Schenectady Gazette/January 22, 1937
WASHINGTON, Jan. 25—Most sinister of all the terrors offered by nature in sullen mood is the flood.
It is something that can scarcely be realized by those who have never lived within reach of the coiling waters of a big river on a rampage
To this day there lingers with us a childhood memory of nights of horror when the scream of a siren would tell of a bursting levee and the men and women would seize their children from warm beds and flee from their homes, the water rolling in angry pursuit.
Perhaps it is this memory that chills our heart as we read of the flood along the line of march of the Ohio and the Kentucky and the rivers of Pennsylvania, leaving behind them death and desolation.
It requires no great effort of our imagination to see the water rising inch by inch on the houses, until the people are driven to the roofs, or to see the women and little children wrapped in quilts and blankets, wailing miserably on the high ground as their homes and their livestock and household pets are swept away by the wicked water. We have seen it in reality.
The tornado and the earthquake are desperate things. They strike swiftly and without warning and there is no guard against them. Nor can we say with any degree of certainty that any community is immune. But as a rule they do not cover a wide area.
The hurricane is no bargain. Here again, however, is disaster of fairly limited scope The hurricane’s haunt is along the gulf stream. Moreover, the hurricane usually sends advance notice and against it we have the reasonably sure protection of solidly constructed buildings.
The flood sweeps far and the flood sweeps wide. It may devastate the land for thousands of miles. It is long continued and with it sometimes moves pestilence. You can build against fire, tornado or even earthquake, but within a flood area there is no such thing as a flood-proof building
Away back at the beginning of this country the pioneers, looking for land on which they could raise crops for their own sustenance, saw that the lowlands along the great rivers had lush soil that would grow anything. Moreover, the streams afforded a sure method of transportation. So they built their homes and later their cities there, and ever since man has been trying to fight back the rivers when they feel disposed to spread out. Billions of dollars have been spent in the battle and billions more will be spent. But at times it looks as if nature deliberately makes capricious gestures just to show us that it’s not sure.
The rivers swell and man-made works crumble and are gone as swiftly and completely as if they had never existed. And man patiently rebuilds, adding a little something more each time out of the new teaching of nature
In some of the sections of the land over which the water is now roaring, engineers had worked and planned for years, putting in safeguards that they thought would hold against the highest water. But that is part of the terror of the flood. It slowly but surely crushes and overcomes the mightiest mounds of masonry, the tallest, thickets and ramparts that man can conceive and execute, and the confidence in which people well behind these man-made bulwarks for a time fades into terror at the first rush of water.
Still some of the more rambunctious streams have been fairly well broken to harness and do little damage even when they do try to kick over the traces. So it is conceivable that man will eventually outguess and outmaneuver nature on all the rivers, though you wouldn’t think so reading the dispatches from the cities of the flood area now.
As a matter of fact, it isn’t usual for the rivers to go on a tear at this time of the year. The spring is when they generally get to feeling their oats. But a winter flood is the worst of all, because the cold adds to the misery of the sufferers.
Last spring we had mild, rainy weather in February and March and that produced rises and ice gorges in the rivers of the New England and Middle Atlantic states. The winter was severe, with heavy snowfall in all the country north of the Potomac.
Along about St. Patrick’s day of ’36, heavy rain began falling on the half-frozen land and the runoff into the already swollen rivers, especially of Maryland and Virginia caused bad floods in the Potomac, the James, the Susquehanna, the Merrimac and the Connecticut as well as in the rivers of the middle West.
But you can’t ever figure nature out, which is why we suspect she is completely feminine.
That same year that gave some of the country altogether too much water, produced terrible dust storms in the middle West and one of the worst droughts in our history in the interior states.
This drought, the third in recent years, caused great suffering among the farm people. They hadn’t recovered from the frightful dry spell of 1934 when the 1936 drought struck them. These two years, ’34 and ’36, will go down in history as the nightmare years for the agriculturists of the United States.
The works of Damon Runyon and other American journalists are now freely available at The Archive of American Journalism. Visit our bookstore for single-volume collections–-ideal for research, reference use or casual reading.