Historians look back at Great Flood of 1937 - wave3.com-Louisville News, Weather & Sports

Historians look back at Great Flood of 1937

The Great Flood of 1937 is the most devastating in Louisville history. (Source: Clark County Museum) The Great Flood of 1937 is the most devastating in Louisville history. (Source: Clark County Museum)
The floodwater swept homes right off their foundations. (Source: Clark County Museum) The floodwater swept homes right off their foundations. (Source: Clark County Museum)
This Louisville's Water Tower Park during the 1937 flood. (Source: USACE) This Louisville's Water Tower Park during the 1937 flood. (Source: USACE)
This is what Water Tower Park looks now, one day after the 2018 floodwater reached its highest level. (Source: Air 3, WAVE 3 News) This is what Water Tower Park looks now, one day after the 2018 floodwater reached its highest level. (Source: Air 3, WAVE 3 News)

LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - As bad as the flooding is for so many people right now, imagine being in a much worse scenario -- the devastating flood of 1937.

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Seventy percent of the city of Louisville was underwater. Much of the time people were waiting to be rescued in the dark with no electricity.

"If you think we've had a lot of rain, it wasn't anything like they had in 1937," Historian Tom Owen said.

Louisville got 15 inches of rain in 12 days. From its depth, duration and impact nothing compares to the 1937 flood.

"It took out a lot of houses completely off their foundations," Jeanne Burke, the Clark County Museum Board President explained.

The river crested at its highest level ever: 30 feet above flood stage. With rain, snow and ice, the flood came cold and relentless in January and February.

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"When you think of flood stage," Owen explained, "it lasted for 23 days."

The topography of the streets made for flood surprises. As the water became knee deep at the Churchill Downs finish line, Main Street at 6th was dry because that's the high bank of the river. Intersections like Brook and Broadway became intersections of fast moving streams.

About 175,000 people had to be evacuated from Louisville alone. As flood victims were rescued by boats, many were taken to other locations of the state when rescue centers in the Highlands and Crescent Hill filled up. Owen told us his in-laws were moved from 12th and Hill on box cars to central Kentucky.

It was equally dramatic for families on the Indiana side of the Ohio, as 90 percent of Jeffersonville was flooded.

>> VIDEO: Aerial views show much of WAVE Country under floodwaters

Burke said of Jeffersonville refugees, "The last people that were taken out, were taken from the Pennsylvania Railroad Station."

Jeanne Burke's grandfather set up tents inside the quarter master depot.

"Those were put up for the refugees," she said. "People did not realize how fast the water was rising."

Unfortunately, the water came too fast to keep it out. Courthouse records were lost, and some residents who were afraid to leave their homes, kept moving to higher floors.

"The men in the boat just pulled up to the window (to rescue them)," Burke explained.

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The cleanup was also massive in its impact.

"A thousand pianos were thrown into the Ohio River," Owen said. He added that dump trucks of debris were driven to the Second Street bridge and dumped into the Ohio River.

Damage estimates from 1937 would amount to billions of dollars today. It was this great flood that led to the current flood wall and it's pumps.

"Following World War II, massive federal, state and local monies were aggregated to build what ultimately became a 29 mile-long wall around our city," Owen said.

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