature. The storm crossed diagonally through the city, across the western and northern parts of the city, attacking residential areas both wealthy and poor. It chugged along for about six miles through Omaha, leaving a path of destruction about a fourth to a half-mile wide. Instead of acting like some tornadoes, hopping into the air and then landing again, this cyclone's path of destruction was continuous, staying low to the ground during those six devastating miles.

Almost sixty years later, in 1971, Tetsuya Fujita, a meteorology professor at the University of Chicago, and Allen Pearson, head of the National Severe Storms Forecast Center, designed the Fujita-Pearson scale. The Fujita-Pearson scale designated tornadoes F1 to F5, with the lower F1 representing winds from 117 to 180 miles, and the F5 to describe a tornado blowing at 261 to 318 miles per hour. The tornado that hit Omaha in 1913 is believed to have been an F4, which means winds were ranging from 207 to 260 miles an hour, and its path was a hundred miles long, a rarity for a tornado.

But the power and durability of the Omaha tornado can really be told with this factoid: a sign from a store in Omaha was found in Harlan, Iowa—sixty miles away.

One of the first signs indicating how unique and ugly this tornado was going to become was when a body dropped out of the sky.

Charles Allen was walking at the corner of Forty-Fifth and Center Streets just after the tornado seemed to have materialized out of thin air. He was astonished to have a little girl, about four years of age, fall out of the sky into his arms. His shock turned to horror when he realized she was dead. He would live out the rest of his days wondering what her name was.

At that point, the tornado had already crossed Woolworth Avenue, the street where Dorothy and Leslie King lived. It seems to have never come closer than five blocks away from the King home, but had it veered a little to the east, Dorothy King, and her as-of-yet unborn child, Leslie Lynch King, Jr., might have become casualties of the tornado.

Dorothy King would then have never divorced her abusive and alcoholic husband, remarried, and moved to Michigan. Which means her son wouldn't have renamed himself after his stepfather, and the country would never have gotten to know Gerald Ford, the future 38th president of the United States.

If tornadoes could be described as having a personality, this one was a sociopath, and the details are disturbing. Mabel McBride, a 24-year-old elementary school art teacher, convinced her mother and young brother that they were safer huddling in a corner of a room than running outside. She was probably correct, or should have been, but when the roof blew away, the floors above collapsed, and a heavy board fell and struck Mabel on the head. She died instantly, but perhaps her actions saved her brother and mother, who survived.

At the edge of the city and near the edge of the tornado's path, most of the children in the orphanage, the Child Saving Institute, were indeed saved by virtue of being herded into the cellar, but two babies, Thelma and Cynthia, were sucked out of the windows.

Just outside the Idlewild, a pool hall, trolley conductor Ord Hensley spotted the cyclone coming toward his streetcar, which was packed with about a hundred screaming passengers.

"Everybody keep cool and lie in the center of the car," shouted Hensley, grabbing two women who were boarding the streetcar and pushing them to the floor while dropping down with them. Nobody needed to be persuaded otherwise. Charles H. Williams, one of the passengers, managed a curious glance at the storm and a fleeting thought—It looks like a big, white balloon—as he watched houses blowing away and trees rocketing into the sky. But like every other passenger, he dropped to his hands and knees and joined the pile of humans that had collected onto the floor of the center of the car.

Then the windows shattered. Trash, not rain, enveloped the car. A heavy wooden beam crashed through one window and poked out the other. Wooden planks, tossed by the wind, landed on top of the streetcar passengers. Then as quickly as it had come, it was over for the passengers, and Hensley, Williams, and the others staggered to their feet, unhurt.


Excerpted from Washed Away by Geoff Williams. Copyright © 2013 Geoff Williams. Excerpted by permission of PEGASUS BOOKS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

  • Cover Page
  • Title Page
  • Contents
  • Author’s Note
  • SUNDAY, MARCH 23, 1913
    • Chapter One: Heading for the Cellar
  • MONDAY, MARCH 24, 1913
    • Chapter Two: The First Flood Deaths
  • TUESDAY, MARCH 25, 1913
    • Chapter Three: Some of the People in the Way
    • Chapter Four: The Long Rain
    • Chapter Five: A Time to Run
    • Chapter Six: Everyone on Their Own
    • Chapter Seven: That Old College Try
    • Chapter Eight: From Bad to Worse
    • Chapter Nine: Desperation
    • Chapter Ten: Heartbreak
  • WEDNESDAY, MARCH 26, 1913
    • Chapter Eleven: Fighting Back
    • Chapter Twelve: Waterworld
    • Chapter Thirteen: Greed
    • Chapter Fourteen: Children in Harm’s Way
    • Chapter Fifteen: Jittery Nerves
  • THURSDAY, MARCH 27, 1913
    • Chapter Sixteen: Another Long Night
    • Chapter Seventeen: Light at the End
  • FRIDAY, MARCH 28, 1913
    • Chapter Eighteen: Water Retreating
  • SATURDAY, MARCH 29, 1913
    • Chapter Nineteen: Cleaning Up
    • Chapter Twenty: Remember the Promises in the Attic
  • Notes and Research and Acknowledgments
  • Index
  • Copyright Page

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Washed Away: How the Great Flood of 1913, America's Most Widespread Natural Disaster, Terrorized a Nation and Changed It Forever 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Anonymous 3 months ago
Great reading from start to finish. Being 75 years old and never having heard about this flood i found i could not put this book down . I read it in one sitting .
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A quick read only because I could not put it down!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Very good book!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A very gifted writer weaves a great deal of documentation into a captivating story. One could forget that you are reading actual history and think you were reading a novel.