The WPA is proud that from the ranks of those who can’t find jobs it can provide “the shock troops of disaster.”
—FROM THE WPA NEWSREEL
MAN AGAINST THE RIVER
When people talked about, you know, leaning on the shovel, well, we did a lot of work. And a whole lot of hard work. It wasn’t no different than no other job. You earned the money.
—JOHNNY MILLS, WPA LABORER
Much of the country was locked in the grip of wretched weather. The rain-soaked inaugural in Washington was an abbreviated version of the misery residents of the Ohio River Valley had been experiencing since December. The precipitation came down first as snow, then rain that melted the snow and softened the ground underfoot to mud. It was the kind of rain Ohioans as well as the residents of Kentucky, Indiana, and southern Illinois were used to in the winter, cold and unrelenting, and they went about their business in heavy shoes and clammy coats and attitudes of resignation. Then, on January 13, skies that had been merely gray darkened to the color of slate, and the deluge—now alternating rain, sleet, and snow—took on an almost biblical intensity. Indeed, the previous fall, a preacher in Jeffersonville, Indiana, had told his flock he had seen an angel with a measuring rod who showed him twenty-two feet of water covering the town’s main street. People had laughed at the Reverend Billy Branham at the time.
Rain drummed down for fourteen hours straight across the middle of the river valley, reaching a total of three inches. The Scioto and Great Miami rivers, the Kentucky and the Licking, the Wabash, and dozens of smaller tributaries spilled their swollen burdens into the Ohio itself. Along the river from the Ohio–West Virginia border to Cairo, Illinois, where it joined the Mississippi, worried residents watched the coffee-colored, ice-skimmed waters creep higher and higher up the muddy banks. In Cincinnati, the Ohio rose two feet in the space of five hours.
By the third week of January, meteorologists and flood experts predicted that a combination of slowing rain and colder temperatures would stem the rising waters. Their forecasts were wrong. The Ohio and its tributaries kept rising. The waters lapped above the levels reached in the previous spring’s floods and took aim at levels reached in 1913 and 1884. The flood of 1884 on the Ohio had been the worst in history.
With only months since the last floods and their large toll of dead and homeless, officials did not need to be reminded of the river’s power. Disaster planners started to marshal their forces from among the Army Corps of Engineers, Coast Guard, National Guard, Red Cross, and WPA, whose Information Division had begun calling mustered workers the “shock troops of disaster.” WPA administrators in the river states halted construction projects and began to move workers to the river.
John K. Jennings, who had ten southern Indiana counties in his charge, was among the first to act, and other Indiana WPA chiefs followed suit. Residents fleeing north away from the rising waters passed convoys of National Guard trucks lumbering south carrying men from Indianapolis and Terre Haute, Kokomo and Marion. Three hundred WPA men arrived in Lawrenceburg, near the Ohio state border; a thousand reached Jeffersonville, where Reverend Branham had been shown the specter of the waters; thousands more were dispatched to other flood-torn areas along the river. In Evansville, WPA men worked alongside soldiers and guardsmen in wind, rain, snow, and sleet. The surrounding Vanderburgh County had some 4,000 WPA workers, who evacuated residents, filled sandbags, and stacked them on levees threatened by the rising tide. They worked exhausting twelve-hour shifts in freezing water as much as three feet deep, then rotated off to hastily assembled shelters in schools, churches, and community halls, where they huddled around stoves, ate, slept, and dried their clothes as best they could, and went out again.
It was the same in Ohio, Kentucky, and Illinois: agency administrators consulted with mayors and county heads and threw WPA workers into the fight alongside volunteers and local police and firemen. In Illinois, as in Indiana, the army and National Guard provided trucks to carry thousands of WPA and CCC men into the storm to toil “through the freezing weather, around the clock, in mud and rain, in a battle against the rising waters.”
Farther downstream along the Mississippi River, memories of the disastrous spring flood of 1927 remained fresh. The Mississippi had breached levees in more than a hundred places, flooding 26,000 square miles and stretching at some points eighty miles across, and left 700,000 homeless and several hundred dead. Since then, a series of levees and spill basins had been built to allow the Corps of Engineers to try to manage the flow of the great river, but as the water surged in from the Ohio, even these were threatened now. “A super flood is on the way,” said Lieutenant Colonel Eugene Reybold, the district chief of army engineers at Memphis. Thirteen hundred WPA workers were abruptly pulled from other projects and sent to reinforce the levees along the St. Francis River in southeastern Missouri, where the river lapped within eighteen inches of the top.
