11/25/13 - the worst natural disaster in u.s. history

In today's selection - from One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson.  Given the aberrant weather of recent years in the United States, it is interesting to note the many previous periods of aberrant weather. Most notably, in 1926 and 1927, the United States had the worst natural disaster in its history. It was a flood that engulfed the nation -- an area almost the size of Scotland was under water -- and stayed for almost six months. The devastation lasted for years:

"Most people couldn't recall a time like it. For months on end, across much of the country, it rained steadily, sometimes in volumes not before seen. Southern Illinois received over two feet of rain in three months; parts of Arkansas had well over three. Rivers almost beyond counting -- the San Jacinto in California, the Klamath, Willamette and Umpqua in Oregon, the Snake, Payette and Boise in Idaho, the Colorado in Colorado, the Neosho and Verdigris in Kansas, the Ouachita and St. Francis in Arkansas, the Tennessee and Cumberland in the South, the Connecticut in New England -- overran their banks. Between the late summer of 1926 and the following spring, enough precipitation fell on the forty-eight United States, by one calculation, to make a cube of water 250 miles across on each side. That is a lot of water, and it was only just the beginning.

Mississippi River Flood of 1927 showing
flooded areas and relief operations

"On Good Friday, 15 April, a mighty storm system pounded the middle third of America with rain of a duration and intensity that those who experienced it would not forget in a hurry. From western Montana to West Virginia and from Canada to the Gulf, rain fell in what can only be described as a Noachian deluge. Most places received six to eight inches and some recorded more than a foot. Now nearly all that water raced into swollen creeks and rivers and headed, with unwonted intensity, for the great central artery of the continent, the Mississippi River. The Mississippi and its tributaries drain 40 per cent of America, almost a million square miles spread across thirty-one states (and two Canadian provinces), and never in recorded history had the entirety of it been this strained.

"A river approaching flood stage is an ominously fearsome thing, and the Mississippi now took on an aspect of brutal, swift-flowing anger that unnerved even hardened observers. All along the upper Mississippi people stood on the banks and mutely watched as the river paraded objects -- trees, dead cows, barn roofs -- that hinted at the carnage further north. At St. Louis the volume of passing water reached two million cubic feet per second -- a phenomenal rate, double the volume recorded during the great flood of 1993. You didn't have to be an expert to see that this was an unsustainable burden. All along the river armies of men with shovels and sandbags shored up flood defenses, but the pressures were too overwhelming. On 16 April, on a great bend of the river in southeast Missouri at a place called Dorena, the first levee gave way. Some 1,200 feet of earthen bank burst open and a volume of water equal to that at Niagara Falls poured through the chasm. The roar could be heard miles away.

"Soon levees up and down the river were popping like buttons off a tight shirt. At Mounds Landing, Mississippi, a hundred black workers, kept at their posts by men with rifles, were swept to oblivion when a levee gave way. The coroner, for reasons unstated, recorded just two deaths. In some places, the water rushed across the landscape so swiftly that people had no means of escape. At Winterville, Mississippi, twenty-three women and children perished when the house in which they were sheltering was swept away.

"By the first week of May, the flood stretched for 500 miles from southern Illinois to New Orleans, and was up to 150 miles wide in places. Altogether an area almost the size of Scotland was under water. From the air, the Mississippi valley looked like -- indeed, for the time being was -- a new Great Lake. The statistics of the Great Flood were recorded with chilling precision: 16,570,627 acres flooded; 203,504 buildings lost or ruined; 637,476 people made homeless. The quantities of livestock lost were logged with similar exactitude: 50,490 cattle, 25,325 horses and mules, 148,110 hogs, 1,276,570 chickens and other poultry. The one thing that wasn't carefully recorded, oddly, was the number of human lives lost, but it was certainly more than a thousand and perhaps several times that. The numbers weren't more scrupulous because, alas, so many of the victims were poor and black. It is a shocking fact that a closer count was kept of livestock losses than of human ones. ...

"The Mississippi flood of 1927 was America's most epic natural disaster in extent, duration and number of lives affected. The scale of economic loss was so large as to be essentially incalculable. Estimates ranged from $250 million to $1 billion. It wasn't the most lethal catastrophe in American history, but it ruined more lives and property than any other, and it lasted far longer. Altogether the Mississippi would be at flood stage for 153 consecutive days."



Bill Bryson


One Summer: America, 1927


Doubleday a division of Random House


Copyright 2013 by Bill Bryson


barns and noble booksellers
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit

All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity and support children’s literacy projects.


Sign in or create an account to comment