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Local Weather History: One of the Wettest February Days On Record & the Great 1882 River Flooding Event

February 1882 saw a large, historic flood over a massive area, including part of our area. This was the first of three Februarys in a row that saw historic flooding.

Posted: Feb 26, 2021 9:06 PM
Updated: Mar 6, 2021 1:08 PM

OVERALL LOOK AT THE FEBRUARY 1882 FLOOD:

February 19-20, 1882 remains one of the wettest 24-hour periods on record (for February) in the Greater Lafayette weather records with 2.79" of rainfall measured at Purdue University.  A total of 3.24" fell for the February 19-21 period.  Just like in February 1883, an ice storm occurred with the 1882 heavy rainfall event, but the ice was displaced farther northward.  In February 1883, the ice was extremely destructive in Benton to White & Cass counties, but was all rain in Lafayette & south & southeastward.  In the 1882 event, very destructive icing occurred from Northern Missouri to southeastern Iowa Iowa to southern Michigan, far northern Indiana & northwestern Ohio.  Many cities were completely cut off from communication by downed telegraph lines & trees damage was extreme.  It was reportedly particularly bad at Toledo, Ohio. Port Huron, Michigan, Fort Madison, Iowa, Coldwater, Michigan & over Berrien County, Michigan.  Entire orchards were destroyed.

All Indiana river systems were in flood after an already wet, mild winter (after an interestingly brutal, hot, dry summer.............This was like 1936-37 when a major flood occurred on Indiana rivers, especially southern Indiana, after the hottest, driest summer on record in 1936.  The Great Flood of 1937 occurred in late January).  Flooding was moderate & widespread on the Wabash & Tippecanoe Rivers.  The Ohio River saw historic flooding, as did the White.  Some cities & towns were completely inundated by flood waters.

The Mississippi River also reached major flood. +20,000 people lost their homes in Arkansas alone. Congressional leaders from Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi & Louisiana led a campaign to fund the Rivers and Harbor Act to a much greater level to 1/2 billion in today's dollars.  Around $142 million was earmarked for internal improvements to those states affected (more levee building, aid to those who lost everything & channeling of rivers).  However, President Chester A. Arthur vetoed it in summer 1882 due to extreme cost. Nonetheless, Congress overrode President Arthur's veto the following day & improvements began to take shape only to be greatly affected & in many ways destroyed by an even worse flood in 1883 & a similar flood in 1884 on many of the same rivers & streams.  1880-1885 saw significant floods on southern, Midwestern to Northeast Rivers every year, but twice (1880 & 1885).  However, August 1878 saw a major flood on many rivers in the viewing area & over parts of the Midwest!  The 1881 flood in April was largely due to deep, deep snow melt from the Dakotas to Iowa & Minnesota.

A massive amount of real estate saw 7-15" of rainfall for February, a lot of it falling February 19-24.  This occurre from Texas & Arkansas to Missouri, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania to Massachusetts southward to North Carolina to Louisiana.  Every river system from the Red to the Trinity to the Mississippi, Tennessee to Ohio, Delaware to Minnoski River in Vermont flooded.  Heavy, heavy rainfall (& in the Northeast, combined with big snowmelt) resulted in an unusually large area of widespread flooding in the Lower 48.

This is a statement from the U.S. government "Monthly Weather Review" of February 1882, published by the U.S. Weather Bureau.  This courtesy of NOAA historic collections:

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FEBRUARY 1882 PRECIPITATION TOTALS:

Just a sampling U.S. Weather Bureau monthly totals include:

12.74"  Little Rock, Arkansas

11.31"  Auburn, Alabama

11.00"  Highlands, North Carolina

10.94"  New Ulm, Texas

10.80"  Mt. Ida, Arkansas

10.29"  Atlanta, Georgia

9.92"   Memphis, Tennessee

9.73"  New Shoreline, Rhode Island

9.50"  College Hill, Ohio

9.20"  St. Meinrad, Indiana

9.13"  Laconia, Indiana

8.94"  St. Louis, Missouri

8.58"  Nashville, Tennessee

8.56"  New Harmony, Indiana

7.86"  Wellsboro, Pennsylvania

7.80"  White Plains, New York

7.78"  Princeton, Massachusetts

7.62"  Murfreesboro, Tennessee

7.32"  Westborough, Massachusetts

7.28"  Indianapolis, Indiana

It was the driest in the Plains, eastern Rockies & over Florida.  Numerous wildfires were reported in the Plains & over Florida.

