After engineers blew up the Birds Point levee in 1937, the Ohio River fell 1 foot over three days at Cairo, Ill. It rebounded 2 feet before cresting one cold, miserable week later.
But Cairo's concrete flood wall and soggy levees held by 6 inches against the Ohio's crest on Feb. 3, 1937. It wouldn't get that high again until Monday, when the river topped its 1937 mark by 2 feet before the Army Corps of Engineers detonated the Birds Point levee the second time.
By Tuesday evening, the Ohio at Cairo had fallen almost 2 feet.
The broken levee is on the Missouri side of the Mississippi River, barely five miles south of Cairo. Between them is the confluence of the two great rivers. Levees and flood walls are higher than they were 74 years ago.
As in 1937, many Missourians resent the winner-loser strategy, intended to spare Cairo and other river towns by letting the river surge across 130,000 acres of Missouri farmland. In 1937, it pitted 5,000 Missourians against Cairo's 13,000 residents.
This time, barely 300 households are on the New Madrid Floodway. Cairo is down to 2,800 souls.
But the result is the same — the river washes over Missouri farmland, and Cairo stays dry.
The idea dates to 1927, when a massive flood spread the Mississippi across 70 miles of land near Vicksburg, Miss. The New Madrid Floodway, designed to make more room for the river, cost $21 million for a second row of set-back levees and easements from landowners. (Little money reached the residents, most of them sharecroppers who farmed with mules.)
For misery, the 1937 flood was much worse, and deadly. The cause was the same — waves of rainstorms pounding across southern Missouri, Arkansas and the Ohio Valley. In 1937, parts of Kentucky had 2 feet of rain in barely a week. With it came sleet, snow and temperatures falling into the teens.
The Ohio flooded wide areas of Cincinnati, and Louisville and Paducah, Ky. Backwater reached Churchill Downs, almost 4 miles from the river in Louisville. Downtown buildings were surrounded by water and capped with snow.
In Missouri, displaced families headed to shelters outside the floodway. There were reports of angry farmers with guns heading for Birds Point, but unmolested soldiers blasted the levee on Jan. 25, 1937.
At least three people drowned fleeing the resulting deluge. Near New Madrid, Mo., a young woman and her newborn were found frozen to death on a rooftop surrounded by water.
The federal Works Progress Administration hired 3,000 men to bolster the untested levees on the land side of the floodway. On Feb. 28, a barge carrying 135 workers sank near New Madrid, drowning 30.
About 12,000 refugees from the floodway and wider environs spent weeks in Red Cross shelters, then returned to soggy land often scoured of homes or buildings. The federal Resettlement Administration made loans to farmers to start over, and gave families $18 a month to survive until harvest.
At least 4,000 acres were rendered useless by sand dunes or erosion.
Said Emmett Richardson, a sharecropper from the floodway hamlet of Deventer: "People are squatting here and yonder and all around in tents. They don't know any more than the man in the moon about what they are going to do for a living."