Iowa History Daily: June 6 - The Great Flood of '47

Iowa History Daily: On June 6, 1947, torrents of floodwater cascaded down the Des Moines River to threaten the area surrounding Ottumwa. A monumental flood lasting from June 6-15, the river crested first at 20.24’ on June 7 before again cresting over 20’ on June 14th.

Following late snow, a wet spring turned into a rainy start to June. The month of June 1947 averaged 10.39 inches of rain across Iowa, still the largest total for any one month in the Weather Bureau’s records. As the Des Moines surged in the first days of June local residents along the river cautiously observed the increasingly wild river. In the era prior to the construction of major dams at Red Rock and Saylorville, flood control measures quickly proved inadequate.

During the first crest a torrent surged through Ottumwa’s downtown, forcing many local residents to evacuate or take shelter on the second floor of buildings. Some families spent up to a week stranded while waiting for the waters to recede. In the days immediately following the first crest, Iowans throughout the state sought to help through trucking in donations of drinking water, food, and clothing.

When skies again opened up across the state during the second week of June, local people stopped their initial efforts to clean up when the Des Moines again rose. The entire population of Eddyville, just up the river from the Wapello County seat, evacuated before the waters submerged the entire town. In Ottumwa, citizens banded together to build dikes and stack sandbags in the hope of offsetting some of the surge. The U.S. Army sent in food and supplies to stock evacuation centers at local schools, and residents took shelter again when levels exceeded 20 feet.

Finally, the waters again receded and local residents went to work to rebuild along the Des Moines. Major projects to widen the channel, construct levees, straighten the course of the river, and repurpose lands in the floodplain followed to mitigate future events. Although many floods followed, the river wouldn’t again crest over 20’ until the flooding of 1993 threatened the city. #IowaHistoryDaily #IowaOTD #IowaHistoryCalendar


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