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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Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.


Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.