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THe Ohio Flood of 1913 - Our First Great Relief Task

This article appeared in The Red Cross
Courier magazine, September 1934 issue

 The Ohio Flood of 1913—Our First Great Relief Task

By Ernest P. Bicknell


     In a Mississippi River flood one feels the majesty of immeasurable, passionless power impersonally overwhelming everything in its path.  It is simply a tremendous fact as a moving glacier is a fact.  The element of uncertainty is almost absent and there is small occasion for surprise.  Contrast this with the events of the Ohio Valley flood of March, 1913.  An unprecedented rainfall over the great expanse of the Ohio River Valley suddenly filled every stream to overflowing and sent torrents down every waterway.  These, uniting as they swept along overwhelmed farm lands, villages, and cities with a tumultuous rush.

Communities went quietly to bed and woke an hour or two later to find their houses in the midst of swirling, muddy currents or reeling crazily as they left their foundations and floated away.  Death rode ruthless on the waters that night while hundreds saved their lives by what seemed miracles of chance.  Many clutched the branches of trees, many seized strong walls or chimneys which stood fast and many mounting to the roofs of their homes clung there until their toppling perches grounded on projecting banks or lodged against trees or rocks.  Weeks later when the toll of life and property had been calculated it was estimated that six hundred persons had been drowned and that property losses had amounted to $200,000,000.

     The water destroyed bridges, roads, railroads, telegraph and telephone lines so completely that for many hours the central section of the flooded region was isolated.  The country did not know what had happened behind the pall of silence which hung over middle Ohio.  Airplanes, of course, were not then available for surveys.  Perhaps the story of my own experience will illustrate the isolation which prevailed in the flood area during these hours of suspense.

     A cyclone in Nebraska on March 23rd had inflicted great destruction on the city of Omaha.  Eugene T. Lies of Chicago and C. M. Hubbard of  St.Louis, representing our institutional members in those cities, hurried to Omaha in response to my telegraphic request and a few hours later I started from Washington for the scene by the evening train.  That night I discovered that my train was in trouble.  Heavy rains had prevailed in Ohio and Indiana for several days, so I was told, and the railroads were feeling effects.  Tracks were under water, bridges out, schedules demoralized, etc.  And the rain continued to pour down steadily.  In a word, instead of reaching Chicago before noon, we finally dragged wearily in to that terminal at one o’clock the next morning.  In local newspapers picked up as we crossed northern Indiana I had seen dispatches saying that the heavy rains were causing serious damage in many sections but that, as telegraph lines were interrupted, all details were lacking.

     At Chicago newsboys were everywhere crying “extras,” whose flaming headlines told of floods which had swallowed up a vast section of Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky and Indiana. The news consisted mostly of short exciting telegrams from points on the edges of the flooded area, containing hearsay reports brought out from that area by refugees who had escaped from the general destruction.  Every dispatch told of  the interruption of all lines of travel or communication entering the isolated region and many stated that rescue expeditions were being organized.

     Sending wires to Omaha and Washington announcing a change of plan, I made inquiry for the earliest train back toward the seat of this new trouble.  After an hour of telephoning and dashing about in cabs, I was convinced that no railway train would leave Chicago in an eastern direction for many hours.  Every railway office reported all traffic suspended and all added that they were unable to get any definite information except that this was the biggest and most disastrous flood on record.  Finally, with no clear plan in mind, at three o’clock in the morning, I got on board an Illinois Central train and started due south.  At every railroad crossing I inquired whether any east bound train was expected.  In southern Illinois we came to a junction from which a branch line diverged to the southeast toward Evansville, Indiana.  Taking it I reached Evansville late at night and found myself in the edges of the flood.  Early the next morning a railroad was sending out a trial train in the direction of Louisville.  No passengers were to be carried; but on explaining my mission, exception was made in my favor.

     All day the train crept carefully over the rails of which miles were under water.  We’d make long stops while the train men waded ahead for inspection of culverts and bridges or to remove debris which had lodged on the tracks.  That evening we reached Louisville and there I got aboard a night train which landed me in Cincinnati the next morning.  All possibility of rail transportation ended there and I hired an automobile with a driver who consented to risk it because he wanted to see what had happened at Dayton and Columbus.  By this time the flood in the Ohio streams had subsided leaving such masses of wreckage and ruin that the now shrunken and harmless looking rivers seemed absurdly incapable of having created such havoc.

