Author of ‘The Thousand Year Flood’ to speak at Shawnee State University

Published 9:49 am Wednesday, January 11, 2012

PORTSMOUTH — As part of the 75th anniversary of the 1937 Flood Commemoration Week, David Welky, author of the recently released book, “The Thousand Year Flood: The Ohio-Mississippi Disaster of 1937,” will be speaking at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 24 at the University Center Ballroom West at Shawnee State University.

Welky’s book is the first comprehensive history of one of the most destructive disasters in American history. He describes the details of the dangers before and after the flood and he tells about how decades of settlement put Ohio valley farms and towns at risk and how politicians and planners repeatedly ignored the dangers.

Then he tells the gripping story of the river’s relentless rise and how residents fled to higher ground. Countless sandbag barricades couldn’t hold the deluge and people overloaded rowboats to escape.

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He describes how towns imposed martial law, prisoners rioted, Red Cross nurses endured terrifying conditions, and FDR dispatched thousands of relief workers. Unmoored gas tanks became floating bombs and powerful currents of filthy floodwaters swept away whole towns.

Welky will be talking about his experience in writing about the worst flood in American history and how it overwhelmed the Ohio River Valley in January and February of 1937 and the aftermath.

That was 75 years ago this month. Edward Tenner, contributing editor of “The Wilson Quarterly” wrote in a 2011 issue of the quarterly “Water Over the Bridge,” where he reported the city fathers of Portsmouth, Ohio, ordered the sewers opened so that high water from the Ohio River would inundate the town gradually rather than violently.

Tenner said that a journalist of the time commented, “The people knew better than to argue with the river.” Triggered by days of torrential rainstorms that astounded even many veterans of earlier floods, the waters in January 1937 would eventually crest 15 feet above flood stage and earn the engineering designation of “thousand year flood,” one statistically expected to occur once in a millennium.

Welky grew up in St. Louis and received his master’s degree and Ph.D. in history at Purdue University. He has written extensively on the American culture and society in the interwar era and authored “Everything Was Better in America: Print Culture in the Great Depression” and “The Moguls and the Dictators: Hollywood and the Coming of World War II.” Welky is associate professor of history at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway, Arkansas, where he lives with his wife and two children. The event is sponsored by SSU’s Clark Memorial Library.

In a book review, Nancy Richey, of Western Kentucky University, wrote, “All readers with an interest in the impact of natural disasters in history or in 20th-century American studies will find this to be a worthwhile read.”