hile floods were no novelty in Illinois, the flood that occurred in the
winter of 1937 inundating 978 square miles and scores of communities and
thousands of homes was different.
Alerted by heavy rainfall and rising water levels upstream along the Ohio
River, the Illinois Department of Public Health anticipated trouble and, before
the flood broke, sent several engineers to the threatened area to observe
developments and to take any action necessary to protect public water supplies.
The first sanitary engineer was dispatched to Shawneetown on Jan. 18, 1937,
and another was sent to two days later.
On Jan. 21, all of the states public water supply and waste disposal
systems along the Ohio and Wabash rivers were functioning efficiently although
flood waters had cut off highway traffic into Shawneetown and had driven
numerous families from their homes in the lowlands and at Golconda. This news,
along with estimates that the crest of the flood was still several days away,
led the Department to assign engineers to every principal city in the
threatened area to supervise water and milk supplies and waste disposal and to
assist in the evacuation process.
When the need for mass evacuations became obvious, the Department moved its
physicians and nurses into the area. Armed with typhoid fever and smallpox
vaccine and other medical supplies, they worked with local physicians and other
agencies to inoculate thousands of refugees against these diseases and to
render medical and nursing services.
By Jan. 27, a staff of 10 physicians, 20 sanitary engineers and 15 nurses
were on duty, operating out of a health center headquarters in the Carbondale
post office building. The city also played home to a reserve depot stocked with
supplies of vaccines, serums, chlorine and emergency chlorinating apparatus.
From that point, the supplies were distributed through local medical units that
had been set up throughout the territory affected by the flood.
During the peak of the emergency period, the Department was assisted by
hundreds of relief workers from other state agencies, other nearby states,
municipalities, the federal government, various industries and the Red Cross.
As a result of the severe flooding, seven municipal water supply systems
were completely submerged, two others continued to function only by use of
emergency equipment and most of the 35,000 people whose homes were completely
or seriously inundated were evacuated to quickly established refugee camps
tent colonies, schoolhouses and churches.
Following the flood, a full-time generalized nursing service was established
in the eight counties most seriously affected.
Under the circumstances, the flood victims were protected from disease and
illness remarkably well. Many had already been inoculated against typhoid
fever, smallpox and diphtheria as part of a Department promotion in that area
during the three years prior to the flood.