July 23, 2012

Morris Library exhibit focuses on historic floods

by Christi Mathis

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- One of the worst natural disasters in American history is the subject of a special photographic exhibit at Southern Illinois University Carbondale's Morris Library.

The exhibit, "75th Anniversary of the 1937 Flood," focuses on the havoc wreaked by the Ohio River when it overtook cities and communities from Pittsburgh, Pa., to Cairo between January and March 1937.  The exhibit is in the library's Hall of Presidents, and features a collection of photographs selected from more than 400 photographs in the library's Special Collections Research Center.  The display also includes images of the Southern Illinois community of Valmeyer, which relocated after the town's former spot was virtually wiped out by the massive Mississippi River flood in 1993.

Visitors will see the destructive force of the 1937 floodwaters that claimed 385 lives, left approximately one million people homeless, and caused property losses exceeding $500 million.  The photographs also give a glimpse of the massive cleanup organized by the Works Progress Administration once the waters receded.

With the nation already in the midst of the Great Depression, the flood was another devastating blow.  The disaster, did, however, bring about a comprehensive flood control plan.  By the early 1940s the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers created more than 70 storage reservoirs to reduce the Ohio River flood heights and protect communities and farmlands.  

The scenario, however, was repeated more than five decades later with flooding in 1993 that impacted a large portion of land along the Mississippi River.  In spite of similar flood control plans in place, melting snow and torrential rains in the northern Mississippi River Valley resulted in widespread destruction and property losses downstream in 1993.  Officials opted to relocate the Monroe County community of Valmeyer after recognizing the extent of the damage and the limitations as to how engineering can mitigate such widespread flooding.

Judy Simpson, senior library specialist, is the researcher and curator.  The display will remain open for public viewing through mid-September during regular library hours.