On January 18, the Ohio rose over the flood walls protecting Cincinnati. Across from Cincinnati, the northern Kentucky towns of Newport and Covington were inundated a day later. At Louisville, where the huge riverfront hydroelectric plant that supplied the city with electricity was already surrounded by water and rowboats were ferrying workers to their shifts, the river reached flood stage on January 21 and rose an additional 6.3 feet the next day. Cincinnati saw a 6.7-foot rise over twenty-four hours. Downriver at Paducah, the waters had already reached the 39-foot flood stage and flowed over the earthen levee into the streets, flooding homes and stores and boiling up out of the sewers. By January 24, the entire Ohio River was above flood stage, and still the rain, sleet, and snow came down.
On January 25, Howard O. Hunter, the administrator in charge of WPA’s Region IV, which included the flood zone, wired Illinois governor Henry Horner and Kentucky governor A. B. “Happy” Chandler, Cincinnati city manager C. A. Dykstra, and Louisville mayor Neville Miller from his headquarters in Chicago to say he was sending WPA engineers and field agents to assist them. “All resources of WPA available to flood-stricken areas,” he wrote.
A day later, Hunter wired Harry Hopkins in Washington to say he had ordered administrators outside the flood zone to direct surplus commodities and clothing from WPA sewing rooms to the flood area. These would be shipped in rented trucks to avoid “all present red tape on shipping by rail” and ensure fast delivery. The same day, Ellen Woodward wired her Midwest regional administrator, Florence Kerr, in Chicago to update her on other commodities that were on their way by rail to distribution points close to the flood zone. They included eggs by the carload—12,000 dozen per car—canned beef, evaporated milk, Florida grapefruit, cotton and mattress ticking, overshoes, blankets, heavy underwear, shirts, and galoshes. The Coast Guard shipped boats overland to evacuate flood victims. When there still were not enough boats, crews of WPA carpenters assembled lumber in the streets and hastily built fleets of skiffs.
The river crested in Cincinnati on January 26 at 79.9 feet, in Louisville on the twenty-seventh at 57.1 feet, in Paducah on February 2 at 60.6 feet. From one end of the flood zone to the other, the records of 1884 were broken by eight to eleven feet. A sixth of Cincinnati was underwater, 70 percent of Louisville, all of Paducah. Families in cities across southern Indiana awoke in the middle of the night to the sounds of factory whistles and fire sirens, the signal for invading waters, and soon found themselves on trains steaming north, huddled together with other refugees. Evansville was said to be “near panic.” In Jeffersonville, the water on Spring Street measured a depth of twenty-two feet, fulfilling Reverend Branham’s vision; inside his Tabernacle, the wooden pews and pulpit floated to the ceiling. Fires raged in a varnish plant and a shoe factory in a riverfront industrial area of Louisville; firemen were kept away by ten feet of water in the streets. The Federal Theatre in Cincinnati sent word to Washington that It Can’t Happen Here, scheduled for a one-week run starting January 28, would have to be postponed. Parts of southern Illinois were like an inland sea, a fifty-mile swath of water broken only by the highest hills. Shawneetown, the pioneer gateway from the river into Illinois, stood isolated and abandoned; a WPA emergency crew and volunteers were the last human beings to leave, boarding a Coast Guard cutter after they had helped the town’s civilian residents onto a river steamer that was their last route to safety.
Cairo, Illinois, notched precariously in the narrow V formed by the Mississippi flowing down from the northwest and the Ohio from the northeast, was threatened from both sides as the Ohio backed the flood up the larger river. On January 25, army engineers blasted a levee downstream at New Madrid, Missouri, to spill some of the surging Mississippi into a 131,000-acre flood-control spillway basin and take pressure off the town. Breaching the levee stabilized the water levels for a time; then they began to creep up again. The Coast Guard sent twenty-two of its fast river boats to evacuate women and children, and cars and trucks carried more evacuees over the single road link that remained open to the north. Although Illinois was a northern state that had fought with the Union in the Civil War, black refugees were divided from whites and sheltered in separate facilities, one of them a black school in Carbondale, fifteen miles north of Cairo, that had been named for the Revolutionary War hero Crispus Attucks. The evacuation reduced the town’s population by two-thirds, leaving 6,000 people in danger from the rising waters.
