The Great Dayton Flood of 1913: How a catastrophe in Ohio led to modern disaster response

Dayton underwater. Image: Swest7638/Wikimedia Commons.

Dayton, Ohio, is known for a lot of things. It’s the birthplace of the Wright Brothers and home of the pop-top can opener. It housed crucial parts of the Manhattan Project, and was infamously rumoured to be hosting a Limp Bizkit concert at a Sunoco gas station.

Many people (and me, on this very website) give Dayton a lot of shit; its nickname ‘Gem City’, awarded at a time when it was witnessing growth economically, ergonomically, and artistically, now feels almost cruel as it continues to suffer from the effects of the financial crisis. It isn’t known for its glamour these days and its achievements tend to pale in comparison to its recent troubles.

However, there’s one thing that Dayton isn’t known for, even though it has played a crucial role for more than a century, and especially over in the last few months. In 1913, Dayton played host to one of the worst natural disasters the United States had ever witnessed – an event which led to the creation of the disaster infrastructure that underpins the response to such events today. It may be hard to see how, or even why – but I am here to inform you that it did.

To paint a picture, Dayton sits on either side of the Great Miami River, with its downtown stretching about two square miles.

Image: Google Maps.

Main Street, as you’d probably guessed, is the main strip within downtown Dayton, home to the business district of the city. It was a place where people worked, lived, and spent much their free time with theatres, restaurants and shopping littered down the road. This area is also notable for the fact that it sits within a mile of the Miami River.

In fact, downtown Dayton is built on the river’s natural flood plain, making it a disaster waiting to happen. However, at the time, disaster preparation wasn’t really a thing, back in 1913, and Ohio’s tame weather didn’t attract much concern. A few levees were built just in case, but there were no indicators that anything dreadful might happen.


The weather that caused the flood was, seemingly, not out of the ordinary: a series of three storms, three days in a row, which yeah, sure, is a lot of rain, but not enough to make anyone think it was anything but some bad weather. No one thought it could take down sturdy, durable levees and surely not enough to destroy what was, at the time, a major American city.

The first of the storms arrived on 21 March and, again, was nothing too concerning. There were strong winds and heavy showers, but by the morning of the 22nd there were clear skies and sunshine.

Very soon, however, things started to go awry. Out of nowhere the temperature dropped by almost 40 °F, and a second storm arrived. After a third storm on the third day, the soil had become saturated: all rain water was now run off, with nowhere to go but the river.

By 5am on 25 March, the city’s levees – not just one, or even several, but literally every single levee – was in danger of not just overflow, but collapse. At 8am, the levees began to overflow and water started flooding into the city streets. Within an hour, half of the city was flooded with waters three feet deep. By midday, it had reached an almost unbelievable ten feet high.

Let’s take a moment to acknowledge that this, alone, would have been enough to make you shit yourself. Waistline-high water within a matter of 60 minutes, sure, is concerning, but ten feet tall waters looks like an apocalyptic plague. If it had stopped there, it still would have qualified as a lethal disaster.

But it didn’t. By 2am on 26 March the height of the water had doubled, reaching over twenty feet high. The downtown area normally housed tens of thousands of people, but the flood began on a Tuesday morning, meaning thousands more people had already commuted in before it got inescapable. From the early afternoon of 25 March, the people living and working in Dayton were completely trapped.

Image: William F. Capel/Wikimedia Commons.

The then governor of Ohio called up the National Guard to get into Dayton and begin the rescue effort. With communications links to the city centre cut, they didn’t even know how many people were stranded, and never having dealt with a disaster on this scale, they didn’t know how long it would take to get everyone out, either.

But this was 1913, and the water was 20 feet high. Troops were able to reach the edge of the city, but couldn’t actually gain access to the downtown for days. The news of the flood, and of the thousands trapped, began to spread, even internationally – but no one could reach anyone actually trapped inside the city.

People had to get creative. Thousands were making make-shift rafts, boats, or anything that could float, to get themselves to the edge of the city, from where they could wade through to dry land. The greatest and most effective, immediate relief effort, though, came from an unlikely place: the staff at the National Cash Register (aka NCR; you’ll see the name on the bottom of your self-service checkouts all over the world), headquartered in Dayton at the time. Its staff, including the company president, John Paterson, built over 300 boats and rescued thousands stranded in buildings and on rooftops. The NCR factory building became the base of the relief effort, housing not only the National Guard and the Red Cross, but also photographers and journalists so they could report on the aftermath and the rescue effort.

Ultimately, the flood displaced over 65,000 people, and killed over 360 (another 100 people died as a result of flooding across other parts of Ohio). It is still the deadliest natural disaster in all of Ohio’s history, and the deadliest flood in American history. It took weeks to make Dayton liveable again; until then, people were stranded in tents and refugee centres on the outskirts of the city.

Beyond the human toll, the flood caused over $100m in property damage, a sum worth $2b now. It also resulted in loss of Dayton locals Orville and Wilbur Wright’s original sketches of the first ever airplane. The volume of water generated from the three storms that caused the flood was equivalent to the amount of water that passes over Niagara Falls in a month.

Despite the devastation, the Great Dayton Flood did help start the conversation about disaster precaution and disaster relief. The disaster lead to the creation of the Flood Control Act of 1917, which put in place procedures and precautions for how to prepare for and handle future flash floods. This act spurred on further disaster relief legislation, which cumulatively lead to the creation of a tiny government agency called the Federal Emergency Management Agency (aka FEMA).

