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THE MEMORIES COME FLOODING BACK

January 28, 2017

It’s estimated that more than a million people were left homeless. An Associated Press report from Jan. 30, 1937, listed 385 people dead and estimated property damage at $400 million. The 1937, the river reached 475.9 feet - 72 feet above flood stage. In 1884, the river crested at 464.3 feet. In 1997, the river reached 460.9 feet, according to the National Weather Service. Back in 1937, the Ohio first began to rise early in January, after a cold and wet December. On Jan. 15, the Madison Courier reported that the river rose six and one-half feet in a 24-hour period - at that time the largest 24-hour gain reported in 10 years. “The Ohio river called for more room today as flood waters continued to spread to higher levels from Pittsburgh to Cairo,” the Courier reported four days later, calling for an expected crest of 55 feet. “Already considerable damage has been caused by high water. Corn and other crops in lowlands have floated away or become soaked. Water has filled basements, cisterns and ran in on the floors of many homes. Home business concerns have been forced to close and others are seriously handicapped by high water,” the paper reported. Four days later, the Courier reported expectations for a coming river crest as it had reached 65.5 feet on that Jan. 23 morning. By that point, families had been evacuated from their homes and were housed at the Madison armory for the emergency. “The Ohio River was making history today when its flood waters rose to levels never before experienced by people of this generation. “The 1884 flood level, recorded on several buildings in Madison, was equaled at 8 a.m. today and by noon the water was fully a foot above that stage,” the paper reported. In Lawrenceburg, all 7,000 residents were ordered to evacuate, but for a time it seems, Madison was doing slightly better. “At Madison the conditions are less acute but are bordering on a major disaster,” the Courier reported. “More people have been driven from their homes than ever before. Finding quarters to house the refugees and food for them has become a serious problem.” That day, it was reported, schools, the gas plant and other city utilities were closed while authorities searched for alternate routes to supply clean water. On Jan. 25, the Courier lost electricity for a time and joined with The Madison Daily Herald to print a composite paper to continue delivering news of the flood. The Courier returned to its solo publications the following day. That same day, water stood about three and a half feet deep on the playing floor of the Brown gymnasium, and the stage at the east side of the building was submerged. The next evening, reports of “the long awaited crest of Madison’s worst flood,” topped the front page. The city was under martial law and found support from the American Red Cross. Finally, on Jan. 27, the river began to fall, “receding slowly after remaining on a stand at 72 feet and 8 inches for a period of about eight hours.” From Dec. 27 to Jan. 27, the river had risen 53.4 feet. On Jan. 29, Mayor Marcus R. Sulzer wrote to his son in Lexington, Ky. “I wish I could write you all that I would like to, but it is impossible. As Mayor of the City, it is a day and night job. The City is under martial law, but it does not lessen my job very much,” Sulzer wrote. “We are emerging and believe we are the only City along the Ohio that has its utilities working. Our new pumps are submerged but we are using water from Cragmont, and the electric station. Also a pumper that I have from Mayor (John W.) Kern (Jr.) at Indianapolis. “We have so far been able to house and feed all the people but the next worry will come on rehabilitation. The officials who have come here from other places say we have the best organized city in the Ohio Valley.” By Feb. 1, the city saw a few signs of normalcy as Lydia Middleton and Eggleston schools reopened, theaters resumed operation and businesses reopened. School superintendent E.O. Muncie called for men to work through the night in shifts at the Brown Gymnasium once water fell to a level below the ground floor. After work was completed in the gym and the high school building next door, it was planned to reopen both the next week. The lead headline on the Feb. 5 edition of the Courier read “River Front Destruction Mounts As Water Recedes.” “Houses twisted to ruin are littered over streets, many were topsy-turvy against trees and in deserted lots. Damage to property as a result of the flood has struck a severe blow to this city’s lowlands.” Homes were “strewn along the river front, some close to the foundations, others several blocks away and a few were lost entirely when they floated down the river.” After a visit to the area by Gov. M. Clifford Townsend, he called Madison “most fortunate,” when compared to other flood-ravage areas he’d toured, citing Jeffersonville as the worst. On Feb. 7, martial law was lifted and the 78 men on National Guard duty were sent home after two weeks on duty. City water services also resumed that day. “Although conditions are far from normal following the flood, the river is back within its banks, refugees are being well cared for in temporary quarters and the huge task of reclaiming homes and business houses are well under way,” the Courier reported. Over time, the Ohio River valley made its way back to normal. Rehabilitation efforts took time and found support from the Works Progress Administration by sending more men to the areas affected, and hiring those already living there to give them an income until businesses could reopen. In a Feb. 19 letter to the city officials, J. Moffett Inglis, president of the Madison Retail Advancement Association, thanked city employees and elected officials for their service during the “recent catastrophe.” Inglis applauded planning, execution and loyalty for handling problems “so orderly and effectively.” “Making it possible for Madison to boast so proudly of their position, in regards to light, power, and pure water supply during the entire period of the flood.”