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Floyd River flood of '53 wreaks havoc on Sioux City
The Second and South Westcott streets bridge was a mass of twisted steel and broken concrete in the flood's wake. The arrow points to the broken telephone cables, the lifeline between the Sioux City exchange and Morningside. Pictured are servicemen with Northwestern Bell Telephone Co. (Sioux City Journal file photo by George Newman)

The report of the impending flood was called in to the Sioux City Police Department about 9:30 a.m. Monday, June 8, 1953. Officers were dispatched to warn people and radio stations encouraged listeners in the flood plain to evacuate the area.

Darold Sea was 21 years old and in his first year of teaching at North Junior High School.

"I had a buddy visiting and we had heard the river was rising, so we thought we would check it out," he said.

About 10 a.m., Sea and his pal drove over to 28th Street and Floyd Boulevard, "just to take a peek" and were amazed at how fast the river was rising.

"You could see with the naked eye the river actually rise and then falls of water about a foot high," he marveled. "A police officer told us that this was bad."

It was the suddenness and violence of the June flood that caught most people unprepared, even though rains for the previous two months should have been an omen. In fact, most of the Springdale residential area east of the Floyd River between 28th and 33rd streets appeared to be part of the river itself on March 30, the day before April Fool's Day, but it was no joke. Water flooded most of the basements and came up to the ground level in some houses.

At that time, it should have been a warning, but Siouxland had weathered floods in the past. On this sunny June day, the situation appeared to be no different.

A gentle rain started early Sunday morning, June 7, 1953, then changed to a severe storm system that spread over Siouxland, bringing thunderstorms, cloudbursts and several damaging tornadoes. Record rainfalls were reported in Sioux Center, 7 1/2 inches; Sheldon, 8 1/2 inches, Remsen, 6 inches, Akron, 5 inches, and Spencer, 4 inches.

Add to that the 3 inches Sioux City received between 3:20 a.m. and 11 p.m. on Sunday and the stage was set for the hopeless situation in which the Floyd River was placed.

The river, fed by runoffs from the north, struck the northern part of the city Monday morning, burst through its dikes and quickly inundated two-thirds of Leeds.

What started up north ultimately turned into a wall of water 8 to 12 feet high when it hit Sioux City.

The flood developed so swiftly, traditional warnings were impossible. The Floyd continued its onslaught through Leeds, Springdale, the city's main industrial complex, and residential areas, driving thousands from their homes. Into the swirling waters went houses, trailers, cars, cattle, gasoline tanks, railroad cars, prized personal possessions and, most tragically, human beings.

Disaster assistance

As with most disasters, law enforcement, firefighters and the National Guard stepped in to assist with the tremendous task ahead of them.

Robert Worden, 79, joined the Sioux City Police Department in 1949 as a patrolman at age 27. He retired in 1986 as an assistant police chief.

"We went on 12-hour shifts then," he said of June 8, "working all kinds of different jobs."

Because he was fairly new on the force, Worden didn't take part in rescue operations or investigation. However, he was one of thousands who had to get a typhoid shot because of his work in the water.

"I remember the boats running up and down and rescuing people, but I was not in any of them," he said. "I was able to get into an Army DUKW (an amphibious vehicle used during World War II) and go into the South Bottoms area where the railroad tracks were out."

Worden worked the corner of Fourth and Wall streets, stopping traffic from going east.

"All the way down Fourth Street, the water was almost up to stop lights," he recalled. "In fact, I remember the signal light at Fourth and Plymouth streets had brush hanging from it."

With tremendous resiliency, Sioux Cityans set aside their own safety to assist in rescue and cleanup operations. That was a plus for the officers working those 12-hour shifts.

"People were very cooperative and willing to volunteer," Worden said of his patrolling the traffic patterns. "They would come right up to me and ask what they could do to help out."

Don Bauerly was a first sergeant with the Army Guard and received a call that morning.

"We were called out to patrol the dikes and to rescue people who were stranded," he said.

Bauerly, too, recalled the Army DUKWs that were brought in from Des Moines for the rescue operation.

"They took folks off the roof of the Wincharger building," he recalled of the manufacturer which was located at Seventh and Division streets. Water reached a depth of nine feet there and left more than a foot of silt covering the office, manufacturing equipment and inventories.

"Units from Sheldon, Le Mars, Ida Grove and Mapleton were all called up that day," Bauerly remembered.

"They housed them in the schools and we were headquartered in the old armory at Ninth and Pearl," he said of the current location of the Boys Club.