     From a half dozen points in my three days adventurous journey from Chicago to Columbus I had sent telegrams to headquarters telling of my movements.  Not one of these messages got through.  Hearing nothing from me, headquarters telegraphed inquiries to Chicago and Omaha and became seriously alarmed.  Several trains had been caught and wrecked in the flood and it was feared I might have been a victim.  One afternoon a member of my family on a street car in Washington glanced at a  newspaper which was held open by a man who sat on the seat in front of her and there saw a photograph of myself under which was this terse sentence: “Probably lost in the flood.”  The next day my first telegram from Columbus reached Washington.

     Relief forces were already pouring in from the east when I arrived in Columbus.  In that direction railroads and telegraph lines had suffered much less than in the west and, while I was losing time trying to reach the seat of trouble, Headquarters was setting relief machinery into action.  Train loads of supplies were quickly on the way, the War Department sent in man and material and cash contributions began to accumulate in funds announced by the Red Cross and by Governor James M. Cox of Ohio.  The Governor appointed a relief commission almost identical with our Red Cross state board in Ohio.  The Governor’s relief fund was placed in the hands of this relief commission and the Governor announced that the Red Cross would be officially in charge of relief operations in Ohio.  Governor Cox simplified the situation by giving the Red Cross for headquarters one of the rooms of his own official suite in the State Capitol.  Here we had all the facilities necessary and were in instant contact with the Governor whenever necessary.  The relief commission expanded its funds, including a large appropriation by the legislature, wholly through the Red Cross.  Thus at the very start all questions of control or administration of relief were solved.  The Red Cross was completely in charge and all recognized that it was wholly responsible.

    This, if I am rightly informed, was the largest relief task for which the American Red Cross had assumed sole responsibility up to that time.  I shall not burden this story with details.  In outline, the administrative plan was:----

     In the headquarters in the State Capitol, I established myself with my assistant, Lewis E. Stein, from my office in Washington.  Trained men and women were called from our institutional members to the number of sixty-six.  Nurses too came as needed—268 of them—and remained until the injured and ill had been cared for and sanitary conditions had been established in the flooded sections.  In forty-three communities relief units were established, scattered over central and southern Ohio and along the Ohio River shores of West Virginia, Kentucky and Indiana.  Each of these agencies consisted of a strong committee of local citizens, both men and women, with an experienced social worker as executive secretary.  In the larger communities, as for instance Columbus and Dayton, staffs of several employed workers were necessary,  but volunteers were drawn upon extensively at all points and in a majority of the relief centers only one paid worker was employed, the executive secretary, who as a rule was drawn from our institutional membership and assigned by me to the post.

     The executive secretary of each unit was directly responsible to me and was expected to make a condensed daily report to me at Columbus, although this requirement was relaxed after the work had settled down to steady going.  Whenever possible these reports were made by telephone, and Stein and I spent every evening until midnight taking turns at our single telephone, receiving these reports, making notes, giving instructions, making decisions, answering questions.  This was a wall telephone and it was necessary to stand while using it.  Holding a telephone to the ear becomes in time an exceptionally fatiguing task.  When Stein was ready to drop I would take my turn and thus we’d “spell” each other, hour after hour.  While this was burdensome and seems a clumsy device in retrospect, it gave us a daily picture of development and helped us to standardize the widely scattered units.  This was invaluable, those days.

     Under this scheme of organization, I for the first time realized the full value of the local committee of respected citizens drawn from various walks of life.  Ministers, doctors, farmers, mechanics, lawyers, common laborers, teachers, housewives, merchants, composed these committees which, in most instances, had been formed spontaneously and were ready for the Red Cross when our representative arrived.  While the usefulness of such a committee is obvious, I think its importance in two aspects in particular is outstanding:

     First: The familiarity of the members with the people of the community, their history, their relatives and resources, their health, their reliability and industry and all those tangible and intangible items which together constitute the reputation of a man in the neighborhood where he is best known.  Such a committee in its combined knowledge provides the very best basis for action in relief cases, both as to the actual need in each case and as to relative needs, taking into consideration the entire community and the amount of the available relief fund.  An elaborate investigation is scarcely justified in the temporary activity of a disaster relief when a representative local committee is at work.  In this I am speaking primarily of relief operations in small towns and rural districts. In cities are to be found permanent welfare organizations with trained personnel and accumulated records which instantly can be directed into the service of disaster relief.

