This week marks the thirtieth anniversary of the St. Patrick’s Day flood in Chattanooga. The first two weeks of March, 1973 included several sunny days, and only occasional rain. However, a deluge began on Thursday, March 15, 1973 and continued through Sunday, March 18. With so much rain in a short amount of time, the volume of water overwhelmed the creeks and river in the valley. According to the report, “Floods of March-April 1973 in Southeastern United States” by George W. Edelen, Jr. and John F. Miller, “The low system that developed moved slowly and became almost stationary across the Southeastern States for nearly 3 days, resulting in rainfall in excess of 9 inches over much of northern Mississippi, Alabama, and central and southern Tennessee during March 14-18. Observed point 1- and 2-day rainfall amounts exceeded the 100-year recurrence interval over a large area.”
Chattanooga had experienced many floods prior to TVA, but the flood of 1973 was the greatest test since the dams were constructed. Without TVA, it was estimated that half of the city would have been inundated. For an idea of what that would have meant, view the photo of the flood of 1867 at http://www.lib.chattanooga.gov/photos/00000147.jpg, with a larger copy of it on display at the Tennessee Aquarium. However, with numerous creeks flowing into the Tennessee River around Chattanooga, the funnel-effect created by the narrow Tennessee River Gorge, and our valley’s easily-waterlogged clay soil, the area is still vulnerable to floods. The storm system of the St. Patrick’s Day flood dropped most of its rain in southeast Tennessee, downstream of the upper river TVA reservoirs.
The first areas to be affected by the 1973 flood included Eleventh Street and Alton Park, with Chattanooga Creek overflowing its banks. Mud and rock slides occurred on both Signal and Lookout Mountain. As the rain continued, 23rd Street and portions of Highland Park were covered. The Gibson’s Discount Center at 23rd and Rossville Boulevard became an island. In the Brainerd area, sandbags were placed in vain to protect Eastgate and Brainerd Village from the high waters of South Chickamauga Creek. Ironically, Eastgate had been hosting a boat show. A photo of a man paddling a kayak near Goony Golf was featured in a 1973 National Geographic article on the flood. Another photo showed some men in a boat using brooms as oars. Many sections of East Ridge were also affected, and the K-Mart joined Gibson’s as a retail island. Around 200 streets, including I-75, in Chattanooga were reported under water by Sunday, March 18. Lovell Field closed for four and a half days.
Chattanooga survived the flood through the efforts of an untold number of its emergency workers and citizens. The Red Cross was very active in setting up shelters at such locations such as St. Elmo Elementary, Brainerd Jr. High, Riverside High, and Barger Elementary. National Guard personnel assisted, as did local police, fire, and rescue units. Many worked around the clock. In addition to numerous rescues of people trapped in their homes, there were animals to be saved including deer at Warner Park and area livestock. By March 20, some of the waterlogged stores in the area reopened. However, as the waters flowed away from Chattanooga, they caused the rest of the Tennessee, the Ohio, and the Mississippi River valleys to be flooded. Marion County, U.S. 72 near Stevenson, and the Redstone Arsenal at Huntsville, were in the path of the rising water. Local government officials quickly appealed for financial assistance, and the first disaster relief check arrived in early April.
The flood remains a memory for those who lived here in 1973. In my Hixson High School yearbook, there are pictures of the flooding around the school, including the creek bridge on Old Hixson Pike and the present location of the football stadium. Hixson Pike at Valleybrook became a causeway, with waters within inches of the road on both sides. As a relatively new driver, I remember navigating our 1969 Malibu station wagon in torrential rain after attending a Thursday evening basketball game, and then hearing the rain all night long.
The postscript to the flood of 1973 was the construction of the Brainerd levee along South Chickamauga Creek in the late 1970’s. As somewhat of an “I told you so” of history, in the 1950’s, both Aubrey Wagner of TVA and former Mayor Rudy Olgiati proposed a similar levee system, but it did not receive funding.
If you have memories of the St. Patrick’s Day Flood of 1973, please send me an e-mail at email@example.com.