Former Assistant Fire Chief Robert "Bob" Miller was deployed to the Morningside fire station once the call came in that the flood was on its way. He became a fireman in October of 1940 and retired in 1968.

"Since I was an assistant chief then (in 1953), they thought it best I was sent out there to Morningside," he recalled.

He barely made it before the water flooded out roads which connected the Morningside area to downtown. If he had been delayed, it would have meant a trip to Blair, Neb., the only other way to get from downtown to Morningside. Miller alternated work between the Morningside station and his house on Fourth Avenue for several days.

"Our job was to get the people out of Greeenville," he said. "I remember the water was up to Firehouse No. 5, the one in the Fairmount Park area."

Although apologizing for not remembering many specifics, the 89-year-old Miller recalled a house explosion in the Kendon Addition, possibly in the 1600 block of North Irene Street.

"There's always the danger of fire with a flood," he explained. "The force of the water can cause a problem with the gas in the house."

Once the water receded, evacuation was completed and the danger of fire passed, Miller said the job of the firemen changed to patiently waiting to be called out.

"A lot of times, there's nothing for us (the firefighters) to do but sit and wait for emergency calls," he said. "But when there's an emergency, we are ready and prepared."

That would be the strength of a fire department?

"Amen!" he agreed.

Rescue operation

Sea became part of the rescue operation when he offered a police officer the use of his family's boat, then moored at Crystal Lake. He and his buddy stopped at the police station, then at Sixth and Water streets, and were told the "sooner they could get to the river, the better."

They closest they could get was East Seventh Street, approximately where Four Seasons Health Club is today, where they parked the trailer and put the boat into the water.

Sea estimated he went out about 25 times in the boat to bring back people who were stranded on rooftops and upper stories of homes and businesses. He did this until he was in need of being rescued himself.

"The water was so swift, it knocked my boat into a tree and we lost our five-horsepower motor at about 10th and Steuben streets," Sea said.

That was the defining moment of the peril of the flood for Sea.

"I had started out helping out because it seemed like an adventure," he admitted. "At that moment, I was scared."

Because of the scarcity of boats, the police instructed Sea to go to the store and get a 25-horsepower motor to continue the rescue operation.

Sea added, "I remember as it grew dark, we tied ropes around each other, which were tied to a National Guard truck and searched homes for survivors, before we were told it was too dangerous to continue."

Services impaired

The flood impacted all services in the community. Bob Miller, a Sioux City native who has lived in San Diego, Calif., since 1999, was a mail processor.

"The terminal was at the foot of Jackson Street, where the Chevrolet dealership is today," he recalled in a phone conversation while visiting his son in Sioux City. "It was called the Union Depot because the railroad was right there."

He continued, "It was just after lunch and we could see the water coming down the tracks, but the boss said not to worry, the water wouldn't come into the building."

Within an hour there was ankle-deep water and much scurrying around to get the mail up high to keep it dry. Someone with a four-wheeler picked him up and took him home.

"We couldn't go back to work the next day," Miller said. "But it didn't matter. We couldn't have gotten the mail out to Morningside anyway. They were all foot carriers back then and there were no jeeps."

To keep himself busy, the Central High graduate, volunteered to help clean-up.

"There was quite a bit of mud in the Greenville area, so I helped in the area behind Greenville Pharmacy," he said.

Crews of Iowa Public Service (IPS) and Northwestern Bell Telephone Co. worked tirelessly to get utilities back in order.

The phone company was faced with a gigantic job with water in the dial office when Leeds was flooded heavily. Telephone service in the stockyards and Morningside area was out when lines which were under the South Westcott bridge were damaged in that collapse.

IPS servicemen were going through the flooded area, shutting off gas in abandoned homes. Electric service was restored in two days to almost the entire flood-stricken area by means of by-pass circuits.

Maynard Bennett was a junior engineer with IPS who had joined the company just a year and a half before the flood. Although he was not in on the restoration of electricity, he did help sandbag around the service building at Iowa and Dace streets.

For two to three days.

"I was stranded there," he said. "I also helped load and unload people and supplies into the boats which came down to our building. That was the way I got home to my house in Morningside, by boat."

Bennett, at age 82, admitted his memories weren't as interesting as the men who were out in the flood.

"Ernie Ruan and Warren Kane had great stories but they're both gone now," he said. "I was just a kid back then."

Kid or not, Bennett had to watch his car float away from the IPS parking lot.

"I saw it float down to the railroad crossing, which isn't there anymore, and get hung up on the switch," he said. "It was a total loss."

Monday: flood damage tops $25 million.

Joanne Fox may be reached at (712) 293-4247 or


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