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August 26, 1931 - The Floods Come
Gaoyou Grand Canal Flood of 1931 – Gaoyou Lake and the “Dang Jun Lou Break” Charles Lindbergh Photo taken
9-21-31. Click for larger picture.
Forgotten China Flood of 1931 – The Most
Devastating Flood of the 20th century,
To this day, the China flood of 1931 is
regarded as the most devastating water-related disaster anywhere in the
20th century, perhaps ever. During the flood, over 140,000
Chinese drowned, 3.7 million were killed in the 9 months that followed
and not less than 70,000 square miles flooded, often over 10-15 feet
deep for periods of 3 -6 months. The flood had begun with record summer
rainstorms all across China. By August, all hell broke loose as China’s
3 primary rivers, the Yangtze, the Hwang and the Hwai, each massively
overflowed their banks, surpassing all previous flood levels. The
Yangtze alone would flood to record levels for over a month and a half,
starting from Chongqing Aug. 6th, to Hankou Aug. 19th,
down to Nanjing on Sept. 16th, covering over 900 miles long
averaging 40 miles wide.
High Velocity Flow, Lake Waters Rip through the Gaoyou Dike Big Break at Dang
Jun Lou (Photo Nanjing Archives).
The Huai river flood to the north was equal or
greater in magnitude. One one thinks of a conventional flood, it comes
and it goes. Not so this flood, it came and receded very slowly waters
languished on the land for 3-6 months. The floods impact grew month by
month as winter approached and there was little food or shelter. In
total, it affected over 50,000,000 people leaving a year long trail of
death, starvation and disease. The 1931 flood killed 15 times the number
of people lost in the Indonesian tsunamis of December 2004, and yet
scarcely a word has been written of it. History focused instead on
other disasters that year. China’s attention was on a civil war between
the Communists and Nationalists; the Japanese were invading in the
North, while the world was deep into the Great Depression.
The Grand Canal Levee Breaks of 1931 at Gaoyou
Jiangsu Flood Map – Gaoyou Lake is at the center - # 14 flood district.
Green area to the East is the 10,000 sq. mi. flood area, photographed by
The city of Gaoyou, in Northern Jiangsu
Province, was one of the epicenters of the tragedy. It lies about 125
miles northwest of Shanghai and the Yangtze, in the lower Hwai river
valley. On August 26, 1931, a severe typhoon blew in upon Gaoyou Lake
which was already swollen to record levels. The winds stirred up
ocean-like waves that pounded the earthen Grand Canal levees. Lake
Gaoyou is the 6th largest in China, and it sits downstream of
Hongtze Lake, which is even larger. Gaoyou Lake surged
precariously above the neighboring cities, situated below grade and to
the East. In the early morning hours, this above-grade, “suspended lake”
gouged six enormous holes in the levees; the largest break, called Dang
Jun Lou, and was 550 meters wide (see Lindbergh photos).
The backed up pressure of 2 of the
largest Lakes in China was unleashed and poured down its fury upon the
city, the Province and its people.
It is estimated that in Gaoyou, 10,000
people died that morning, but no one would really ever know. Dead bodies
were everywhere, the papers said like floating fish passing in the
river. A total of 77,000 would die in the ensuing months from disease
and starvation in the Gaoyou area alone.
Harnsberger Houseboat Photo of the 10,000 sq. mile endless sea upon the
fertile Jiangsu plains
Gaoyou Flood. August 26, 1931 Nanjing Archives Photo
"Dead bodies were floating like fish passing in the river”
There were over 20 additional levee
breaks on the Grand Canal levees that August, and across China, nearly
1000 levees broke; resulting in 5000 miles of levees in need of repair.
The huge holes in the Gaoyou dikes were carved nearly 20 feet below the
Lake and Grand Canal level. In Gaoyou, it was a single break that
brought on unprecedented destruction to an entire province, a flooded
territory so broad that Anne Lindbergh later described it as if Lake
Michigan had been dropped on the entire state of New York.
The late September aerial survey photos
taken by Charles Lindbergh showed Gaoyou Lake completely flooding
through the dike breaks a full month later. It would take the
missionary Harnsberger, engineer Wang Shuxiang and 20,000 workers nearly
nine months to seal the major break at Dang Jun Lou. Over 8,000 square
miles in North Jiangsu remained inundated in flood water as late as
December, 1931, over 3 months later.
Five million farmers were forced from the
land, and the current season’s rice and the next winter’s wheat crop
were a complete loss, resulting in massive starvation. But Gaoyou would
also become the site of a remarkable reconstruction project instigated
by three men who inspired the entire province of Jiangsu.