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Historic Flooding Brings Ruin To Ohio River Valley No Relief In Sight As Highest Water In A Generation Continues To Rise

Thu., March 6, 1997

With the chocolate, churning Ohio River reaching its highest levels in 33 years here Wednesday, thousands turned out above the soggy banks to gawk, take photos, and stand in awe.

On foot and in slow-moving cars that snarled traffic, they swarmed the Civil War-era blue metal suspension bridge connecting Cincinnati with Covington, Ky. They trudged the earthen levees, their children in tow. They endured a steady afternoon rain, clutching their video cameras under their jackets. They posed toddlers in strollers with the fast-flowing water for a backdrop.

They lined the upper parking deck at Cinergy Field, once known as Riverfront Stadium, and watched the flotsam and jetsam of life from upriver pass them by - the tires and barrels and porch chairs, the car parts and trees and dead cows.

“It’s an event, a piece of history, that’s what it is,” said Al Weber, 47, a musician taking snapshots. “We read about the ‘37 flood. Now, I get to see this one.”

Folks who live along the Ohio mark time by the devastating floods of 1937 and 1964. The monuments and markers can now add a notch for 1997 with the water cresting here Wednesday at 64.2 feet - 12 feet above flood stage and nearly 40 feet higher than normal. The flood, said forecasters, could be the harbinger of a spring full of floods across the middle of the country, with predicted thunderstorms and record snowfalls this winter.

Wednesday, more than eight feet of water flooded Covington’s historic residential riverfront, lapping against the red brick and wrought iron of the century-old gentrified homes. Across the river, Cincinnati’s riverfront parks, warehouses and the lower parking decks of the stadium were awash, though the downtown, uphill, remained dry.

If the flood was more of a spectacle than a disaster at this bend of the river, elsewhere on the Ohio and its tributaries, overflowing waters from a week of rain left thousands homeless, at least 23 dead, and damage costing millions.

There was less awe and more aggravation in those communities.

“The ‘37 flood run us out. The last time we got run out was ‘64,” said Ollie Perdue, who with his wife, Mary Lee, evacuated to the United Fellowship Church when the waters engulfed their small riverside home in Warsaw, Ky., about 35 miles downriver from Cincinnati.

Perdue and his wife were among the evacuees Kentucky officials could only estimate in “the tens of thousands.”

Downriver in Louisville, Kentucky’s largest city, the Ohio, is expected to crest Friday, but not spill over the levees and hastily stacked sandbags that have turned the community into a walled fortress.

Even with the river cresting in Cincinnati Wednesday, relief was hardly in sight. The steady rains were expected to pour up to another inch and a half on the sodden river towns by Wednesday night.

“The trend is going to continue for the next several days to a week,” said Tom Adams, a hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Wilmington, Ohio. “The ground is saturated so a lot of that rainfall will go directly into the rivers. At the very least the rivers won’t be receding. … In fact, they’ll go back up some.”

In the hard-hit town of Falmouth, Ky., rooftop-high floodwaters finally receded to reveal homes off their foundations and sitting in the middle of streets. Everything was covered in coffee-colored muck - including the bodies of four more victims.

That put the death toll at five in the town of 2,700, where Vice President Al Gore was forced to cancel a visit after fog grounded his helicopter. Firefighters set up a temporary morgue and went about the grim task of searching house-by-house for more victims.

“I am praying that’s all we’ve got,” said police officer Ed Ward. “But I don’t think it will be.”

The floods already had forced thousands of people from their homes along the Ohio and smaller streams in Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia. Floods and tornadoes were blamed for a total of 54 deaths.

The overflowing Ohio is only a precursor of what is likely to come in the low-lying areas from West Virginia to Illinois.

“We’re looking for warm and wetter conditions than normal, above-average temperatures and moisture which is conducive to thunderstorms. So we could have additional flooding this spring,” Adams said.

Flooding won’t be limited to the Ohio River Valley either.

In the Plains states, officials are bracing for heavy flooding during the spring thaws. The Dakotas and other upper Midwestern states were blanketed with deep snow this winter in a series of punishing blizzards, which, with warm weather, will wreak more havoc.

Floods along the Red River, which runs north along the North Dakota-Minnesota border, are expected to be severe, said Philip Schumacher, science and operations officer for the National Weather Service in Grand Forks, N.D.

“Flooding is expected to be near or above record levels for this spring,” he said.

And in Sioux Falls, S.D., current snow levels indicate the city will have the worst spring flooding it’s seen since 1969.

Alex Koscielski, a weather service meteorologist in Sioux Falls, said record flooding was likely along the middle and lower James River and the Vermillion River in South Dakota, as well as the Rock, Floyd and Big Sioux Rivers in northwest Iowa.

Making things worse is that talk of the flood outlook had started before even more snow fell across the Plains earlier this week. Five new inches fell on Fargo, N.D., on Monday, setting a seasonal record there with almost eight feet.

But while that flooding would be in the future, the people along the Ohio were dealing with the very wet present.

Graphic: Where the Ohio River is rising


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