1937 and 2011 Ohio River Flooding in Paducah, KY

Prom is a significant night in the life of most high school girls. It is a memory that lasts a lifetime. The months spent seeking the dress and the perfect accessories. The decision of what type of transportation is suitable for the evening and where to make dinner reservations. As the date grows closer the anticipation rises. Within a week before the event most are on edge with excitement but this wasn’t the case in May of 2011. In a matter of days a change in the weather had shifted the course of the upcoming days traumatically. My area had experienced above average precipitation every month since February. Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana and Missouri all experienced a January through April rain fall period that was among the top fifteen wettest on record. The heaviest rain occurrence unfolded April twenty-third through twenty-eighth.  Over the course of these six days, nine to ten inches of rain fell in portions of southern Illinois, southern Indiana and northern Kentucky. Parts of southeast Missouri and northern Arkansas were flooded with more than a foot of rain. The national weather service had forecast the Ohio River to rise to 55 feet by May 3, 2011.  My junior prom was scheduled for May 7, 2011. The city was on the verge of experiencing a flood.  Although the idea of cancelling the prom was disappointing it was a time of compassion and empathy for others. Instead of allowing neighbors to suffer alone, they were joined in their efforts to save their belongings. McCracken County along with 36 other counties and 16 states was in dire straits.

In late April of 2011 residents began putting sandbags up to protect their property from floodwaters. The news was calling for volunteers to help with sandbagging across the region. In Paducah, KY forecasters predicted the Ohio River would raise more than it had in 61 years. City employees were putting all of their efforts into helping the flood victims. Record flooding, high winds, and tornados swept through the Commonwealth of Kentucky causing extensive damage exceeding the ability of the state government and localities to effectively respond and triggering significant economic hardship. Governor Steve Beshear visited Western Kentucky during this emergency and declared a State of Emergency to ensure the citizens receive all the help they needed to prepare and respond to the severe storms and flooding that impacted the state. The declaration enabled our area to get the resources to where they were needed, as quickly as  possible. U. S. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell and Senator Rand Paul also sent a letter to President Obama expressing their support for the request for a federal disaster declaration for Kentucky.  National Guard troops were sent to help.

Media coverage is a mere sampling of the after effects of natural disasters. The real picture is developed when it is placed in your lap and you see how it impacts the lives of others.  The basic necessities of life required for daily living can be taken away instantly. Disasters open the eyes to how we take things for granted and prove nothing is permanent all things are temporary. The area was being devastated by a natural disaster. A natural disaster is a major adverse event resulting from natural processes of the Earth. A natural disaster can cause loss of life or property damage, and typically leaves some economic damage. The severity of which depends on the affected population’s ability to recover.

Water was spilling over into areas where sandbags couldn’t hold it back.  Not only do natural disasters put people’s lives and property in danger it puts businesses in danger as well.  Kroger is one of the leading grocery stores in Paducah, KY. During the 2011flood the main Krogers was flooded.  The workers were unable to return to work until the water levels lowered.  The food inside the store was not destroyed allowing a local organization to distribute the food to those recently displaced by the flooding. Several counties in the surrounding area were forced to evacuate closing the school systems for weeks placing high school seniors in a position of not being able to graduate until late summer.  Annual events were also challenged by the high water levels, the 2011 Kentucky Derby had to be moved to higher ground.

Many victims returned home to find their homes destroyed and filled with murky water.  Imagine the feeling of seeing all that you had worked to gain in fifty or sixty years gone in a matter of days.  The cleanup effort would be long, hard and costly.  Some were not allowed to grasp the idea of having to rebuild without being informed their insurance policies had clauses that would require the homeowners to provide more than their share of the cost of the repairs. A month after the flood waters had crested flood victims were still living in hotels and with family members because their residents were considered unsafe and power could not be restored. For many of them it made their day to know that the community had not forgotten about them.

We have more resources available today to help victims cope after natural disasters. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) opened Disaster Recovery Centers in McCracken and Livingston counties to help people affected by the recent severe storms and flooding. Federal disaster assistance can include grants for rental assistance and home repairs, low-interest disaster loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration to cover uninsured property losses, and other programs to help recover from the effects of the disaster.  This was not the first time the area had been troubled with flooding.

Paducah, KY is the largest city in the Jackson Purchase region. Settlers were attracted to Paducah because of its location between the Tennessee River and Ohio River. The Ohio River and its valley have a complex geological history. The river marks the boundaries of five states Illinois, Indiana and Ohio with Kentucky, and Ohio with West Virginia. Paducah was incorporated as a town and because of the dynamics of the waterways; it offered valuable port facilities for the steamboats that traversed the river system. It became the site of dry dock facilities for steamboats and towboats and thus headquarters for many barge line companies. In the years to come this great access to the river would also prove to be harmful to the city.  The area was threatened with flooding many times. The threats were not due to the variations with seasonal changes in precipitation but a result of the volume of water within the river expanding and the water reaching beyond its usual boundaries.

