Hundreds dead; hundreds of thousands homeless; entire cities emptied and virtually obliterated by one of the century’s worst killer storms—all while millions of Americans followed the drama from their living rooms, over the airwaves. Nearly 70 years before Hurricane Katrina grabbed national and international headlines, the devastating Ohio River flood of 1937 became the great broadcast media event of its time.
The historic disaster, which killed 385 people in a swath from Pittsburgh to Paducah and caused a half-billion dollars in damage, was a major milestone for a still-young industry called radio. The fledgling medium best known for Amos ’n’ Andy, dance music and daytime soaps suddenly faced its first genuine life-or-death national crisis—one with no certain outcome or end date, and one for which no template or format existed from past experience. Broadcasters invented, improvised, begged, borrowed and pillaged even as rising floodwaters—and history—swirled around them. The results attained near-mythical status in the region, and became a major (if largely unheralded) influence in forging techniques and traditions that broadcast journalists employ to this day.
January 1937 was already a soggy one in the Ohio and lower Mississippi valleys; eventually, rain would fall 27 of 31 days. At 11:29 a.m. on Thursday, January 21, station WHAS in Louisville, Ky., broadcast its first flood warning. Still, as with Katrina seven decades later, the scope of the crisis was understood only slowly, as what first seemed a serious, but hardly historic, flooding rain de-veloped into an unending torrent. The precipitation that began falling on January 21 simply did not stop, and by the 24th, the crisis was dire enough that the date is remembered even now as “Black Sunday.” “We thought it was the end of the world,” Ohio broadcaster Ruth Lyons remembered in 1957. In Cincinnati the river was 25 feet above flood stage, and a massive fire threatened to engulf the city. Leaking gasoline gushed through flooded downtown streets, and three dozen fire companies made a stand near the Crosley Radio plant as a nationwide audience followed the drama via Cincinnati’s WLW reports broadcast over the NBC network:
The Ohio River continues to rise at approximately 3/10 of a foot per hour…rains up and down the river from Pittsburgh to Louisville are continuing….The fires which threatened the entire western section of Cincinnati this morning are reported under control at this hour, although reports are reaching us constantly of huge gasoline tanks being torn from their foundations in various parts of the community and spewing their highly inflammable contents over the floodwaters to be spread over large areas….Traffic across the suspension bridge connecting Covington, Kentucky with Cincinnati has for the time being been suspended….The floodwaters have been closing the approaches on both sides of the river….There’s a most urgent need for food, clothing, and shelter. Medical supplies are also needed.
To the south of Cincinnati, flood damage had doused most of the electricity in Louisville and rendered the police radio inoperable. With commercial broadcasting suddenly the only method of contact between emergency agencies, rescue crews, desperate refugees and the outside world, WHAS station executives made an unprecedented decision to abandon all commercial programs and broadcast only emergency announcements for the duration. Thousands of dollars in lost revenue aside, there seemed little choice. The number of distress messages reaching the station had mushroomed into the thousands, arriving by telephone, telegraph, ham radio and simple word of mouth. The messages were frantically typed and edited in a cold, oil-lamp-lit office, then “chased” to announcers waiting before the microphone, and broadcast by flickering gaslight.
Fire patrol boats operating south of Broadway are ordered immediately to Third and Breckinridge! All available boats are needed there at once!…Milk is needed for nine babies at missing persons bureau at 1010 South Third Street…power boat, please deliver…Urgent! Fifty refugees must be moved immediately by boat from 1023 West Madison Street! This is imperative!
It was, in retrospect, often as tedious as it was historic. The tree-hugging, temper-flaring histrionics that sometimes accompany modern storm coverage were nowhere on display here. There was no time, no inclination, no instinct for grandstanding. Nor was there the technical ability. “Today, media relies a lot on the sound bites and interviews,” said Mike Martini of Cincinnati’s Media Heritage broadcast archive and museum. “They really didn’t have the technology at that time to do a lot of the sound bites, so they might talk for three or four minutes without taking a breath.” And even that proved a challenge. WHAS announcer Foster Brooks delivered one report while dangling from a telephone pole, the swollen Ohio raging beneath him.
