Friday 11 April 2014

Kentucky Flood

It left four hundred Americans dead.  It left 1 million homeless.  It cost 20 million dollars.  And it made Margaret Bourke-White's career.  It was the Great Ohio River Flood of 1937.

Eighteen inches of rain fell in sixteen days in Kentucky, one of five states hit by the flood.  Sheets of ice that had formed on the Ohio River over the winter, began to melt, adding to the river's volume.  At its peak, the river was 60 feet above normal by February of 1937.  The city of Louisville, the hardest hit city on the Ohio River, was 70% under water.  Louisville's home and business owners fled to higher ground.  Some older buildings in Kentucky still bear the decades-old water marks; Ginn's Furniture Store, a two storey building, has water marks that reach within three feet of the roof.  

In 1937, Kentucky residents didn't just face the Great Flood; they also faced the Great Depression.  Life's photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White, who had photographed victims of the Dust Bowl in 1936, was able to snap a picture of a bread line in Louisville, Kentucky during the flood.  But it wasn't just any bread line.  It was a bread line of blacks in front of a giant billboard of a white family driving in their automobile with the caption:  "There's no way like the American way."  

In one shot, Bourke-White captured the damage inflicted by the flood and the Depression, as well as the inconsistencies of the American dream.  As Life's Ben Cosgrove noted: 

"...that picture has, for generations, been the Great Depression photo, somehow distilling in one frame the anguish that defined the economic cataclysm of the Twenties and Thirties."

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