Anniversary of floods of 1943 remembered

Retired publisher Jim Mayo often said the Sequoyah County TIMES would never use a 72-point headline unless Jesus Christ was returning. But on May 14, 1943, Wheeler Mayo, the grandfather of Your TIMES went over the 72-point headline size when “Death and Destruction” hit an all time high record in Sequoyah County and the headline read “FLOODS, Highways Become Waterways Near Sallisaw.” Your TIMES remembers the anniversary of the incident, the lives that were lost and the disaster relief efforts made at the time.

The entire front page of the Sequoyah County TIMES dated Friday, May 14, 1943, was devoted to floods, when the highest flood stage ever recorded for the Arkansas River (38 feet)  at Forth Smith, Ark., was broken by rains from the week before causing the river to crest at 41.7 feet then spill over into Sequoyah County and even into Muskogee.

“Small branches became raging torrents, and the larger creeks and rivers dealt out death and destruction to people, livestock, crops and property in proportions never dreamed before,” the paper wrote.

Although the first flood occurred when 8.33 inches of rain poured from the skies in 72 “ceaseless hours” and “rolled country streams” to history making crests while stories of heroic rescues and the suffering of victims from the flood were still pouring into the newspaper office, the Times reported.

Rescue efforts from Gen. Sloan's men from Camp Gruber helped save the lives of more than 400 residents in Sequoyah County, according to W.S. Agent who said large boats were used to construct pontoon bridges to assist residents to safety.

The TIMES also reported farm agent officials and farmers from the flooded areas would not begin to estimate the amount of crop and property damage but was estimated to run into millions of dollars in Sequoyah County alone. 

W.A. Matthews, a Sequoyah County resident who was “well knowledgeable” with crop conditions in Sequoyah County, estimated total damage to the crops in Sequoyah County would surpass $5 million and several more millions in damage would be suffered in the loss of livestock, tools, real estate and other property in the flooded areas.

A second article which followed a week later on May 21, 1943, reading “REPEAT FLOOD” was attributed to “millions and millions” of tons of new rainfall which generated into a second flood and prevented many residents, who had been displaced the week before, from returning to their homes.

The town of Sallisaw opened up the post office to serve as the main headquarters for a three-county rehabilitation center with the help of Red Cross providing relief to Sequoyah, LeFlore and Haskell County residents. 

Registration for those seeking rehabilitation began in Muldrow and continued into Vian, Gore and Webber Falls.

“Sequoyah County, your state Welfare Board and the Oklahoma State Department of Health have all been doing a grand job of carrying on relief work until we could get our organization into operation,” said Frances Smith, a Red Cross representative who was sent from St. Louis, Mo., along with her team of disaster relief volunteers to assist the flood victims in Sequoyah County and surrounding area.

An article which ran in the Cornell Daily Sun on May 13, 1943, read “The flooded Arkansas River today broke the conduit supplying water to this city and to Camp Chaffee. About three million gallons or a six-day supply was in storage.

The Arkansas-based publication went on to say the conduit was suspended under the Fort Smith-Van Buren, Ark., bridge “which has been trolled ceaselessly against the possibility the big pipe would break. The bridge floor itself was under from two to three feet of water when the conduit gave way. Evacuations numbered in the thousands and thousands of farmland planted for food were flooded.”

Wheeler Mayo wrote many things about the floods in his column “Wise Others.”   In the same publication which carried the first story of the flood, Mayo wrote,  “To jump from what we called a DROUTH into a regular second Noah's flood, caught our people totally unprepared for what was coming, and to this history-making high water, can be attributed the fact that our losses were so great.

“With the receding of the water, we hope that the Government will start rehabilitating our lowland farmers, for if the government will make it possible, we believe that 90 percent of those whose entire worldly goods were lost, will go back to their farms and start another crop.”

Mayo questioned along with others during that time—the influence the Grand River Dam had on the two devastating floods and should it continue as it did with “inadequate” flood control storage. He also mentioned the loss of lives from members of the military when their boat was carried into the main part of the stream by current while working on the Haskell side of the area.

Some of the events which took place during the floods of 1943 were Sallisaw residents opened their homes to more than 40 soldiers who were stranded by high waters. The Sallisaw Boy Scouts escorted the soldiers to the homes where they were to be guests until the waters receded.

Farm Security Administration (FSA) Loans were made available for farmers in Sequoyah County who suffered loss from the floods.

In Gore, the east approach to the Arkansas River bridge on U.S. Highway 64 was washed out along with the large steel electric transmission tower belonging to OG&E.

In Sallisaw, Vian and Muldrow, the water supply was checked after the flood and pronounced safe and Typhoid immunizations were administered.

Farmers from the bottom lands reported sand boils caused a great deal of damage to the “best” lands.

And in Wheeler Mayo's column dated May 28, 1943, a little over two weeks following the floods, he wrote:

“I want to see power developed as one comprehensive system of flood control and power dams in the Arkansas Valley. I do not want to see power developed at the expense of disastrous floods. 

“Major Gen. Eugene Reybold, chief of the army engineers, said in St. Louis Sunday that floods can be controlled only through a comprehensive system operated by a single authority. Dams operated by a variety of agencies with conflicting purposes can do more harm than good. I agree with that thoroughly.”

Mayo would always balance out his columns with some light-hearted humor and ending with a positive note such as putting focus on the good regardless of the situation.

He wrote, Mr. and Mrs. Frank Herring's climbing roses are now in full bloom and the fence around their east lot looks like a beautiful bouquet.

“The J.C. Wolfe's roses are just now getting ready to bloom and by this weekend should be at their best. You ought to drive by and see these beautiful flowers. It will let you forget our floods for a little while.”

Sequoyah County Times

111 N. Oak
Sallisaw OK 74955
918-775-4433