Image: Yassie/Wikimedia Commons.

We’ve seen a host of natural disasters wreck the United States and its territories over the last six weeks. Even today, the relief, especially the immediate response, can seem feeble compared to what is so apparently needed. However, without the destruction of Dayton over one hundred years ago, we wouldn’t even be where we are today.

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“One of the greatest opportunities facing our region”: Andy Burnham on making work better for older people

Andy Burnham (then health secretary) and Gordon Brown (then prime minister) meeting an older voter in 2010. Image: Getty.

In the Greater Manchester Strategy, published by the Combined Authority in October, we set out our vision for Greater Manchester, including our ambitions for employment.

It’s not simply about getting more people into work – though this is important, given that our employment rate across the region is still below the national average. It’s also about improving the quality of work; creating better jobs with opportunities for people to progress and develop. That’s why we’re working towards a Good Employer Charter to encourage businesses across the region to step up.

But if we want to make a real difference for the people of Greater Manchester, we need to focus on those who currently struggle most to find a job, including people with disabilities, people with fewer qualifications – and older people.

One in three people aged between 50 and 64 in the Greater Manchester area are out of work. Adding in older workers on low pay, nearly half (46.3 per cent) of 50-64 year olds in Greater Manchester are either out of work or in low paid, low quality jobs. This is a bad situation at any age – in your 50s, with fewer chances to get back into work and less time to make up the shortfall in income and savings, it’s terrible.

It’s also bad for the region. People out of work are more likely to have or develop health problems, and need more care and support from our public services. We are also missing out on the skills and experience of thousands of residents. If Greater Manchester’s employment rate for 50-64 year olds matched the UK average, there would be 19,000 more people in work – earning, spending and paying into the local economy. GVA in the region could grow by £800m pa if we achieved this. 

If it’s bad now, it’s only going to get worse unless we act. This is the fastest growing age group among working age people in Greater Manchester. And with the rise in State Pension Age, we are no longer talking about 50-64 year olds, but 50-65, 66 and eventually 67. There are more older workers, and we are working for longer. Many of us are now expecting to work into our 70s to be able to earn enough for our later lives.


As the State Pension age rises, older people without decent work must struggle for longer without an income before they can draw their pension. But if we approach this right, we can improve people’s lives and benefit our local economy at the same time. It makes financial and social sense.

Older people bring a wealth of knowledge and experience to the workplace, but we must make sure we provide a work environment that enables them to flourish. If we can help them get into good quality, suitable work, older people will be able to retain their financial independence and continue contributing to the region’s economy.

A report published earlier this week by the Centre for Ageing Better looks at exactly this issue. Part of our strategic partnership with the Centre for Ageing Better, the report is based on research conducted over six months with older residents in five communities with high levels of economic disadvantage across Greater Manchester.

In Brinnington, Stockport, the team met Adrian, in his late 50s. Adrian is a trained electrician, but since being made redundant ten years ago, has only managed to get a few short-term contracts. These short term, zero hours contracts, are “more trouble than they’re worth” and have left Adrian stressed and worse-off financially.

He has been sent on a large number of employment-related courses by JobCentre Plus, and has a CV with two pages listing training he has completed. However, these courses were of little interest to him and did not relate to his aim of finding stable work as an electrician. He told the team he only attended most of the courses so he “doesn’t get in trouble”.

Adrian recognises there are other types of work available, but much of it is warehouse based and as he is not in the best physical health he does not feel this work is suitable. He said he has “given up” on finding work – even though he still has 8 or 9 years to go until State Pension age.

Adrian’s story shows how badly the system is failing people like him – highly skilled, in a trade that’s in high demand, but being put through the motions of support in ways that make no sense for him.

A major finding of the report was the high number of people in this age group who had both caring responsibilities and their own health problems. With the need to manage their own health, and the high cost of paying for care, people found that they were not better off in low paid work. Several people shared stories of the complexity of coming off income support to take up temporary work and how this left them worse off financially – in some cases in severe debt.

The report concludes that changes are needed at every level to tackle chronic worklessness amongst this age group. This is not something that employment and skills services alone can fix, although Adrian’s story shows they can be much better at dealing with people as individuals, and this is something we want to do more on in Greater Manchester. But the health and benefits systems need to work in sync with employment support, and this is a national as well as a local issue.

Employers too need to do more to support older workers and prevent them from falling out of the labour market in the first place. This means more flexible working arrangements to accommodate common challenges such as health issues or caring responsibilities, and ensuring recruitment and other processes don’t discriminate against this age group.  

Greater Manchester has been at the forefront of devolution and has been using its powers to bring together health, skills and employment support to improve the lives of local people. The Working Well programme is a perfect example of this, providing integrated and personalised support to over 18,000 people, and delivering fantastic outcomes and value for money.

Such an approach could clearly be expanded even further to include the needs of older people. Ageing Better’s report shows that more can and needs to be done, and we will use their insights as we prepare our age-friendly strategy for Greater Manchester

We have to act now. In 20 years’ time, over a third of the population of Greater Manchester will be over 50. Making work better for all of us as we age is one of the greatest economic and social opportunities facing our city region.

Andy Burnham is the mayor of Greater Manchester.

For more about the work of Greater Manchester Combined Authority and its Ageing Hub, click here.