Station secretary Catherine Steele’s situation was “precarious” as well; she was breathing fumes from gasoline heaters, with nearby stacks of paper creating a perpetual fire hazard. Typhoid shots were ordered for those hardy enough to remain on duty. “The people were calling for help, asking for boats to be sent and asking advice,” Steele remembered in a 1957 flood anniversary program. “One woman, I will never forget her, she says ‘Lady, my husband is out of town and I have five children! What do you think I should do?’…Everything happened so fast, and the water came up so fast.”
Engineer Carl Nielsen remembered “going to the Sears store on Broadway with the store manager and rowing up and down the aisles trying to locate battery radios, dry cell batteries, and storage batteries….It dawned on us that some of the workers at the studio would need winter clothes to keep warm, since we had no heat in the building.” Even after discovering some of their own homes were completely underwater (“I left the window open,” cracked one technician), the Louisville staffers never wavered. “They made the difference,” said Rick Bell, author of The Great Flood of 1937: Rising Waters, Soaring Spirits. “They were literally directing relief crews and rescue crews to individual houses. Day and night, over and over, you heard these messages.”
The emergency broadcasts continued, in an urgent but near-hypnotic monotone drone, for 1871⁄2 uninterrupted hours over WHAS alone. “Seven people marooned on house top on Lower River Road…can’t hold out much longer!…City Hall calling. 50 children marooned at church. Get them out immediately!” The station later estimated that 115,000 separate flood bulletins had been broadcast into remote areas via loudspeakers on trucks and even airplanes, and rebroadcast on other stations around the country and on the BBC in England.
Relief donations arrived from as far away as France and Belgium. Broadcasters in the United States rushed donated equipment to the flood zone, competition now completely abandoned. Stations in Nashville and Indianapolis joined Lexington and Covington, Ky., on the “Volunteer Inter-City Network for Flood Relief,” sharing information and technical facilities. Powerhouse WSM in Nashville surrendered its frequency and transmitter to WHAS after the last electricity flickered and failed in Louisville. Days earlier, the stations had been cutthroat archrivals; now, a single, precious telephone line to Nashville was all that prevented Louisville disappearing from the air. WSM’s own on-air request for refugee information produced 15,000 responses.
Ham radio operators from Memphis to Paducah to Baltimore sent word on evacuees’ fates (“W9CXG, Paducah, Kentucky, calling WREC shortwave”) to any possible receiver. With the Ohio now an astonishing 38 feet above flood stage in parts of the valley, evacuation and devastation created 200,000 refugees in Louisville alone, and smaller river communities such as Paducah, Ky., and Cairo, Ill., were completely empty. The flood saga had become a nationwide sensation. By January 27, the NBC network had broadcast some 70 emergency reports, including this one from Peter Grant of WLW:
We learn that 7,500 of Dayton’s 10,000 population are homeless. We learn that 75% of the city is underwater…entire city blocks of homes have been swept down the river and will never be found. The city of Dayton, Kentucky, is absolutely without clothing and bedding….The Spears Hospital at Dayton had 100 patients at the time the flood reached Dayton’s streets…they were taken to the Dayton, Kentucky, high school. In this school in the last few days, we learn that a dozen babies have been born and several operations performed….Churches are overflowing with Dayton’s refugees. There is plenty of food available, but no water. Dayton, Kentucky needs water, clothing and bedding at once. Cincinnati’s chief worry tonight is water—water for drinking purposes and for fighting fires….A big fire now in this area might prove a major catastrophe. Cincinnati remains on an emergency holiday basis. No business was transacted today for a third successive day…this holiday will continue until the city can put its house in order.
Inevitably, there were also moments of humor. Surviving photographs from the station show that male WHAS staffers never abandoned their suits and ties for work, even at the height of the crisis. They simply accessorized with hip-waders and galoshes. A Louisville rabbi broadcast to the world barefoot and wrapped in a pink blanket, after his boat capsized en route to the station, drenching his clothes. A WHAS staffer snapping “Boy! Boy!” to get an assistant’s attention later discovered the “boy” was a top company executive, old enough to be her father, but nevertheless pliantly obeying the orders of his “boss.”
WKRC, Cincinnati, broadcaster (and later WLW mainstay) Ruth Lyons recounted losing seven pounds running up and down stairs, sleeping atop a desk with telephone phone books for pillows and “bathing” in two gallons of clean water she’d managed to collect in a hotel bathtub. It didn’t matter. “We realized this was the greatest crisis that Cincinnati had ever faced,” she recalled. “We felt this was the thing that we must do.” The most notorious incident came on January 28, when network commentator Floyd Gibbons, broadcasting CBS’ Your True Adventure program direct from WKRC, caused a nationwide panic by ignoring his script and instead enacting a ludicrous melodrama in which the radio station was destroyed, flood waters pouring into the studio and drowning switchboard operators at their posts. Thousands with loved ones in the Ohio Valley were not amused.
