Prisoners, soldiers and students piled more sandbags on a 2-mile-long levee Wednesday, taking no chances even as a revised forecast predicted the Ohio River won’t go as high as initially feared.
“It’s OK, just OK with me,” said Jo Roberts, whose 157-year-old home overlooks the sandbags and the murky-brown river water lapping against them in this western Kentucky town. “We were relieved. It’s quite wonderful.”
She had hired men earlier in the day to lug expensive antiques upstairs and put other furniture on blocks to raise them above the expected flood. Most other people had already moved out of town.
Just in case something does go wrong, city officials went ahead and evacuated city hall and the water treatment plant for this town of 1,200.
“We’re in pretty good shape,” said D’Ache Moneymaker, Livingston County coordinator for the state Division of Disaster and Emergency Services. “Ain’t no doubt in my mind we can do it.”
More showers and thunderstorms were forecast across the Ohio and Tennessee valleys today and Friday, but they were not expected to be as heavy as the March 1 storms that started the flood with up to a foot of rain.
Since then, at least 59 deaths had been blamed on flooding and tornadoes from Arkansas to West Virginia. Two people were still missing in Kentucky and one was being sought in southern Ohio.
The Ohio River had receded back within its banks at Cincinnati, and barge traffic had been allowed to resume in the area of Louisville, Ky.
As all that water poured downstream, the river was still rising against the banks of southern Illinois and western Kentucky.
For more than a week, soldiers, civilians, students and jail prisoners had been building the flood wall protecting Smithland, at the confluence of the Ohio and Cumberland rivers and about 20 miles up the Ohio from Paducah.
The National Weather Service had forecast that the river would crest at 53 feet on Smithland on Friday, and the sandbag crews labored to build the levee at least one foot higher, up to 4 feet in spots.
But on Wednesday, the weather service said it made a mistake and the Ohio would actually climb to only 51.6 feet, hitting its peak today. It was already within less than 3 inches of that level on Wednesday.
“As we got closer to the crest, we realized our prediction was a little too high,” said Dave Reed, a hydrologist for Mississippi River Forecasting Center in Louisiana. “We simply thought there was more water coming downstream than there was.”
Water had already risen into small Illinois communities not protected by flood walls and several hundred people had been forced to move.
At Metropolis, a city of about 7,000 near the southern tip of Illinois, the Ohio had swallowed three downtown streets and wasn’t expected to crest until today at more than 16 feet above flood stage.
Trucks hauled away sandbags as fast as more than 100 people could fill them.
After the high water passes the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers on Saturday, flooding is expected from Illinois down to Louisiana.