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Great flood of 1913 remembered

5:35 PM, Mar 24, 2013   |    comments
Courtesy: USA Today
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INDIANAPOLIS - Pat Hiatt grew up hearing the stories. Her grandfather, Frederick G. Heylmann, who delivered mail on a bicycle in neighborhoods just southwest of downtown Indianapolis in the early 1900s, took now-treasured photos as the Great Flood of March 1913 inundated his territory.

This month, on the 100th anniversary of the flood that claimed as many as 100 lives and left 7 percent of Indiana's population homeless, Hiatt's grandfather will come to life in a special exhibit on the flood. At the Indiana Historical Society's exhibit -- "You Are There, 1913: A City Under Water" -- which opens Tuesday and runs through Aug. 9, Heylmann will be portrayed by an actor.

The breadth of the devastation of the 1913 flood is hard to picture, but Al Shipe, service hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Indianapolis, has spent the past year studying and quantifying the disaster. First, his comparison for those who lived through the 2008 floods that swamped many Indiana communities: "1913 is what I call 2008 on steroids," said Shipe.

From Monday, March 24, 1913, to Tuesday, March 25, some areas received 6 inches of rain in 24 hours, and the White River rose 6 feet at the Washington Street bridge in that 24 hours. Then, the bridge washed out. The White River reached 29.5 feet at 10th Street on March 26. Flood stage at both the Washington Street and 10th Street locations, Shipe said: 12 feet.

As levees were topped and broke open, water rushed into residential areas with deadly force. The devastating flood waters didn't do much damage to the east, even downtown. Eloise Batic, director of exhibits research and development at the Historical Society, said the Statehouse made it through fine. But along the river on the west side of downtown, she and exhibit researcher Angela Giacomelli said, industries such as slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants were swallowed by the waters.

The Historical Society's exhibit recreates one of the relief stations that sprang up in the city, some within 24 hours of the flooding, at the direction of Mayor Samuel L. Shank. At the time, there was no Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the American Red Cross wasn't set up for such an emergency, so Shank created the General Relief Committee for Flood Sufferers.

The stations were opened in available buildings and distributed donated food and clothing. Residents received "relief cards" that indicated the size of their household, employment and other basic information, and they were allotted supplies accordingly. An actor portraying Hiatt's grandfather will talk about what he had seen and photographed in the neighborhood where he delivered mail.

Hiatt said she didn't know about her grandfather's photo album until after his death in 1980, so she never had a chance to ask him about specific scenes. But her father, Ralph Heylmann, born in 1911, told her the stories he had heard from his dad. The museum exhibit blends vivid oral history with the facts and figures known about the flood.

In those days, what was then-known as the National Weather Bureau didn't have the sophisticated technology available to weather experts today, and they were further hampered when basic communications systems failed, Shipe said. A few days before the floods hit, deadly tornadoes ripped through areas of Topeka, Kan., and Omaha, Neb. Storms moved east, knocking out telegraph poles and washing out railroad lines that would have allowed for backup communication, Shipe said.

The extent of damage ultimately wasn't known in some areas for as much as a week or so after the devastation, he said. Massive floods engulfed Illinois, Indiana and Ohio. In Indiana, just about every river in the state went well over its banks. And even areas not immediately near waterways would have received so much water the ground could not soak it up. Statewide, Shipe said, about 200,000 people were routed from their homes.

The state's population at the time was about 2.8 million. Some homes could be salvaged, but many homes and businesses were beyond repair. And the immediate cleanup was brutal: Within days, the waters receded but the temperatures plummeted from the 60s to the 20s. And, it snowed. The cold might have inhibited the growth of mold, a danger to buildings after many floods, but didn't stop the spread of typhoid, which claimed even more lives in the flood's aftermath, Giacomelli said.

It's not clear how long the relief stations operated, but most appeared to have shut down by the end of 1913, she said. There's no indication they were modeled on a disaster plan employed elsewhere before the flood, nor was the model duplicated elsewhere afterward, she and Batic said. In the past 100 years, emergency aid, communications and other components of disaster preparedness have improved.

Shipe said developments, including infrastructure changes and population growth, have had effects that might cancel each other. Levee protection in some parts of Indianapolis, including the southwest portion of downtown that became a sea in 1913, would prevent that kind of flooding today.

But, Shipe said, development of neighborhoods, towns and cities into former marshland would prevent the earth from absorbing and draining away torrential rains, making structures in those areas vulnerable. Shipe's mission in revisiting the power of the 1913 flood is about more than satisfying his curiosity. It's also to warn Indiana residents of 2013.

"People have to be aware that such disasters can happen and (they should) take steps to prepare," he said. "The goal is to take flood preparedness seriously. "Make sure you're counting on yourself and not the government."  

By Diana Penner, The Indianapolis Star

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