     Second: The protection against criticism of the relief work by dissatisfied applicants.  In a swift-moving emergency operation, decisions must be make without delay for the weighing of every element in a situation or the exact balancing of the need of one applicant against that of another; instead these decisions must be rough and ready, aiming at substantial rather than minute justice.  A local committee of the kind  I have described can carry through a distribution of this character with general acceptance, where a single executive, no matter how skillful—especially if he is a stranger in the community--would find his decisions challenged and his fairness questioned to an extent which might seriously impair his usefulness.  Again and again in the scattered group of relief centers with which we were now working, the solid support of a local committee checked complaints which might have carried elements of serious trouble for the executive secretary lacking such backing.  Greedy or discontented applicants paused when they realized that the decisions of which they complained were made by neighbors who knew their needs and losses and remaining  resources.

     I shall not forget the cordial relations which the Governor and the State Commission maintained with our small Red Cross organization during the five months in which we shared the executive offices in the Capitol.  Nor have I forgotten a little speech which the Governor made to a group of callers in his office one day near the close of the relief work.  Indicating, the Red Cross button in his lapel, he declared that in token of his appreciation of the work of the organization in Ohio he would never cease to wear that button. His thought was generous and his words impulsive and not to be regarded as a considered pledge; but I hope that his friendship for the Red Cross continues unabated.

     In addition to the cash contributions (approximately $2,700,000 through the Red Cross and Ohio State funds and $500,000 combined local funds), large quantities of supplies were donated, especially clothing, flour and potatoes.  These were acceptable but came in such amounts that we found it necessary to store a considerable portion of them for gradual distribution.  It will be understood that the people in need were living chiefly in cramped or temporary quarters and could not care for surplus supplies.  Farmers in the famous Yakima Valley in the State of Washington, one of the great potato producing sections of the country, joined in sending to the flood sufferers literally trainloads of their splendid potatoes.  The journey occupied many days and before it was possible to distribute the potatoes they began to sprout.  Expert advice was called in and we were told that the potatoes would soon become worthless if held in storage.  All were given out which applicants could care for, and still several car loads remained.  It was then decided to sell the surplus and use the proceeds of the sale to buy other needed relief supplies.  This decision was published in the newspapers of Cincinnati, Dayton and Columbus and bids were invited.  The publications carefully explained the reason for the sale and the use which was to be made of the proceeds.  In due time the potatoes were sold to the highest bidder, a Cincinnati commission house.

     A few weeks later came a letter from the editor of that widely-read Pacific coast paper, the Portland Oregonian.  He enclosed a letter which had been sent to him for publication.  Said he:  “the enclosed letter makes charges against the Red Cross of so serious a character that it does not seem fair to me to publish it without first giving you an opportunity to answer or explain them.”  The letter was from a farmer in the Yakima Valley.  It said he had joined his neighbors in contributing potatoes for the Ohio Valley flood sufferers.  In one sack of potatoes he had inserted a note addressed to the person who might receive the gift, expressing sympathy for the misfortunes of the recipient and asking for a letter of acknowledgment.  Now he had received a letter from a man in Cincinnati who declared he had bought a sack of potatoes in a store and on opening it had found the note of sympathy from the donor.  This seemed to the Yakima Valley man prima facie evidence of graft among those who were distributing the potatoes in Ohio, and his attack upon the Red Cross relief administration was vitriolic.  I could easily understand his righteous indignation.

     At once I wrote an explanation to the editor of the Oregonian and to the indignant farmer, enclosing with the letters copies of Ohio newspapers containing full details of the potato sale.  This incident was a striking demonstration of the need for the utmost candor and publicity in accounting for relief supplies as well as for funds.  The tolerance and fairness of the editor of the Oregonian placed the Red Cross under a permanent debt of gratitude to him and his paper.  Had he been indifferent or tempted by the opportunity to use a sensational news story, he might have thrown a shadow of scandal upon the reputation of the Red Cross throughout the entire Northwest.