That the anecdote recalls similar alarmist falsehoods in Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath—rapes and murders in the Superdome; hundreds of corpses at a New Orleans high school—is no isolated coincidence. “There were all of these really erroneous national news reports that 900 bodies were seen floating,” said author Bell of the 1937 flood. “None of that happened.” In fact, the flood had become one of the first examples of the “bigfoot”: national anchors “parachuting” into a big story and creating a presence at the scene, but often lacking the sources and perhaps desire to separate fact from rumor. “It was a pivotal event,” said Mike Martini, and one that influenced radio journalism’s development in other ways. Broadcasters “realized they’re not in direct competition with newspapers, but rather they augment the newspapers. They provide immediacy.”
Indeed, a seesaw battle for news supremacy had raged between print and broadcast media for most of the 1930s, with radio timidly ceding the advantage in almost every case. The networks at one point even allowed wire services to ration how much copy they could air, and when. But with power failures and distribution breakdowns knocking flood-region newspapers almost completely out of commission, and with thousands of lives quite literally resting upon their performance, local radio broadcasters simply ignored the previous constructs and did what they believed necessary. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, the networks followed their lead.
Conventional wisdom holds that Edward R. Murrow and his network colleagues invented broadcast journalism with their work in the days just preceding World War II; in fact, Murrow and his “boys” were building upon the foundation laid by men and women in Louisville, Cincinnati, Nashville and elsewhere, covering such stories as the Ohio River flood. Most notably (and most grievously ignored by contemporary historians), stations including WHAS and WREC arguably invented the concept of marathon continuous coverage, abandonment of scheduled programs and commercials for days on end during a major crisis. It was a costly and intimidating undertaking that the national networks were either too frugal or too unimaginative to emulate until the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt almost a decade later, in 1945. Blanket multiday news coverage of John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 and the September 11, 2001, terror attacks followed the blueprint drafted in January 1937. So did cable news’ sustained vigil in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
While it took years to sort out these historic implications, the visceral impact of the flood coverage was instantly clear. Awards and accolades seemed to fall from the sky once the crisis eased. The CBS network presented dramatic reenactments of its stations’ behind-the-scenes efforts. Individual announcers saw their careers blossom: Cincinnati’s Peter Grant was now a household name; Louisville’s Foster Brooks later became a nationally known entertainer. Even poetry honored the broadcasters’ achievements: “Their messages brought prompt relief/To thousands in distress/So let us not forget the boys/Of W.H.A.S.” The stanza likely won no trophies at the poetry contest, but it made its point. Said Bell, “I don’t think radio has ever meant that crucial a difference to that large a number of people—certainly not before, and maybe since.” Those who heard the flood broadcasts remembered them to their graves; even 70 years on, the solemn intonation “Send a boat!” is instantly recognizable Kentucky slang for an emergency.
For almost seven decades, the original flood broadcasts were believed lost, though recent years have produced some happy discoveries. In 2003 an actual WHAS flood recording was discovered in a private collection in Connecticut, via a station in Maryland. Of the eight-day continuous Louisville broadcast, only this single 15-minute segment is known to survive.
In 2005 an invaluable oral history recorded by WHAS employees in 1957 turned up in a box at the station, moments before it was tossed into the trash. And Cincinnati’s nonprofit Media Heritage rescued and preserved the NBC network material quoted above. Together, these audio documents provide a long-impossible glimpse into one of the seminal moments in the history of the Ohio Valley—and America’s broadcasting industry.
While innovation may have devolved into cliché over the generations, the lineage remains unmistakable: The local TV reporter who’ll clutch a tree trunk in howling winds this hurricane season—perhaps as interested in getting the network recruiter’s attention as in imparting useful information—descends in spirit directly from Foster Brooks of WHAS, grasping a phone pole with one hand and a microphone with the other, during those dark days of 1937. These radio pioneers invented journalistic standards and techniques still in practice during Katrina, in 2007 and onward. Their work should not be forgotten.
This article was written by Chris Chandler and originally published in the August 2007 issue of American History Magazine. For more great articles, subscribe to American History magazine today!