Mapping Disaster: The Potomac River Flood of 1936

My initial proposal for my Digital Project outlined the best case, long term form this digital project could take. For my final project, I chose to pursue a more attainable deliverable by focusing on a single decade and single flood event—the 1930s and the Potomac River Flood of 1936. I also chose to develop a StoryMap Journal (check it out!!) to make the project more narrative than a standalone (albeit interactive) digital map might be.

I was super fortunate in that ArcGIS layers for the flood of 1936, the zoning map, and census data for D.C in the 1930s, were already developed by other users. This saved me from having to do the super time-consuming task of marrying raw data and shape files to create base layers of my own. I was able to combine several layers of data: census, zoning, and flood levels, and add locations of flood control projects, to build a narrative of vulnerability and bring the most heavily impacted locations and populations into sharper relief. I provided context for the map(s) with text from the Flood Control Act of 1936, images from the flood event, contemporary news media, and narration. Altogether, this StoryMaps journal is a chapter (or draft chapter) of the history of flooding in Washington, D.C., and by performing a critical reading/interpretation of traditionally top-down sources (governmental records, policy, demographic data, etc.), begins to reveal the longstanding human impact—beyond immediate loss of life—of flood events in the District.

I can imagine a realistic finished digital project for this course taking one of two directions (and would love your feedback on which direction of development you would be most interested in seeing):

  1. Sticking with the 1930s and adding more data/maps from the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), any personal narratives of the flood captured in news media or hearings of the Senate’s Committee on the District of Columbia. This approach could fill in more details about the impact of this particular flood event and further demonstrate the utility of layering various types of data.
  2. Adding information about another decade, likely the 1940s, to illustrate population growth and distribution, modifications in zoning, subsequent flood events, and other flood mitigation projects (if any). The utility of this approach is demonstrating a pattern of constructed vulnerability over time.   

In either case, my final project will include consideration for how a project of this nature might be publicized to the broader public. Further it will include a plan or draft form through which community collaborators might submit stories/firsthand accounts from disaster events within their communities.

Long-term, I imagine this type of digital project becoming a component of my dissertation, that incorporates the sort of data I’ve used here over the entirety of the 20th century to tell a story about chronic flooding in Washington, D.C. It would reveal patterns of environmental inequality within the built environment of the city, and include oral history accounts of individuals who have experienced these flood events firsthand with the goal of becoming a co-curated project with the potential of achieving tangible policy change.

3 Replies to “Mapping Disaster: The Potomac River Flood of 1936”

  1. Hi Carmen, Wow! This is one of the best StoryMap narratives I’ve seen. The layering together of that census map and the flood map are powerful and I really appreciate the way that you integrated the historical photos in it. It took me a little bit to get oriented to the map and the information, so you might consider walking the user through some of the map in a few initial zoom and explanation stops on your narrative structure. That is, if you zoomed in and pointed out some specific locations and explained a bit of about what the colors mean and or point out some specific areas to click to see the census information. I think that could help orient users to your narrative and help get them to understand how much rich data is coming together in the interface you’ve built. Overall, it’s really exciting to see how this is coming together.

  2. Hi Carmen! Your project is looking AMAZING. It’s really easy to navigate, and the maps you’ve created and historical documents you’ve included add so much to the narrative.

    Per your question of which direction to take it in, personally I think it would be interesting to see responses to subsequent flood events in the 1940s and beyond. Your project is designed so well that I think you could easily show change (or lack thereof) over time, which could be a really powerful way (as you note) to show a pattern of constructed vulnerability in years beyond the 1930s. I do, however, really like the idea of adding personal narratives to get at the human impact of the 1936 flood. If you plan to continue this project in the future, it’d be interesting to see if experience changed with other floods.

    Overall, though, it looks great and I’m looking forward to seeing an updated version!

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