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Posted at 6:02 PM ET, 11/27/2010

Floodwaters on the Mall

By John Lockwood, Washington

The public announcement of a new, improved levee to be built at 17th Street NW brought to mind a previous levee that has been part of the downtown landscape for decades [“Flood plan proposed to protect Washington Mall,” Metro, Nov. 15].

From March 15 to 18, 1936, there were three days of torrential rainfall in the Washington area. The floodwaters reached a peak of 19 feet. East Potomac Park was underwater, as was the local airport. Even the White House was threatened.

Fortunately, the Roosevelt administration had time to put up a flood barrier. It was half a mile long, extending along Constitution Avenue, from the Lincoln Memorial at 23rd Street NW all the way to 14th Street NW. Some 3,000 workers from the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Civilian Conservation Corps were called in and began filling and laying sandbags.

According to newspaper reports, the crew worked through the night, under searchlights provided by the U.S. Army. One young man defiantly yelled, “We’ll build ’em so high, the river’ll run the other way.” There were some black workers with experience working on levees during Mississippi River floods. One was said to call out, “River, I’m not afraid of you. We’ve got you down, river.”

At 7 p.m. March 19, the flood reached its crest. The levee held.

Two years later, in February 1938, work began on a permanent levee, using 300 WPA workers. A 2,300-foot-long barrier was raised north of the Reflecting Pool, this time extending from the Lincoln Memorial as far as 17th Street NW. It was finished sometime in 1939. The old levee can still be seen today, covered with grass and blending in with the landscape.

By John Lockwood, Washington  | November 27, 2010; 6:02 PM ET
Categories:  D.C., HotTopic, National Mall, weather  
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I'm a very infrequent visitor, but Mr. Lockwood's letter seems to explain the formal, rather French atmosphere of the landscape north and east of the Vietnam Memorial. Necessity turned to art.

Posted by: DaveoftheCoonties | November 27, 2010 10:52 PM | Report abuse

The new flood control system will become part of the landscape in little time. A littel insurance now that will protect us for decades to come.

Posted by: krickey7 | November 29, 2010 10:33 AM | Report abuse

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