Friday, July 24, 2009


After the flooding we had on July 2, I started thinking about the Flood of 1955 and went back through my notes for the exhibit I curated at the Mattatuck Museum in 2005 to remind myself of the sequence of events that led to the 1955 flood. Circumstances are certainly different today--numerous flood control dams were constructed after 1955--but I still wonder just how bad things could get.

The immediate cause of the 1955 flood was a double-whammy of hurricanes. Hurricane Connie dumped 3.5 inches of rain on Waterbury on August 13, while Diane brought 8.06 inches on Waterbury and 14.25 inches on Torrington a week later, on the night of August 18-19.

Flooding on the Green, August 19, 1955 (Collection of the Mattatuck Museum Arts & History Center)

There have been other major floods in Waterbury's history: in 1896, heavy rainstorms on February 6, February 29 and March 19 turned the streets downtown into rivers five feet deep; a flood on November 19, 1853 took out nearly all of the bridges on the Naugatuck River; while the first recorded flood, in February of 1691, wiped out farmland and drowned the Green.

On July 2 this year, an estimated 4 to 5 inches of rain fell in three hours, manhole covers popped off and many streets were under several feet of water. As we all know, we've had a tremendous amount of rain this year. The river is higher than normal (I've been told four feet higher, but I haven't fact-checked). The flooding we had this month is presumably linked to the city's sewer and drainage system being unable to handle that volume of water, but I've also been told that the elevated height of the river relative to the drains is part of the problem.

View of the flood on August 19, 1955 from Waterbury Hospital (Collection of the Mattatuck Museum Arts & History Center)

Considering how much rain we've had this summer, and considering just how saturated the ground and rivers are, I'm a little concerned about hurricane season. Yes, we have flood control dams now, so the overall devastation surely wouldn't be as bad, but what we saw on July 2 suggests that we could be in for a lot more localized flooding and wash-outs.


Anonymous said...

One strange aspect of the 1955 flood is that it saved the state millions of dollars. Many of the buildings destroyed by the flood would have been condemned a few years later for the construction of Route 8. Instead of having to buy buildings, the state bought mostly vacant lots, which were much cheaper.


Anonymous said...

Peter. I agree. It was great for the state! Unfortunately, both the flood and the highways had a devastating impact on the downtowns along the Route 8 corridor. The highways just made the impact of the flood damage more permanent.