Kokomo has seen its share of floods, but nothing compares to what happened 100 years ago.
The most widespread natural disaster in American history began March 21, 1913, with a Good Friday tornado outbreak.
Twisters were followed by torrential rainfall. The rain and flooding affected 15 states from Ohio to Indiana to Illinois and south along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. The Wabash and White rivers, along the Wildcat Creek and hundreds of tributaries large and small overflowed, according to Dave Broman, executive director of the Howard County Historical Society.
At dawn March 21, 1913, as storms rolled through the area, the Wildcat began rising three inches an hour, the Tribune reported in 1913.
Water went over the levee protecting the South Kokomo river district about 8 a.m. Some residents moved possessions to higher floors. Others, the Tribune reported, prepared for complete moves while “a few grimly watched the flood and made no effort to protect their property. These were the poor who lived in one-story shacks and had nowhere to move.”
Heavy rain over a 24-hour period swelled Wildcat Creek to nearly “a mile wide,” according to Kokomo historian Ned Booher in a 2000 Kokomo Tribune report.
The torrential rains literally cut Kokomo in half.
The bridges were unsafe, streets flooded and phone lines failed. The power plant was underwater, lines were down and there was no electricity.
“It wasn’t just a local disaster,” Broman said. “It was widespread and one of the worst natural disasters in American history. There’s never been anything like it and it’s something that some people forget about.”
In commemorating the historical event, the Howard County Historical Society is observing the event with a photographic exhibit in the Seiberling Mansion. The exhibit opened Wednesday and runs through the end of April.
Visitors will see images of Kokomo neighborhoods and residents along with the overflowing Wildcat Creek.
“This gives people an insight of the scope of it,” Broman said.
Broman added he is looking to increase the collection of materials related to the 1913 flood.
“Photographs, artifacts and written personal accounts would be valuable additions,” Broman said.
People wishing to donate items can contact Stew Lauterbach at the museum at 765-452-4314.
In his book “Kokomo: A Pictorial History,” Ned Booher noted “this intermittent downpour lasted until late afternoon the following Tuesday, March 25. By that time, the Wildcat was a raging torrent that produced a vast lake at least a mile wide - mostly south of the stream.
“The whole Middle West was hit,” Booher continued. “Logansport and Peru had bridges washed out and suffered loss of life.”
The flood was declared over late March 26. The water level had dropped 42 inches in 24 hours, the Tribune reported March 26, 1913.
That flood and others led the city to take steps to improve flood control plans and communication, which should reduce injuries and damage in case of a similar flood.
Don Cree, the city’s storm water manager, said the city has removed several dams and restricted zoning over the years.
“We have the reservoir now, which holds back some of the water we used to get downstream,” he said. “Also, we don’t have as many obstructions in the creek as we used to.”
Along with removing several dams in last couple of years, the city and the Wildcat Guardians do annual cleanups along the creek to remove trash and other debris.
“Another good thing is we have new zoning rules that restrict zoning in flood ways and the city has attempted to purchase some of the properties along the flood plain,” he said. “We’re a lot safer now. We’ve lowered [the creek] some, but it doesn’t mean we’re flood proof.”
If you go
What: The Great Flood of 1913 exhibit
Where: Howard County Historical Society, 1200 W. Sycamore St.
When: March 20 through April 30
Why: To commemorate the history of the flood