Wednesday, March 5, 1997
River opens a floodgate
of spectacles

The Cincinnati Enquirer

They come to the riverfront to be awed. No one leaves disappointed.

Walking in twos and threes, clutching cameras and shushing excited kids, they're looking for a river gone mad from the Flood of '97.

They don't have to look far. The Ohio's muddy waters, cold, swift and smelling of destruction, are everywhere.

This is the biggest flood since 1964. Most Cincinnatians have never seen the water this high. It's history in the making and still on the rise.

And so they come. Downtown workers - toting video cams - dashing down on their lunch hour. Families from the suburbs driving down at dusk. People want to see, hear and smell this flood.

Inexorably drawn to the river like so many generations of Cincinnatians before them, the people I met viewed the flood as an opportunity. Sweeping through downtown, spilling over walls and parking lots, the sight of it offered some a memory for the future, for others a glimpse of the past.

Current of memories

Warren Pierce was here with his family, showing them how the river had nearly surrounded the Crown, the arena he still calls the Coliseum.

''We've been to the Coliseum for ice shows and concerts when everything outside was dry,'' said the Hanover Township man. ''Now, they see the water covering all this land. And they know now there's no stopping Mother Nature.''

Joe Simon was trying to hang on to old and new memories. All with one photograph. The Oakley man had paused to take a snapshot of his 16-year-old son, Chris. They stood on the bridge connecting Cinergy Field with the Crown.

Joe wanted the shot ''as a reminder of spending time with my son.''

He had to take it at just the right spot on the bridge, though. The skyline had to be in the background. And the photo had to look down on the flooded parking lot.

''My father lived down there,'' Joe said as he peered over the side of the bridge. ''That used to be called the Bottoms. It was all old buildings. Back then, nobody wanted to build any fancy new stadiums in the Bottoms.

''My grandparents moved there after they came to this country. They were Lebanese.''

And poor. When the river flooded, they lost everything. And they couldn't afford to lose anything.

Swept away

At the bottom of a concrete spiral staircase near the Crown, David Hutton watched the river swirl around the Showboat Majestic and lap at the staircase's steps.

Earlier in the day, he could have sworn he saw a house float by. ''The chimney was barely hanging on.''

Then a freezer.

''Just bobbing in the river.''

Followed by a skateboard.

''Didn't know they could float.''

He looked down at the stairs. In the time he had taken to tell his story, the river had swallowed a pair of steps.

''People talk about all of the possessions they lose in a flood,'' he said. ''That's sad. But what's even sadder is when someone loses their life. You can always get a new house or new clothes. But you can't get a new life.''

If he could, he'd get one for his mother. ''She died last year. This rain makes me think of her. Want to see her picture?''

The Clifton man fished through a plastic bag. ''I keep it in here,'' he said, ''so it won't rust.''

He's had his mother's photo made into a button.

''I wear it in sunny weather. So I can see her face.''

On Tuesday, Jo Brennan took the bus from White Oak with her son, Jeff. The fourth-grader's school was closed.

''So we decided to make it a history day and see the river,'' Jeff's mom said after taking flood photos from the Central Bridge.

''The river hasn't been this high in 33 years,'' she noted. In 1964, she was 6 years old. She never saw that flood. In those days, suburbanites did not visit the riverfront.

Today, they do. Especially when ''history's right in front of us.''

So she brought her camera to record the memories of this day. That way, when Jeff grows up, he can tell his kids:

''I saw the Flood of '97.''

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Available to speak to groups. Tips and comments most welcome. Call 768-8379 or fax at 768-8340.