After heavy rains in Huntington, WV during much of December 1936 and January 1937, the Ohio River jumped its banks with a vengeance, cresting on January 27 at 69 ft. (Cincinnati, OH, further upriver, was 80 ft under water). By the time the waters subsided five days later, over $17,000,000 in damages had been done, dwarfing the damage caused in the area’s most destructive previous flood (1913: $1,456,833 of damage). Five people were dead locally; up & down the Ohio River valley 400 total had been killed. 25,000 Huntington residents were affected, with some 11,000 requesting Red Cross services. City services were suspended for 2 weeks.
Those who were there just call it “The Flood.” There was nothing like it before. There’s been nothing like it since. It was a rolling catastrophe, as the river rose house by house, street by street, climbing stairs and pushing families into second and third floors of houses. Communities turned to lakes, people lined up to get fresh water in buckets and soup pots, rescue workers navigated streets in boats. It was Appalachia’s Katrina.
“The common complaint last night was not the closing of the liquor stores but the lack of drinking water. Curiously enough in downtown restaurants milk was easier to order than water and sweet milk was available where buttermilk was not.”
— Herald Dispatch (January 27, 1937)
A 1933 flood caused $108,481 in damages, and an official government engineer’s survey placed 1936 flood damage at $369,288. Finally, the devastating 1937 flood convinced the federal government that a flood wall was needed. Irene Drukker Broh, one of Huntington’s foremost suffragists and civic leaders, led a campaign to pass a $1- million bond to fund Huntington’s flood wall.
The flood protection system was completed in 1943 with money from the Works Progress Administration, a New Deal program designed to relieve the hard times of the Great Depression. Huntington has not experienced a serious flood since the wall was constructed.