     Every great disaster has its amusing incidents.  In a survey during the later stages of the relief operation, I visited a number of points near the mouth of the Ohio River.  At one small town a large number of cottages was scattered haphazard along the river edge.  They looked as though some mighty hand had tossed them like a handful of dice and left them lying as they fell.  These small houses were all new and exactly alike.  Some enterprising builder, it seemed, had laid out an addition to the town and had set up neat rows of cottages on streets along the sloping bank parallel to the river.  As the flood waters rose the lowest row of houses began floating away.  All available small boats were rushed into service giving chase to the houses which were sailing merrily down the stream.  Each captured house was towed back to shore and anchored by a rope to any convenient tree or post.  The water rose higher and the houses in the next range sailed away and were in turn captured, brought back and tied up.  And so it went until their adventures ended, and all held in leash, they were bobbing like corks on the yellow flood.  Then the waters fell and left them in their bright paint scattered along the shore in the strange disarray in which I saw them.  They seemed quite intact and I have no doubt were soon set up again on foundations in straight rows and in due time fulfilled their destiny as self-respecting homes.

     In the year 1906  I was invited by Indiana University, my alma mater, to speak to the student body on  “Social Work as a Career for University men.”  At the close of my talk, a modest and retiring young man came forward and said he was deeply interested in my subject. He asked a few questions and we spent a short time together very pleasantly.  He gave me his name—James L. Fieser.  In time I heard that Mr. Feiser was engaged in social work in Indianapolis and some years later that he had become the general secretary of the Associated Charities of Columbus, Ohio, which was an institutional member of the Red Cross.  When I reached Columbus to organize relief in the Ohio Valley flood, Mr. Fieser was among the first to greet me.  He was already deep in flood relief and at my request became our representative for the Columbus field.  This was his real introduction to the American Red Cross, the beginning of a relationship which has meant much to our great organization and, perhaps I may be allowed to add, has meant much to me.  It is with warm satisfaction that I recall that I had a part in bringing “Jim” Fieser into social work and the Red. Cross.

     At Dayton where the flood caused greater havoc than anywhere else, the chairman of the local committee was John H. Patterson, creator and president of the National Cash register Company.  Mr. Patterson would have been an outstanding personality in New York or Chicago, and in Dayton he dominated the community in an amazing way.  His was by far the largest industry in Dayton.  He had made an international reputation by his system of welfare organization among his employees and he was a leader in every movement for civic betterment in the city.  His domination, to some, seemed a sort of social dictatorship and his rule was not without dissenters.  His generosity to the flood sufferers and to his city was magnificent on this occasion and his cooperation with the Red Cross could not have been better.  Edward T. Devine, at that time general secretary of the Charity Organization Society of New York, was our Red Cross executive in Dayton.

     As the relief operation advanced, the city leaders turned their attention to a study of methods for preventing the possibility of future disastrous floods.  Many conferences were held and expert advice was sought.  Arthur E. Morgan, now chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority, an engineer of renown, submitted a plan which eventually was adopted, but discussion ran high in those days of which I write.  Then Mr. Patterson called a meeting in the large assembly hall in his factory which every important business man in Dayton was urgently requested to attend.  The big hall was filled on the appointed evening.  A few of those present doubtless knew what was intended, but most, while expecting a call for money, were filled with uncertainty, not to say apprehension.  They had been very hard hit by the flood and had given liberally to relief.  But they literally dared not stay away from the meeting.  They could not afford to disregard the moral pressure of their neighbors and their powerful business associates.

     Mr. Patterson took charge of the meeting and ran it virtually single handed.  I was fortunate to be present that evening and witnessed a demonstration of moral and mental power which made an ineffaceable picture in my memory.  As the hour of eight o’clock struck, Mr. Patterson rose and looked searchingly over the faces of the audience.  Apparently satisfied that the people expected were present, he walked to the entrance of the hall, closed the double doors, locked them and without a word put the key into his pocket.  Then returning to the front of the room he began to speak.  He spoke of the pride which those present had taken in the beauty and prosperity of Dayton and of the tragedy which had now laid her in ruins and had taken the lives of many of her people.  With deep feeling but with infinite skill he brought that doubting and apprehensive crowd of hard-headed men into a malleable and sympathetic mood.  Then he spoke briefly, touching on the plans under consideration that would forever prevent a repetition of the calamity.

