Moderate to heavy rainfall in December 1936 was no harbinger of disaster. However, as the rain, snow, and sleet continued through most of January 1937, soils became saturated, and the Mississippi, Cumberland, and Tennessee Rivers and their tributaries overflowed into some of the most industrialized and populated sections of Tennessee and other states. It was to be a record flood year for these river systems, and rampaging waters would affect areas that had never known such destruction and deprivation. Socially and economically, this was the worst single disaster in American history to that date, rivaling the combined effects of the floods of 1926-27 and the “Dust Bowl” drought of 1930-31.
According to the National Weather Service, 21.24 inches (156 trillion tons) of rain fell in January alone. January 24 was dubbed “Black Sunday” as rivers overflowed in Tennessee and eleven other states, inundating 12,700 square miles and affecting 75,000 homes. Almost 900 people were seriously injured and 250 died of drowning and other flood-related causes. A surprising number died in flood-induced fires and explosions. No city, town, or rural community on these great rivers, or their tributaries, escaped unscathed.
On January 23, 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued a proclamation stating that the “disastrous floods in [the] Ohio and Mississippi River Valleys already have driven 270,000 from their homes.” He predicted that the number would probably increase until the floodwaters crested, and that the “snow, sleet, and freezing weather added to the suffering and made more hazardous the work of the rescue.” Noting that the “victims of this grave disaster [would be] dependent upon the American Red Cross for food, shelter, fuel, medical care, and warm clothing,” he promised that various agencies of the federal government would cooperate with these efforts to the fullest extent.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Memphis District) was heavily involved in rescue work along the Mississippi River from Cairo, Illinois, to Memphis. Due to the fear that the new levees established upstream along the Mississippi after the 1926-27 floods would fail, the Red Cross Regional Office at Memphis was assigned additional rescue responsibilities. In Tennessee, rescue parties were established from Tiptonville to Memphis to evacuate those already affected by the flooding and those who would be affected if, or when, the northern levees failed.
Thousands of highway patrolmen, National Guardsmen, and volunteers fought in vain to keep levees intact before the Corps of Engineers finally advised those downstream to evacuate. Many refused to leave the rooftops of their houses or the tops of trees, where they had built platforms, reasoning that the floods would soon subside, as they always had before.
Refugee centers (tent cities) were established throughout the flooded areas with the help of the Red Cross, U.S. Army, and National Guard units to make refugees comfortable and restore some semblance of order to their lives. The Memphis Fair Grounds boasted the largest refugee camp, where up to 60,000 people were fed, sheltered, and provided with medical assistance. Supply warehouses to meet the immediate needs of the refugees were established in Memphis, Nashville, and Knoxville.
A majority of the flood victims were sharecroppers and river-town residents. With so many hungry and chilled refugees suffering from exposure and in need of medical attention, additional emergency “hospitals” had to be established. Cases of pneumonia and influenza were widespread, and while the potential for other epidemics increased with spread of the floods, aggressive public health efforts kept disease and suffering in check. Approximately 8,000 were eventually hospitalized in the Memphis area alone.
In Middle and East Tennessee, the rivers sustained record floods, prompting Governor Gordon Browning to activate the National Guard. They worked in concert with the Red Cross and other relief agencies to provide temporary housing, flood, and clothing for thousands of additional refugees.