Local history: One-fifth of city under water in ‘73 flood

Contributed photo / This view of Chattanooga from I-24 at Rossville Boulevard shows almost completely submerged buildings in 1973.

Local residents still tell stories about the week in 1973 when the rain kept falling and the waters kept rising. Photographs prove those stories were not exaggerations but a "high water" mark in Chattanooga history.

The News-Free Press headline on Friday, March 16, 1973, announced what area residents already knew was true: "Rain Wipes Out Roads, Bridges in Area," with a prediction that flood stage waters would intensify the chaos. The Tennessee Valley Authority calculated that the Tennessee River was at the 20-foot level, but the continuing rains threatened the crest hitting the 100-year record by the weekend. Flash flood warnings asked citizens in Hamilton, Marion, Sequatchie and Bradley counties to remain vigilant. Scores of Chattanoogans were evacuated as their homes flooded, and more would be forced to relocate during the next two days as tributaries rose.

Civil Defense volunteers joined by the Red Cross, rescue squads, and fire and police departments sprang into action across the region. Within hours Highways 27, 127, 153, 58, 41 and 11 had sections blocked due to the rising waters. Manhole covers across the city had "blown off," adding to the road hazards. The Possum Creek bridge was quickly covered by the waters. Signal Mountain residents were trapped at home as mud slides and falling rocks blocked roads off the mountain.

The Tennessee Valley Authority responded to the continuing rains by increasing its total discharge through Chickamauga Dam to 100,000 cubic feet per second. At the same time, EPB employees were called into action, as power poles were loosened by the heavy rains and lines were downed by falling trees.

Chattanooga City Schools announced they would be in session on Friday, the second day of heavy rains. Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Sam McConnell told reporters that schools would be open, but bus routes were being modified because many rural roads were impassable. He urged parents to use good judgment, noting that students who could not safely get to school would be excused. Simultaneously, law enforcement agencies cautioned motorists from attempting to "drive through rising waters." Wrecker services were struggling to answer the calls from stranded motorists who "didn't think the water was that high."

By the next day, the NFP headline read "Over 8-Inch Rain Leaves 4 Dead, Scores Injured." Mike Levan reported that those eight inches of rain falling in two days had resulted in "hundreds" forced to evacuate from "all sections of Brainerd, in Valleybrook and Adams Road areas of Hixson and in sections of Rossville," as the Tennessee River and Chickamauga Creek continued to rise.

The Weather Service released a statement that the rainfall was "just below the amount that fell in Chattanooga in March 1886," flooding the entire city, and "two inches over the amount that fell" in 1963.

Brainerd residents from Moore Road eastward watched as the waters flooded homes, businesses and farms. Eastgate and Brainerd Village shopping centers were covered with water, and rescue personnel worked "under full speed" to help citizens and livestock. One crew labored to save more than 50 head of cattle at the White Farm near Moore Road. Sgt. Lewis Guinn, Chattanooga Police Department, reported that "just about any place near a creek or the river is under water, and it's getting deeper. Brainerd, Alton Park, East Lake and Rossville" were all in danger.

Mayor Robert Kirk Walker responded immediately, working with other governmental officials in the region including at the state and federal levels. Gov. Winfield Dunn activated the 1-181 FA Battalion of the Tennessee National Guard to assist with emergency plans and issued a statement that Chattanooga was facing "the worst flood since TVA began control projects," pledging to do all within his power to help.

Community shelters opened at Hixson Junior High, Elbert Long Elementary, Spring Creek Elementary, the Tennessee National Guard Armory on Holtzclaw Avenue and Jasper Elementary. Within hours, additional shelters were needed. Volunteers prepared Barger Elementary, Brainerd Junior High, Orchard Knob, Hamilton County Juvenile Court, St. Mary's Episcopal Mission, Riverside High, Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Auditorium, East Ridge Baptist and the YMCA to hold families.

By Sunday morning, the rains had stopped, and the sun was shining. One-fifth of Chattanooga lay under water. Almost 700 homes had suffered major damage; more than 400 businesses and 12 manufacturing plants had been forced to close for clean-up. As the shelters began closing and people returned home to assess damages, governmental leaders huddled to talk about the future.

Linda Moss Mines is the Chattanooga and Hamilton County historian. For more information, visit Chattahistoricalassoc.org.