     “Before we can go forward with these plans,” he said, “we must have at our absolute command $2,000,000.”

     An audible groan rose from that crowd.  Dayton a city of about 130,000 population, lying prostrate in sickening ruin, to be asked to give by personal contributions of her people this great sum!  It was monstrous, unthinkable.  Murmurs of dissent were heard.  Men turned to each other and shook their heads muttering.  Mr. Patterson paid no attention to these signs of protest but went right on with his appeal.  Then, doubtless by prearrangement, he turned to a leading citizen, called him familiarly by his Christian name and asked him what he would give.  This man made a fervent little speech and named an amount that made the others gasp by its generosity.  This started the business in the right direction.  Presently Mr. Patterson said his company would give $400,000.  That cheered everybody and brought other pledges.  When anyone announced a sum the chairman thought too small, he was abruptly informed that he could not escape so easily.  At these moments Mr. Patterson’s dominating personality seemed irresistible.  Again and again by sheer force of will he compelled men to increase the amounts of their pledges.  Hours passed; toward twelve o’clock, Mr. Patterson raised the pledge of his company to a half-million dollars and other men moved by this generosity increased their pledges.  At about the stroke of midnight, the  $2,000,000 objective was reached, with all too tired for a demonstration.  The chairman said thanks, unlocked the doors and the exhausted crowd silently dispersed.

     The beginning of a disaster–relief operation is marked by a spirit of fierce energy, an overflow of good will and unselfish solicitude, a general eagerness by everybody to be helpful.  After a few days this supercharge of altruism begins to subside.  Human nature returns to normal.  Volunteers who are willing to continue and accept definite responsibilities remain.  The paid workers assume their key positions and the relief program begins to take coherent form.  While the emergency phases of  the work are going forward under high pressure, it is not too early to give thought to the long view—the period in which emphasis must shift from the immediate provision of shelter and food to the problem of putting all these uptorn people back into the channels of ordinary humdrum life.  Close observation over several years had shown that a relief program is likely to slow down and begin to mark time just at the point where the emergency period ought to pass into that phase in which the beneficiary must be encouraged to discard his relief crutches and walk alone.  At this point strong moral pressure is sometimes necessary and firm leadership imperative.  To the Ohio Valley relief units I, therefore sent messages indicating the danger and a later urged each unit to set a day for closing its work.

     This last recommendation stirred plenty of protest as was to be expected.  It called out such a wide variety of views that the need for something definite became apparent and then opposition quickly disappeared. It was made clear that not all communities must close on the same day.  Reasonable latitude was allowed according to local conditions.  The chief point was not which day, but the fixing of a particular day which would mark the end.  Scores of difficulties appeared to everybody, yet the discussion removed them.  A date once fixed even tentatively, gave all concerned something specific at which to aim.  The making of new commitments began at once to decrease, new purchases were made with more restraint, new projects were studied more closely and pared down to meet the new policy.  As all lines drew in, the program tapered off naturally with complete understanding on the part of all.  It may be doubted whether any major disaster relief operation has been carried through to completion with less evidence of individual or community discomfort that this.

     From a publication by the Red Cross in 1913, I quote:

     “A thoughtful newspaper man writing in the Ohio State Journal, after a careful and intelligent inquiry into the operations of the Red Cross in connection with the recent floods, stated that on this occasion the American Red Cross was to be seen at its par value.  While this statement is not to be taken too seriously, it is believed to be approximately correct as related to the present stage of our development and resources.  We were not hampered by lack of friends.  We were early upon the scene of disaster….We assembled a greater number of trained agents than had before been brought together by the Red Cross in any single disaster…To this may be added the opinion that a force which is led in its various groups by Dr. Edward T. Devine of New York, J. W. Magruder of Baltimore, E. T. Lies of Chicago, C. M. Hubbard of St. Louis, James F. Jackson of Cleveland, Louis H. Levin of Baltimore, James L Fieser of Columbus, H. Wirt Steele of Baltimore and S. P. Morris of Denver is bound to give efficient service upon a basis comprehensive enough to meet any conditions which may arise.”