Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Review: Floodwaters and Flames, the 1913 Disaster in Dayton, Ohio, by Lois Miner Huey


March 25, 1913, began as a typical day in Dayton, Ohio. Downtown bustled with streetcars, carriages, and automobiles. By 8:10 a rush of water from the Great Miami River flooded the city. Desperate people climbed trees and telephone poles to escape the torrent. For days, people were stranded, cut off from the outside world. Experience the Great Dayton Flood through the eyes of those who lived it. Today the storm that caused the flood and devastated Dayton and communities across the country is largely forgotten. But the residents of Dayton resolved never to suffer such a disaster again. Their heroic response became a model for how we prepare for and recover from natural disasters.

I asked for a copy of this book because I grew up in Ohio, and spent time in the Dayton area through college. It is a timely book in general, however, with all the news reports of flooding throughout the country.

History is a story, and I love it best when it is presented that way. It was actually my worst subject in school, because I could never keep all those battles and dates straight on their boring old lists. When one of my college professors finally introduced me to historical fiction, however, it was like the skies cleared and everything clicked into place. 

Floodwaters and Flames starts out in fine story form: "Coal dealer Andrew Fox looked out his window on the night of Monday, March 24. He could hear the wind howl, as it had for days." From there the reader is swept along (pun intended) as the story of this disaster is told from the viewpoints of several citizens, both the famous (the Wright family) and the not-so-much. Happy-making for the visual learners, a map towards the beginning shows the location of each person at the beginning of the story. Little imagination is needed, however, to picture each scene unfolding with descriptions like this:

"Perhaps the queerest sight of all was a table we saw floating by us. It was set for dinner. Plates were laid for four, and in the center was a catsup bottle and a sugar bowl, with a menu card between."

It was really fascinating to read about the rescue efforts made, from the cash register company owner ordering his staff to bake bread and build boats instead of their regular jobs, to the librarian struggling to save the children's books. My shoulders stayed tense throughout this very fast-paced narrative, and I caught myself holding my breath many times.

Of course, not everyone was rescued. Many froze to death the first night, and those who survived to morning were faced with fire and explosions. Can you imagine being surrounded by water, and in danger of burning? More than seventy thousand people trapped in buildings or worse, up in trees or telephone poles. I can't fathom.

All things end, however, and the narrative turns to the clean-up and recovery. It is always heartening in a disaster to see people work together. We have seen it all over the country, and here in our little town this past month. 

Disasters can also mean a change in policy or procedure. Before the flooding, local communities were expected to handle their own disaster relief, but in this instance Ohio's governor reached out to the Federal government, setting in motion actions that led eventually to the formation of FEMA. Relief was also offered by a small (then) group known as The Red Cross. There was also a group called The Community known as The United Way. Flood control was rethought and re-engineered. But, of course, flooding and other disasters still happen.

I can see this book read aloud in class, or devoured by an individual child. While the title is eye-catching, I am concerned the sepia tones of the cover photo are not, so I may have to hand sell this to a few patrons. I don't think they will be dissatisfied once they sit down with it, though!

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