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LEADING UP TO THE FLOODING AFTER A HISTORICALLY-HOT, DRY SUMMER:

At Purdue, it all began with heavy rainfall in September after a horrendous July-August with one of the hottest, driest such periods on record.  To this day, 1881 is still the driest August on record with 0.47".

Then, 2.16" rain fell at Purdue on September 15.  From that point, rainfall continued to run above to much-above normal through the fall & into winter.  

November & December alone saw a total of 12.33"!  That would be a lot in summer when plants are taking up a lot of water!  With lack of evaporation & plant uptake, that water begins to saturate, then run-off.  Particulary heavy rainfall events occurred with 3.08" November 17-18 after 1.72" mid-month.

December 1881 saw the second wettest December days on record with 3.12" on December 13.  Another 1.75" fell December 22.

No snowfall occurred during either month.

The mild weather meant that the water failed to freeze up in the soil, so it continued to run off.  Run-off was unabated with lack of freezing on creeks, streams & rivers.

Antecedent ground conditions we saturated by February, given rainfall in January with a lack of snowfall.  Although the first 15 days of February were dry, it was unusually warm with dominance of moist southerly winds & lots of clouds & fog rather than windy, sunny days with dry air.

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THE PATTERN DURING OUR HEAVIEST RAINFALL FEBRUARY 19-20, 1882:

You see in this reconstuction the unusually cold temperatures in the central Plains to West & then the unseasonably warmth across the Ohio Valley & southward.  Even here, we were above normal with highs in the 50s.

The gradient zone between the cold in the Plains & West & warmth in the East & Southeast made for an active storm track.  

The warmth northeast of Newfoundland seen shows the blocking with the pattern that was not just confined to February 19-20, but over mid to late month.

You can see how water-loaded the lower atmospheric column was loaded from the Ohio Valley to Mississippi Valley with anomalies in our area as well.

700 mb Omega, or upward vertical motion, shows the strong lifting of the air to form heavy rainfall & t'storms from northeastern Texas to Indiana & Ohio. 

Note the anomalously-strong low-level jet pumping the deep moisture northward, nosing right into the Mississippi & Ohio Valleys, feeding the torrential rainfall from Texas to Indiana to Ohio.

Note the anomalously-high surface CAPE anomalies advecting northward.

This helped fuel multiple tornadoes & wind & hail from Texas to Kentucky to Tennessee.

SOME ACCOUNTS OF THE WIDESPREAD FLOODING:

This was in the Bloomington Progress from Bloomington, Indiana:

This article by Robert C. Kennedy of the New York Times:

The great flood of 1882 ravaged communities along the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers and their tributaries. In Cincinnati, heavy rains began on Sunday night, February 19, 1882, and lasted for two days, causing the Ohio River to rise at a rate of two inches per hour. The flood blocked railroad tracks entering the city, submerged homes and factories, displaced hundreds of families and put thousands out of work temporarily. Similar scenes occurred along the Ohio in southern Indiana and Illinois.*

*As noted above, but to reinterate from myself here: research shows the flooding was also bad in central & northern Illinois & Indiana, but the worst just south of the area.

Even more serious was the flooding along the Mississippi River, from Illinois and St. Louis virtually all the way down to the delta of New Orleans. The 1882 flood was one of the most devastating to the lower Mississippi River Valley. The water easily broke through most of the levees, burying entire towns, killing livestock and other animals, and forcing thousands of residents to flee for safety. In Arkansas alone, an estimated 20,000 people were left homeless. In some places the overflowing Mississippi River transformed the adjacent communities into a lake, 15-miles wide. Private steamboat companies rescued those stranded by the flood, as did the Army Corps of Engineers and the Quartermaster Corps, which also distributed rations to the victims.

The political wake of the 1882 flood flowed into a Congressional debate over the annual rivers and harbors bill. Little federal aid had been given to what were called the "internal improvements" of the nation's rivers and harbors before the Civil War. In the post-war years, however, funding rose significantly to nearly $4,000,000 each year, 1866-1875. The annual rivers and harbors bill, however, became pork-barrel legislation in the House (where spending bills originate) as Congressmen tacked appropriations for their favorite projects onto the bill.

Despite calls for increased aid because of the recent flood, on August 1, 1882, President Chester Arthur vetoed the Rivers and Harbors Bill, explicitly labeling it pork-barrel legislation. Arthur did not oppose internal improvements on principle, and had endorsed the commission's report calling for federal aid to repair and extend levees along the Mississippi. However, he concluded that the legislation as drafted only benefited select localities, was not in the national interest, and would set a bad precedent for the "extravagant expenditure of public money."