A sixty-foot-high floodwall, running for two and a half miles along Cairo’s eastern riverfront, protected the city on the Ohio side. A similar but longer wall ran along the Mississippi riverfront. On January 25, an army of WPA and CCC workers directed by army engineers began building a three-to-five-foot parapet of earth and wood along the top of the Ohio floodwall. Two thousand men worked merciless long shifts in the cold and rain. Many of them had no proper shoes, and George Augustus Pomeroy, a Cairo riverman who had not been able to afford shoes for his own children until he caught a prize catfish in the Mississippi, took money from his meager savings to buy boots for some of them. Some men were forced to sleep on bags of sugar on a warehouse floor until WPA officials convinced Mayor August Bode to call on the army for cots. Still others slept in the pews of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church. When they finished the parapet on January 29, the hungry waters were only eight inches from the top of the original Ohio floodwall, and a crest of sixty-two feet was predicted for February 1. Some of the workers were sent north to stand by for cleanup duty, but others stayed behind in case the waters spilled into the town streets twenty feet below, where they would be trapped like bathwater in a stoppered tub, covering streetlamps and submerging buildings up to the second floor. Just as great a problem was water intruding from below, forced under the levees by great pressure and emerging as “sand boils” in the lower floodwall that were like open faucets. On January 31, the army set up a roadblock on the one road out of town and started to turn able-bodied male evacuees back into Cairo to help the relief workers in case the emergency barrier gave way.
Forty-two miles downstream at New Madrid, the raging Mississippi now threatened to overflow the spillway where its waters had been diverted to save Cairo and inundate surrounding farms and towns. Missouri’s WPA mustered hundreds of new workers to the scene. The men gathered under dark skies and awaited orders. Temperatures were in the thirties. Given a signal, they boarded steel barges that ferried them from New Madrid to the spillway’s western wall, where they disembarked and started filling and stacking sandbags along the crest of the levee above the rising water. They worked all day on January 31 in unremitting rain and sleet. At day’s end, the barges returned to ferry the men back across the brown waters of the spillway to New Madrid, where food and rest awaited. The WPA men were tired, hungry, and cold. A hundred or more of them surged aboard one craft, their weight pushing it lower in the water. When there was no more room inside the barge’s dank steel shell, its pilot steered away from the levee and headed out across the spillway in the dark.
The barge had gone only about 150 yards when one of the workers, Leonard Workman, felt it hit a snag. Its nose jerked down and water spilled in over the sides, sinking it within seconds and plunging the exhausted men into the frigid spillway. Another of the WPA men, nineteen-year-old John Selvidge, was still on the levee when he heard the sounds of men struggling and splashing. “I don’t think—I know—lots of them were drowned,” he said.
Most of the workers managed to reach the safety of the levee, but thirty did not. Searchers using chains and grappling hooks pulled five bodies from the spillway the next day, and ultimately nineteen more. Six men were never found. The government paid compensation of $3,500 to each family. The New Madrid drownings were the deadliest incident in the WPA’s history.
As the waters rose at Cairo and recovery workers dragged the New Madrid spillway with chains and hooks for the missing men, Harry Hopkins left Washington to tour the flood region. He went in two capacities, as head of both the WPA and a special flood relief commission named by Roosevelt to assess the damage and recommend what was needed in the aftermath to put the region back together. With him were Major General Edward M. Markham, chief of the army engineers, Surgeon General Thomas Parran Jr., and James L. Feiser, in charge of operations for the Red Cross. Typhoid from contaminated water was among the public health concerns, and with thousands of refugees scattered in more than 100 Red Cross emergency hospitals and 360 temporary camps, some consisting of tents and boxcars and other unheated shelters, influenza and pneumonia were already widespread. The figures eventually rose to 270 field hospitals and 838 camps.
