The spring of 1913 was not a good one for residents of the Midwest, to put it mildly. First, a series of tornadoes devastated the region, flattening much of Omaha, Nebraska, over Easter weekend. Then, a few days later, the same storm system drenched much of Ohio, overflowing the banks of the Great Miami River into the streets of Dayton.
Over the course of three days at the end of that March, 11 inches of rain fell on the region. Because the soil in the area was already saturated, more than 90% of that precipitation ran off into the Great Miami and its tributaries, overflowing the river.
By the time the clock struck midnight on of March 24, Dayton police received warning that the city’s levees were on the verge of failing and began to sound warning alarms throughout the city. Within a few hours, the water had crested the levees at a mindboggling rate of 100,000 cubic feet per second and began pouring into the city.
By the time the floodwaters reached their peak in the early morning hours of March 26, there was as much as 20 feet of water in the streets of downtown Dayton.
A few hours later, a gas explosion in the downtown area near claimed most of a city block and caused several other fires throughout the city. The flooded streets made it impossible for the fire department to navigate through the city, so most of those fires raged on unchecked until they died out on their own.
The flood remains the worst natural disaster in Ohio’s history. It claimed 360 lives, destroyed 20,000 homes, displaced 65,000 people, and caused more than $100 million in damage (more than $2 billion in today’s dollars).
It took more than a year after the flood receded to clean up, repair, and rebuild the city, and more than a decade before the city recovered from the economic losses brought on by the flooding.