Louisville, Ky., bolted the gates shut in its floodwall Tuesday as the highest water along the Ohio River in 30 years pushed downstream, swamping one town after another and swelling the ranks of people driven from their homes.
“I literally broke down and cried at 4 this morning,” Jack Hall said after watching the Ohio lap through the door of his home in Utica, Ind.
The Ohio was out of its banks from West Virginia to Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana, and the water wasn’t expected to crest in most places until today or later. Thousands of evacuees waited for the river to start dropping; thousands more downstream moved out as the water rolled closer.
“All I’ve got is the clothes on my back,” Mike Donley said after leaving his home in New Richmond, Ohio, a community of some 2,500 people about 20 miles upstream from Cincinnati.
The river was engorged by runoff from record downpours over the weekend that already had forced thousands of people from their homes along smaller streams in Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia. A total of 50 deaths had been blamed on the flooding and the weekend’s tornadoes.
Most states had no estimate of the numbers of people evacuated. In Kentucky alone, “by all measurements, it would be in the tens of thousands,” state emergency management spokesman Don Armstrong said.
President Clinton declared 14 counties disaster areas in Ohio and nine in Kentucky, making them eligible for federal assistance.
City crews in Louisville worked to close the 45 gateways in the city’s 1-1/2-foot-thick concrete floodwall. First they had to build a framework around each opening, then bolt a huge sheet of aluminum across it.
The gateways, openings for streets, also were to be sealed with some 120,000 sandbags by the time the river crested late today at about 13 feet above the 23-foot flood stage.
No problems were expected inside Louisville’s floodwall, but outside some low-lying neighborhoods were already awash in muddy water.
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