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World War II-Era Flood Was the Worst in D.C.'s History

September 14, 2018 in History

By Becky Little

While the war raged overseas, soldiers and civilians worked furiously to protect the capital against rising waters.

Aerial view of the Potomac River in October, 1942.

While Allied troops were fighting World War II in the Pacific, the U.S. homefront was defending Washington, D.C. from the worst flood it’d ever seen.

“Spare no effort or expense to protect the Capital,” President Franklin D. Roosevelt told officials during the flood of October 1942, according to a Washington Post article. As the waters surged inland from the Potomac River, 800 soldiers and 300 civilians feverishly stuffed sandbags and built a barrier to prevent the flood from reaching downtown federal buildings like the White House.

The flood, which covered the National Mall so thoroughly that the newly-built Jefferson Memorial looked like a little island, would be the worst to ever engulf the nation’s capital, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). It also caused the Anacostia River to overflow, submerging the Navy Yard in the Southeast.

U.S Office of Civilian Defense workers testing the depth of flood water in the streets of Washington, D.C.

The over 1,000 soldiers and civilians “raised a half-mile-long, 6-foot sandbag levee on the north bank of the Potomac in six hours,” reported LIFE magazine in 1942. “As the water crept up, inch by inch, bulldozers were thrown into the fight and the entire area around the Navy Building became a scene of fevered activity,” reported The Washington Post at the time.

The flood was brought on by torrential rainfall likely related to a southern tropical storm. In D.C.’s tidal zone, the flood crest was 17.7 feet, nearly a half-foot higher than the crest during D.C.’s second-worst flood in March 1936, according to the National Weather Service.

The 1942 rains didn’t just affect D.C. They also flooded parts of Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia. LIFE reported at the time that the flooding “completely isolated” Fredericksburg, Virginia. It drove 1,500 people from their homes, killed more than a dozen people and contaminated the water supply.

Civilian defense workers helping soldiers and firemen to move people driven from their homes by flood water.

In the D.C. area, the flood caused deaths and evacuations as well. John E. Buell, the chief of the Volunteer Fire Department in Bethesda, Maryland—a suburb of D.C.—died while trying to tow a car out of the water. …read more


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