Fact Sheet: Ohio River Floods

David Sander
Research Assistant
Glen Conner
State Climatologist Emeritus for Kentucky

Four of the greatest floods of the Ohio River Valley occurred in 1884, 1913, 1937, and 1997.

For the month of February in 1884, nearly the entire country was above average forprecipitation. The greatest excess of rain fell from Tennessee northeastward to New England (1). On the 4th of the month, a telegram was sent to Louisville from the Chief Signal Officer that stated heavy rains were falling in the states of the Ohio Valley. Another telegram sent later stated that dangerous floods of the Upper-Ohio River flooding would occur and that the river was rising at all points. Heavy rains over the Ohio River Valley created major problems along the river. Over half of Ashland was submerged as the river left its banks. Only 20 houses remained above water in the town of Cattlesburg in Boyd County. In Louisville on the 14th, the river was rising one inch every hour before it crested at just less than 48 feet. One should note that the danger or flood stage of the river in Louisville begins at 24 feet. The flood was above the danger point from 4 February to 25 February (1). By the 19th, the river gage in Henderson reached its maximum of 46 feet, 9 inches as the flood submerged the gas works. Paducah also suffered extensive flooding that inundated half of the town. Thanks to timely warnings, property owners in Louisville took precautions to save property. Even so, the total losses sustained by the city were estimated at 100,000 dollars (1).

The New Year in 1913 brought extensive rains to Kentucky and surrounding states. A slow moving low-pressure system and unusually high temperatures made conditions ideal for a significant amount of rain. Early in the month heavy rains fell on the lower portions of the Ohio Valley, including Tennessee and Kentucky. However, by the middle of January, the rains had shifted northward making a damaging flood inevitable (2). These rains falling north of the Ohio River over Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana, were the main cause of the 1913 flood. Kentucky's total average rainfall for January was 11.41 inches, three times the normal amount. The heavy rains caused every major river and stream in Kentucky to flood (2). The U.S. Weather Bureau described the lowland areas of the state as being "vast inland seas". Cincinnati reached its crest stage of 62.2 feet on 15 January (3). The Monthly Weather Review for January of that year collected details of the damage in dollar amounts. For the Louisville district, it reported property damages from the flood at 200,000 dollars. Though it doesn't sound like much today it is a very large sum for 1913. Total crop losses in the Louisville district totaled 50,000 dollars (2). A few factors actually helped to lower the intensity and damage of the flood. First, the ground was not frozen, so less run-off made it in to the river. Second, the lack of snow on the watershed decreased the danger of the situation (2).

Residents of the Ohio Valley during the flood of 1937 though, would not be as fortunate. In January of 1937, rains began to fall throughout the Ohio River Valley, eventually triggering what is known today as the "Great Flood of 1937". Overall, total precipitation for January was four times its normal amount in the areas surrounding the river. In fact, there were only eight days in January when the Louisville station recorded no rain. Though the rains began to fall early in the month, the most significant rainfall occurred between the 13th and 24th (4). These heavy rains coupled with an already swollen river caused a rapid rise in the river's level. The morning of the 24th was perhaps the darkest moment in the history of the flood as the entire Ohio River was above flood stage (4). The river in Louisville rose 6.3 feet between the 21st and 22nd. With the river reaching nearly 30 feet above flood stage, Louisville had the greatest height of the flood. The previous record set in 1884 had been broken by 11 feet. The river did not crest at Louisville until the 27th. It measured 57.1 feet on Louisville's upper gage while farther down the river, in Paducah, the river crested at 60.6 feet on February 2nd. Damages from what could easily be considered one of the most powerful floods of the century were extensive. Louisville was the hardest hit city along the Ohio River, where light and water services failed (4). Almost 70 percent of the city was under water, and 175,000 people were forced to leave their homes. The entire city of Paducah was forced to evacuate as well. The Weather Bureau reported that total flood damage for the entire state of Kentucky was 250 million dollars, which was an incredible sum in 1937. Another flood of this magnitude would not be seen in the Ohio River Valley until 60 years later.

Starting on 28 February 1997, heavy rainfall associated with a cold front brought significant precipitation to the Ohio River Valley from western Kentucky and continuing on in to West Virginia (5). The counterclockwise rotation of the low brought moisture up from the Gulf of Mexico, dropping up to 12 inches of rain in some parts of Kentucky. Rainfall totals around the state were for the most part extremely high. Lexington had 7 inches, Louisville recorded 7.41 inches, and Williamstown received 12 inches of rain (6). Though the flooding was not the largest recorded, it did have severe impacts on Kentucky. Twenty-one people were killed by the floods which caused an estimated 250-500 million dollars in damages (7). Out of the 120 counties in Kentucky, 101 were declared federal disaster areas. The small town of Falmouth found itself under 8 feet of water, and was almost completely destroyed. By March 7th, the Ohio River had crested in Louisville at 16 feet above flood level (7). The damages incurred by the entire Ohio River flood exceed one billion dollars, and over 67 deaths. The flooding in March of 1997 was not as severe as the "great flood of 1937" but did take a heavy toll on Kentucky. Floodwalls protected Louisville, and prevented the river from causing even more damage.


1) "Floods". Monthly Weather Review. Feb. 1884. Vol. 12 No. 2. Washington City: General Weather Service of the United States.

2) "Rivers and Floods". Monthly Weather Review. Jan. 1913. Vol. 41 No. 1.

3) Report of the Relief Committee of the Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce: flood of 1884. Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce. Cincinnati: The Committee, 1884.

4) "Rivers and Floods". Monthly Weather Review. Feb. 1937, Vol. 65 No. 2. Washington D.C.: USDA Weather Bureau.

5) "Flood of March 1997 in Kentucky". U.S. Geological Survey, 1997.

6) Storm Data. March, 1997: NOAA. Vol. 39 No. 3.

7) "Tornadoes and Flooding-March 1, 1997". http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/ol/reports/marchflooding/marchflooding.html. (December 2, 1999).