The devastation and the human response to Hurricane Harvey in Houston and southeast Texas had many echoes of the flooding that swamped the Ohio River Valley 80 years ago in January 1937.

Fire fighters and police officers willingly risked their lives to save and support people trapped by unprecedented levels of flooding. Ordinary citizens rallied to help neighbors and strangers. And the nation rallied by contributing money and product to the relief efforts. At a time when the nation is so culturally and politically divided, the response of the citizens of Texas and Louisiana was inspiring, just as the generosity of greater Cincinnatians lifted spirits in the midst of the Great Depression.

Both floods also drove home the depth of dependence modern urban societies have on expensive infrastructure that on a daily basis we take for granted. In Houston the expressway and road systems became raging, potentially deadly, temporary streams. Electric failed and drinkable water came only in plastic bottles.

Cincinnatians who lived near the Ohio or in the Mill Creek and Licking River Valleys were used to almost annual flooding, but the 1937 flood was different. Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky remained connected only by a heavily sandbagged Suspension Bridge. All other bridges shut down. On the north side of the river, the city was cut into three zones, forcing residents of Mount Washington to drive 70 miles to get downtown.

The streetcar company was so used to flooding along the streets leading into Knowlton’s Corner in Northside, its third largest hub, that it developed an ingenious system of built-up tressels that allowed the streetcars to seemingly ride on water. But in ’37 workers could not keep up with the 80-foot flood. Combined with the closure of the Ludlow Viaduct, Northside, College Hill and other north central communities were isolated.

Those living in hilltop neighborhoods like Hyde Park and Price Hill had always been protected from floods. In 1937 the basements of hilltop residents may have stayed dry, but everyone was directly impacted. On Black Sunday, Jan. 24, the rising waters swamped both the waterworks and the electrical generation plants along the river, plunging the entire region into a thirsty darkness. Everyone had to rediscover natural springs.

On one front, the response to unprecedented flooding, the parallels between Cincinnati in 1937 and Houston in 2017, will only be known over the next several months. Cincinnati and the river cities of northern Kentucky all took dramatic steps as a result of their 1937 experience. Cincinnati committed to building a barrier dam at the mouth of the Mill Creek. This does not stop the Mill Creek from adding to flooding on the main stem of the Ohio, but blocks the Ohio River from backing up into the Mill Creek Valley (its original course in pre-glacial periods), the industrial heart of the city.

Covington, Newport, Dayton and Ludlow built floodwalls. Cincinnati took a different approach—it decided to back off the riverfront, the original heart of the city. A 1939 Riverfront Plan showed a vacant riverfront and Third Street raised up as a protective barrier.

Cincinnatians yearned to develop the riverfront. The 1948 Metropolitan Master Plan imagined a bustling riverfront filled with a convention center, apartments, a new city hall, a stadium and parks. Because the city embraced zoning and planning, however, it was another 45 years before we figured out how to meet zoning requirements and lift all of those dreams out of the floodplain and perch them on top of a two-story parking garage. We now call it The Banks.

Houston, of course, faces a different set of problems. They have to respond to their natural disaster in the age of climate change. Rising sea levels and warmer Gulf waters mean stronger hurricanes and an increasing number of heavy rain events.

Compounding those challenges, Houston is the largest city in the United States with no effective zoning system and a strong bias against government controls of any type over development. According to Dr. Adrian Parr of the University of Cincinnati, the attitude in Houston has been, “You can build what you want, where you want, when you want.”

Since 1992, 30 percent of all development in Houston has occurred in floodplains. “A lot of what happened in Houston,” observes Parr, a water expert, “was that floodplains were covered with concrete and surfaces that were not permeable.”

If what happens in Houston stayed in Houston, that would be one thing. But it doesn’t. The ant-government, anti-science, denial of climate change attitudes reach across the nation. President Trump has a proposed budget that will strip FEMA of power to develop accurate flood maps. That impacts flood insurance availability, and means that the pressure on the general budget of the United States will see repeated demands for sizable, special relief funding.

An openness to change peaks in the immediate aftermath of a catastrophic event, but lasts only three or four months. If Houston does not make significant, painful, changes, it is unlikely that a new opportunity will arise until another disaster strikes.

Dan Hurley is a local historian and interim president of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.



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