“Fortunately, the WPA is equipped to fight this battle,” Hopkins said. “It is the job of the WPA to do all it can to prevent the outbreak of such epidemics as would normally follow in the wake of great disasters.” He said that 30,000 workers had been assigned to cleanup and sanitation jobs in West Virginia, Ohio, and Kentucky, where the waters had started to recede.
Hopkins and his party landed at Memphis. Crossing the Mississippi into Arkansas and driving to a camp housing 12,000 refugees, they encountered five miles of hub-deep water and were almost stranded. At the camp, WPA carpenters were hammering together flooring for hundreds of tents and moving in field stoves to provide heat. On February 3, the party boarded a military vessel for the trip upriver to Cairo, churning against waters carrying tree limbs and animal carcasses and other flotsam downstream. They reached the town to find the water only six inches below the top of the floodwall and still rising, if infinitesimally, toward the emergency bulwark erected by the WPA. But there it stabilized. Hopkins vowed to keep workers in the town as long as they were needed, and promised there would be “no red tape or bickering” when the cleanup started.
Next the party went by boat from Cairo to Paducah, which Feiser likened to the streets of Venice, “navigable for miles.” Returning to Cairo, Feiser found he could see “none of the familiar river lines. There was nothing but bleakness. Even the cities and towns were without light, electric power, water or heat.” But by then the rain and snow had eased and the waters had begun to slowly drop on the Ohio, although the flood crest moving down the Mississippi did not reach the Gulf of Mexico until the end of the month.
As Hopkins and the others moved on to Evansville, Louisville, and Cincinnati, the falling waters began to reveal the extent of devastation. Almost 500 were dead in the Ohio Valley, including 40 WPA workers who died in the icy waters, most of them in the New Madrid spillway accident. As many as a million were homeless. The countryside was littered with the wreckage of houses and barns that had been swept from their foundations and reduced to kindling. There was no electricity or clean water. Sewer systems, overwhelmed with river water, were clogged and unable to function. Bloated bodies of cattle and horses and pigs rotted in the fields where they had come to rest, creating public health concerns. Thick, gumlike silt coated streets and fouled every home and business the river had invaded. The entire path of the Ohio River was a swath of debris and human misery, with the added threat of contagion lurking in the flood’s festering aftermath.
As hard as they had worked in the preceding days, an equal task now began for the workers of the WPA. Hopkins said cleaning up the mess would be “one hell of a job,” and promised to deploy 150,000 workers from West Virginia to Memphis. Jennings, the Indiana WPA administrator, said, “The nightmare and uncertainty…'has now passed. The heavy task before us now is one of mere mechanics.”
The New Harmony (Indiana) Times described the damage more directly: “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.” The work, wrote the paper, “makes Hercules’ cleaning the Aegean stables a piker’s job.”
WPA crews along the Ohio Valley—at their peak numbering almost 200,000 as Hopkins authorized additional workers—performed a thousand tasks. They built sanitary privies over sewer manholes, nailed together wooden catwalks to carry foot traffic over the swamps of mud, and then carried relief supplies over those same catwalks. They cleared refuse from town streets and county roads and hauled away garbage. They set up field kitchens and cooked and served meals to flood refugees as well as to the military and Red Cross personnel with whom they worked. WPA nurses attended to the sick. WPA theater and music groups rolled into the stricken river towns to entertain refugees whose homes had been damaged or destroyed. In Cincinnati, both during the flood and after the waters receded, the Theatre Project played forty engagements to 14,660 flood victims, performing to the light of lanterns and candles in the face of what were often their own losses; two of the clowns entertaining homeless children had lost their own homes in the flood. WPA workers far from the flood zone contributed as well, as Woodward directed more of the output of sewing rooms into the region to clothe and warm the victims.
General Hugh Johnson, the NRA and New York City WPA administrator turned syndicated columnist, wrote of the flood and its aftermath, “Never in our history have one-tenth so many people been affected by a great disaster and certainly never before have affected people been so skillfilly relieved.” He called Hopkins “a doer of good deeds, executor of orders, go-getter, Santa Claus incomparable, and privy-builder without peer.”
Unusual for a business association, the Evansville, Indiana, Retail Bureau took ads in the Courier to praise the work of the WPA 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 the 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.”