The city of Paducah faced one of its darkest times in the winter of 1937 when the Ohio River rose above its fifty foot flood stage. The precipitation for January was four times its normal amount in the areas surrounding the river. On January 5, 1937, water levels began to rise and little did Paducah know that this would not be the end of the rising river. Beginning January tenth through eighteenth several flood warnings were issued across much of the region.  According to the Kentucky Climate Center, “from January thirteenth through the twenty-fourth, near record rainfalls were recorded” (Sander and Conner).  On January 18, 1937, numerous homes across the Ohio River were flooded due to heavy rains.  By February 2, 1937, the river gauge reached over 60 feet and over ninety percent of the city was flooded (“Ohio River flood of 1937”).  The damage stretched from Pittsburgh, PA to Cairo, Illinois. With 18 inches of rainfall in 16 days, along with sheets of swiftly moving ice the 1937 flood was the worst natural disaster in Paducah’s history. Over twenty thousand people had to be evacuated, nearly one million were left homeless and hundreds of individuals died. Property losses totaled $500 million and damage exceeded $22,000,000 (“Ohio River flood of 1937”).  For nearly three weeks 27,000 residents were forced to relocate and stay with friends and relatives that lived on higher ground. Some shelters were provided by the American Red Cross and local churches. Powerhouse radio stations switched to commercial free non- stop news coverage for weeks. The broadcast consisted mostly of messages being relayed to rescue crews.  The federal government under President Roosevelt sent thousands of WPA workers to affected cities to aid in rescue and recovery, as well as supplies for food and temporary housing. Because Paducah’s earthen levee was ineffective against this flood, the United States Army Corps of Engineers was commissioned to build the flood wall that now protects the city from the ravages of flooding (“Ohio River flood of 1937”).

The flooding devastated the downtown area leaving it in shambles. The city took great efforts to preserve all possible landmarks that aid in the history of the town. Areas that could not be saved were rebuilt with designs that focused on educating the citizens of the disaster that claimed large parts of the city. Ironically, the floodwall offers a seamless history lesson of the city of Paducah capturing important moments of the area. The floodwall has a total of 45 different works of art. Each mural displays a different story of an event in the town history including a plaque with a narrative history of each scene (“Mural,Wall,Paducah Kentucky”). Today, the downtown area of Paducah has been named one of the best. The beauty of it is only half of what makes it so special. Once the history of the downtown area is learned, the aurora of the scenery is amazing. The downtown area of Paducah is composed of several different shops and restaurants that hold their very own history. Most of the buildings in downtown Paducah bear historic plaques that note the high watermarks they received during the flood.

From as early as elementary school, Paducah natives hear stories of the 1937 flood and try to visualize the images of the city being encompassed with water.  It is hard to imagine maneuvering around the city in a boat rather than a car. You envision the elevated levels of water inside homes, forcing objects to become buoys. Having stories recalled to you is a great form of communication but it does not compare to the actual experience. The images, constant news updates and the thought of what the victims are experiencing seem hopeless. Both floods have been significant to the Paducah area but the 2011 flood is something I will not soon forget.  I lived in an area that was safe from the flooding.  In the same instance as the 1937 flood, the majority of the city would have to be affected for the water to reach my home.  However, some of my relatives and dear friends were not so fortunate.  There is a bridge across the Ohio River at Brookport that connects Kentucky and Illinois. My godmother lives in Brookport, which is only minutes from downtown Paducah.  Brookport is located on the north bank of the Ohio River, opposite Paducah, Kentucky.

In a tearful tone she recalls the time of uncertainty for her and her family (personal communication, 2012).  At first glance it appeared they would not be directly affected by the flood. In a matter of days, the creek running along the side of the road near her home started to rise consistently. It became very apparent they had to leave their home while the opportunity was available. It was great to see neighbors, you may have never shared a conversation with coming together to help each other try and combat the rising waters with sandbags. The struggle of deciding which items were most important was disheartening. The final decision was to grab all necessities and a few items of sentimental value. They packed a few items, unplugged all electronics and stayed with other family members to wait for the water to recede.  The family left their home thinking all would be over in a couple of days. As each day came and went the tension grew higher, not knowing if their home had been damaged by the rising water. The wondering if anything would be salvageable. She was most concerned with things that couldn’t be replaced. The fear of what the cost would be to repair their home. All these factors made the next ten days extremely difficult. When they were able to get to their home to save a few more items it was by boat because the water was still too high. They finally were able to return home with no damage to the inside of their home and only damage to the heating/air unit and a few damaged items in their storage area. The flooding taught her to be appreciative of all things. It was a testing of faith for her and she knows her belief that God would get them through no matter what the outcome is how she survived.

Although the two floods were 74 years apart they had many similarities including a lasting impact on this area. These natural disasters are a meaningful part of the history of Paducah and the surrounding counties.  Both floods caused extensive damage to property and affected the lives of many individuals. I escaped the 2011 flood without any inconveniences but according to the town history I would not have been as fortunate with the 1937 flood and more than half of the city being submerged in high water levels. The water from the 1937 flood spread across more states than the latter flood. The era of the 1937 flood was more primitive and therefore more casualties were reported than flooding of 2011. With the assistance of modern technology meteorologists were able to follow weather predictions sooner and more accurately relaying the expectancies across the region allowing victims more time to take precautions.

Statistics show you are more likely to experience a flood than a fire in your lifetime but the possibility of flooding again in the Jackson Purchase area is high with the geographic location of Paducah lying by the Ohio River. With that thought in mind residents should make preparations in the event a flooding disaster occurs again. One of the key steps is making sure you have a good flood insurance policy without hidden clauses to cover your property and belongings. You cannot depend on FEMA as your sole means of relief, due to funding cuts some counties although they were promised assistance have not received help in over 15 years. Most importantly be safe and aware of your surroundings. Take precaution and heed the warning signs allowing yourself plenty of time to gather personal belongings and get to higher ground.

I am thankful I was not a victim of either of these flooding disasters, but was able to experience the 2011 flood. It taught me and many of my peers a very valuable lesson. Never take basic things for granted, situations can change in an instance. Materialistic items can be replaced but life is precious. Make time for family and friends they are your supporters in time of crisis. My generation is accused of being selfish but many volunteered to help sandbag homes of those they didn’t know. The community came together as a team to bear each other’s burdens and help at a time of suffering. It makes you cherish your community even more.


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