Residents of villages, towns, and cities along the "Beautiful Ohio" in southern Indiana, will never forget the heroic achievements of WPA workmen and their leaders back in the Spring of 1937 when rampaging flood waters roared down in a swirling deluge of death, suffering and destruction. (video clip, 932k)
The end of an unusual period of balmy weather was indicated for the Evansville section on Saturday morning, January 9, after the wind had shifted Friday night and brought the temperature down from some 62 degrees to about 40. The river stage was 33.5 feet.
The following day one of the worst snow and sleet storms in many years swept down over southern Indiana. Flood warnings were posted with increasing rapidity during the next few days and on January 18 weather bureau experts expressed fears of conditions like those of the historic flood of 1913, or worse.
Then with crashing suddenness there swept down upon the Tri-State district a major calamity which stands alone in the annals of the Ohio valley. All news gave way to stories of the rushing waters which poured into basements, boiled from the sewers and wholly disrupted life as it is generally found in Evansville. Tell City was paralyzed. Cannelton was hard hit. Other communities along the Ohio sent out desperate pleas for aid.
Approximately 1,000 WPA workers were rushed to flood-stricken Jeffersonville. Another 300 were sent to Lawrenceburgh. Hundreds of relief men were moved into other flood-torn areas
On January 24 martial law was clamped down on Evansville. On that day the river stage reached 54 feet -- far above the 1913 level.
Then slowly the swollen waters began to recede. Behind them they left a desolate scene of destruction. Flood damage in six Indiana counties from Leavenworth to Mount Vernon was estimated at nearly $13,000,000.
The task that faced relief agencies in the wake of the receding flood waters was one of disheartening magnitude. Public morale faced a difficult test in the silt-covered streets, muddy homes, broken levees, twisted flood debris, and other extensive damage wrought by the mighty Ohio.
Jennings sounded a note of optimism, however. After assigning practically all of Vanderburgh county's 4,000 WPA workers to flood rehabilitation work on February 5, he said:
"The nightmare and uncertainty as to what might happen when the crest of the flood reached Evansville has now passed. The heavy task before us now is one of mere mechanics. In other words, it is something we can see. Up to this time we have been forced to combat something unseen."
Commented the New Harmony Times:
"A great human agency is at hand to help in the rehabilitation of this district, an agency that has worked during the flood and no doubt will continue to function on the job until the afflicted areas have been cleaned up -- the WPA. Such a disaster as Evansville has undergone is too great for a municipality to handle expeditiously and outside help will be needed.
A heavy deposit of silt has been deposited over the streets, sewers are disrupted, levees are broken, and the inhabitants must be returned to their homes. Fortunately at the head of this district is a man who understands the needs of his people -- John K. Jennings, who during this disaster has thrown all his efforts and the efforts of his workers towards flood relief. Now that the first phase is over, Mr. Jennings has asked that he be allowed to proceed with the biggest job he has ever done, a job that makes Hercules' cleaning the Augean stables a piker's job, and help make this fertile and beautiful region once more a fit place for human habitation."
Trained military forces could hardly have done a better job of flood rehabilitation than did Fifth District WPA workers. John A. Ellert, Evansville Courier writer, gives a graphic description of such WPA activity.
"Braving cold winds, rain, snow and sleet, WPA crews worked throughout the flood at jobs hazardous and unpleasant, mostly in cold and water," Ellert wrote.
"They were everywhere, from start to finish, doing all kinds of jobs -- constructing sanitary toilets over sewer manholes to protect the city's health; carrying relief supplies ever precarious catwalks, cooking and serving meals for refugees, soldiers and coast guardsmen, disposing of garbage and refuse, rescuing livestock and persons, cheering and entertaining refugees. (audio clip, 116k)
"At the end of the flood, like the beginning, found them in action, cleaning up debris deposited on city streets and county roads. (audio clip, 127k)
"They were among the first to go into action before Evansville realized the worst flood of the century was roaring down the Ohio from points above..."
The Evansville Merchants Retail Bureau publicly praised the work of the WPA during the flood crisis. In newspaper advertisements the Bureau stated:
"Before and during the flood these men of WPA were active in salvaging property and saving lives, and immediately afterward they handled the cleanup job with such efficiency that many visitors were amazed that there was practically no evidence of the flood left throughout our entire city. All honor and gratitude is due to the rank and file of the WPA for their often almost super-human efforts, always giving their best in the interest of humanity."
As a result of rehabilitation plans submitted by Jennings to Harry W. Hopkins, more than $700,000 in federal money was appropriated for flood rehabilitation work in Indiana. Of that sum, $500,000 was expended In Jeffersonville, $70,000 in New Albany, and $130,000 for moving Leavenworth out of the river flats onto the nearby hills.