Led by a coalition of Southern Democrats and Midwestern Republicans from flood states, Congress overrode the president's veto. The 1882 Rivers and Harbors Act included $5.4 million for the Mississippi River Commission. For the rest of the century, federal appropriations for rivers and harbors rose from $8,000,000 in 1880 to $29,000,000 in 1898. The levees rebuilt after the 1882 flood, relying on machine power rather than manpower, withstood flooding in 1884. A severe flood in 1927, however, was again disastrous for the lower Mississippi River Valley, and led to the federal Flood Control Act of 1927 (amended in 1936), the nation's first law that addressed the problem in a comprehensive manner.

Bobby Joe Williams of Tennessee Roots wrote this:

The One They Had In 1882 Was 'The Big Flood'

The flood of 1882 was devastating in terms of human misery. While the water was at
its highest point, a steamboat could have gone from within 20 miles of Pine Bluff,
Arkansas to the Gulf of Mexico without entering the Mississippi River.

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1882.—The flood of February, 1882 …. was disastrous and appalling at Lawrenceburgh. We copy from the newspapers of that city:
“For several weeks the Ohio River, at this city, had been rising gradually, until Monday evening, February 20, it had reached a point at the junction of the fill in the fair grounds and the “Big Four” Railroad, when it became necessary, on account of the depression in the fair ground embankment, to raise the bank at least two feet in order to keep the waters which had been accumulating from flowing over the bank into the city. Mayor Roberts promptly secured a force and went to work with energy and determination to do all that could be done to keep back if possible the waters, and up to midnight Monday had succeeded admirably in holding them in check. Bat the continued rains for the past few days had swollen the White Water and Miami Rivers to such an extent that it was soon evident that it would be impossible to keep up the embankment of the “Big Four” Railroad from this city to Hardintown, and the most that could be expected was to hold the waters back until morning or daylight. But at about 4 o’clock Tuesday morning, the 21st, the waters from the Miami were thrown against the “Big Four” Railroad track with excessive pressure, on account of the barrier formed by the Ohio & Mississippi Railroad, which would not permit the accumulated waters to pass into the Ohio River, when at a point just below the locks, at Hardintown, and a point opposite the Trough Pond, near Nicholas Fox’s, the water broke through, and it was not long until it was rushing with fearful velocity, and in vast volumes through the upper end of the city, carrying terrible destruction in its wide and rapidly extending pathway. The screams of the people in the lower parts of the town, when they were aroused to the fact that they were surrounded by the flood of waters, were distressing in the extreme. The Mayor had arranged for giving a signal of alarm by the ringing of the church bells, and when it was known that the flood was coming the bells pealed out their terrible warning, and at the same time the flood gates at the lower end of the city were opened, and the torrent of waters came rushing from both directions with equal destructive force until they met at Walnut Street, like two mighty giant monsters of the deep amid its angry waves struggling for the supremacy of the sea, until both ended their existence in death, and thus the waters ceased their angry flow.

“Although it was generally known that it would be impossible to keep the waters out of the city, and that many of the houses were ten feet or more below the surface of the water in the river, yet comparatively few persons were prepared when the rush of waters came. The result was the loss of individual property has been very great. Not so much in the aggregate of dollars and cents, however, as that it came to a class of people not able to lose anything—yet in many cases it took all they had, even to their houses. Both in the upper and lower end of the city quite a number of small houses could be seen overturned, while others had floated away from their foundations. It is surprising how many families were driven so hastily from their homes, on account of the sudden rise of the water within the city limits, which in its mad career seemed to wash, upturn and drive everything before it. Hardly two hours had elapsed from the time the water broke its barriers until it was in every part of the city doing its work of devastation, and yet we have -heard of but one death.

“The men employed in their skiffs and hastily provided boats did noble work in rescuing the people from the great peril in which they were so suddenly found. Large numbers of families took shelter in the public school buildings, in the court house, in the stove works, in the lodge rooms and other large rooms on High Street, as well as with private families, and it may be said that over a thousand persons were made homeless for the night at least. It was but a short time after getting housed until they were provided with food and made as comfortable as it was possible to make them under such unforeseen circumstances and the short time which was given to work.

“The waters continued to rise until about 4 o’clock Tuesday after noon, and from that time until midnight there was but little change, when it began to fall. In the afternoon it had covered High Street, with the exception of here and there a small portion of the center of the street could be seen as dark spots above the water. High Street being the highest street in old Lawrenceburgh, this part of the city therefore was entirely submerged. The store houses, with floors even with the pavements, had a few inches of water on their first floor. On all streets besides High the buildings were more or less filled with water, ranging from one foot to fifteen feet”

History of Dearborn and Ohio Counties, Indiana, 1885, Pages 194-196

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