FORT WAYNE – The heavy thunderstorm of March 21, 1913, left the ground across much of the Midwest saturated and the rivers full.
So when the most severe storm ever recorded in the Midwest hit two days later on Easter Sunday, there was nowhere for the water to go but up.
The center of the storm – the monster system stretched from Arkansas to New York – passed over Bellefontaine, Ohio, just 100 miles southeast of Fort Wayne; it rained from March 23 to March 27.
By March 25, according to The Pictorial History of Fort Wayne, 2,000 homes were submerged and many factories and outlying businesses were under several feet of water.
Across the Midwest, at least 600 lost their lives, 250,000 people were left homeless, and damages were estimated in the hundreds of millions, according to the flood-risk program, The Silverjackets.
It was the flood of record, and it changed everything.
It also changed nothing.
The Maumee River hit 24 feet the afternoon of March 25, 1913, and the levees along the St. Joseph and Maumee that protected the Lakeside area collapsed near the confluence, according to a study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers performed before the levee system was built in the 1990s. Photos from the time show an area along St. Joe Boulevard between the confluence and the Tennessee Avenue bridge where the pavement was ripped up and washed away by the water rushing through the broken levee. The water flooded into Lakeside so quickly many residents had trouble escaping.
The Allen County Orphans Home, where Indian Village Park is now at Bluffton and Broadway, had to be evacuated by boat. When a boat full of children capsized, according to The Pictorial History of Fort Wayne, four girls drowned. Another man drowned trying to rescue families trapped by floodwaters and another died from shock during the perilous experience.
The water finally crested March 26 at 26.1 feet on the Maumee. By then, the municipal water supply was knocked out and most of the city had no electricity. Schools and businesses were flooded or shut down, roads and bridges were impassable and rail traffic was disrupted.
About 15,000 people had been evacuated and 5,000 acres of Fort Wayne were under water.
‘Now there’s rules’
The Flood of 1913 might have been The Big One, but it certainly wasn’t the first or the last. B.J. Griswold’s History of Fort Wayne, Indiana lists 25 floods between 1828 and 1913. After the 1913 flood, there was serious damage from flooding in 1930, 1936, 1943, 1950, 1978, 1982 and 1985, the Army Corps said.
Despite this history, Fort Wayne continued to build and develop along the rivers until it was finally restricted in 1974. By then, of course, thousands of homes and businesses were in harm’s way.
Just as Americans continue to build along the coasts despite the danger of hurricanes and to congregate over the fault lines of California, we couldn’t stay away from the rivers, despite their propensity for turning on us.
Now there’s rules, said Bob Kennedy, Fort Wayne’s director of Public Works. You can’t build in the flood plain.
And you often can’t rebuild after damage, either.
State and federal regulations say that if a building in a floodway has flood damage of 50 percent of its market value it can’t be rebuilt. If it is in the 100-year flood area it can be rebuilt, but only if it is elevated to prevent future damage.
Fort Wayne’s threshold had been 40 percent, but after the Flood of 2003, dozens of families would have been out of a home because they could not rebuild. The city did not have money to buy them out, so it raised the threshold to 50 percent.
That’s the main reason we’re in there buying homes, Kennedy said. For so many, there’s no way we can protect them.
A perfect example is the Junk Ditch area near Taylor and Freeman streets. The low-lying, flat area was once a swamp that was drained by farmers; a 1982 Army Corps study said it should never have been built on and any homes there should be evacuated and cleared, if possible.
That only began happening in earnest after the Flood of ’03, first with federal grants and then with city money through an increase in stormwater fees.
A math problem
Now, grappling with the consequences of a century and a half of decision making, we seem to be learning.
We’re dealing with what we’ve been left with, Kennedy said.
What we’ve been left with is a Junk Ditch without wetlands that scientists say can absorb and hold 41 percent of a 100-year flood. We’re left with homes built along the river on Winchester Road, evacuated in 2003 out of fear the homes themselves would be swept away.
That water was so high and so fast, it wouldn’t have just flooded those houses if it came up any higher, Kennedy said. It would have knocked them down.
We’re left with a giant math problem.
From an engineer’s perspective, it’s all about elevations, said the city’s Mark Gensic. And after the Flood of ’82, the engineers began changing the way the city thought. Gauges were placed on all the rivers; after 2003 those were upgraded to gauges calibrated to precise elevations.
We started to think about, The water will rise to this height and here’s what that means’ instead of Last time it got up to here on this tree,’ Gensic said.
The math problem lead to the $100 million levee project – it was cheaper to build and maintain the levees than to pay for damage to thousands of homes. The math problem on the St. Marys – levees were not built there in the 1980s and 1990s because the home values weren’t high enough – has been solved with rising property values and the city built its own levee from Foster Park to Airport Expressway.
Many of the problems caused by earlier floods shouldn’t happen again. The city has emergency generators at the St. Joe Dam pumping station to move water to the filtration plant and emergency generators at the filtration plant, so unlike 1913, a flood should not cause the city to be without drinking water.
The city also won’t be surprised by a flood, either. In 2003, the only forecasting gauge on the St. Marys was in Decatur, so by the time a flood warning was issued for Fort Wayne, firefighters were using boats to evacuate homes along Fairfield Ditch. Now Fort Wayne has a forecasting gauge on each of its three rivers, plus several others in strategic locations.
Gensic said officials have realized that much of a flood fight takes place not on the river bank, but in the sewer system. It now has many pumps and knows exactly where to place them – ahead of the flood – to keep the sewers drained. That keeps floodwaters out of streets and basements that can creep in even behind a levee.
A flood starts below ground, Gensic said.
Flood for the books
How big was the Flood of 1913? There are numbers that tell both the scope of the disaster and how the decisions made put so many in so much danger: Despite all the damage caused by the Maumee River in Lakeside, for the Maumee it was only a 111-year flood. The Flood of ’82 – where sandbaggers along the Pemberton Dike could look down on two-story houses – was only a 67-year flood.
Four thousand houses in Lakeside were imperiled in 1982 by a flood that has a 7 percent chance of occurring every year.
On the St. Marys River, it was a different story. There was no gauge on the river in 1913, so officials have to estimate based on where the water went. But the Army Corps believes the 1913 Flood was a 2,175-year event on the St. Marys River. To put that in perspective, the Flood of ’03 was a 110-year event, with water flowing at about 15,000 cubic feet per second and a depth of 21.2 feet. The Flood of 1913 on the St. Marys had an estimated flow of 24,000 cubic feet per second.
I saw a picture of the Foster Park area in 1913, Kennedy said. The St. Marys River was three miles wide.