BY CAMERON McWHIRTER and MARK BRAYKOVICH
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Churning brown waters swelled Monday, reaching areas untouched by floods for more than a generation and sending a frightening message to the Tristate: Nature has you under siege.
With blind and dumb force, the Flood of '97 swept into communities throughout the Ohio River valley, forcing thousands from their homes; swamping buildings and cars; destroying businesses; closing roads; and generally wreaking havoc.
The turgid Ohio poured over the Serpentine Wall in downtown Cincinnati, surrounded Cinergy Field, rose past Pete Rose Way and covered businesses and parking lots on the riverfront. The river swept through mobile homes in Silver Grove, Ky. In Indiana, half of Aurora was evacuated.
At 1 p.m. today, with the water rising around them, workmen started closing the floodgate on the ramp from Fort Washington Way to Pete Rose Way. By then the Ohio had reached 62 feet on its way to an expected crest of 64 feet by Wednesday evening. Flood stage in Cincinnati is 52 feet. It will be the worst flood here since 1964.
While areas protected by floodwalls should remain safe, other areas can expect substantially more flooding. Rain is expected tonight and Wednesday.
''This is going to be a flood level that many of us in this room have not seen in our lifetimes,'' said Dale Shipley, deputy director of Ohio's Emergency Management Agency, at a gathering of state emergency officials in Columbus.
Authorities deployed 500 National Guard soldiers in Ohio and 450 in Kentucky to aid people in flooded areas.
Amid the flooding came these developments:
Ohio Gov. George Voinovich's office declared 14 counties along the Ohio to be in a state of emergency. The declaration - for the counties of Adams, Athens, Brown, Gallia, Hocking, Jackson, Lawrence, Meigs, Monroe, Pike, Ross, Scioto, Vinton and Washington - frees up state resources and authorizes state agencies to assist local governments.
With the governor on a trade mission in Korea, his office sent a letter to President Clinton to ask for federal assistance. Lt. Gov. Nancy Hollister and state and federal emergency relief officials are expected to tour Scioto, Adams and Clermont counties today. As of late Monday, Hamilton and Clermont counties had not been included in the request.
Hamilton County commissioners are expected to meet Wednesday to declare an emergency, paving the way for state and federal aid, said City Manager John Shirey.
Kentucky Gov. Paul Patton asked that the president declare nine counties, including Pendleton in Northern Kentucky, as federal disaster areas.
In Indiana, Gov. Frank O'Bannon declared Clark, Crawford, Dearborn, Floyd, Harrison, Jefferson, Ohio, Perry, Spencer and Switzerland Counties disaster areas.
If the areas receive the federal status, residents could be eligible for housing assistance, rental assistance, unemployment compensation and other benefits. Local governments could also get aid for infrastructure.
Cincinnati officials urged people to evacuate from flooded areas. People cannot be forced to leave their homes, but they were strongly urged to do so. Fire Division officials said they helped evacuate 50 to 70 people Monday. They also urged people not to drive downtown today if possible, because flooding has taken out about 2,000 parking spaces along Mehring Way.
The damage thus far:
Thousands of Tristate residents have been forced from their homes. At least 15 people are dead or missing.
Estimates of damage are in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Figures are preliminary because much of the affected property remains under water.
In Ohio, Red Cross officials said they had helped about 3,000 families as communities emptied along the river. Ohio Department of Transportation officials said 75 roads and bridges across the state were under water or closed by mudslides.
In Cincinnati, portions of River Road, Kellogg Avenue and other streets were closed. Business owners scurried to move goods and equipment to higher ground. Homes were flooded in California, Columbia Tusculum and the East End. Floodgates for downtown, Mill Creek and Lunken Airport were put in place.
In Northern Kentucky, evacuations became widespread in Covington, Ludlow, Bromley, rural Kenton County and parts of Campbell County along the Ohio and Licking rivers. Boone County had evacuated three families as of Monday afternoon. Officials estimated the number of evacuees at about 2,500 in Northern Kentucky, not including Falmouth, where about 2,400 people were evacuated Sunday.
In Campbell County, the rising rivers forced at least 1,110 people from their homes, about half of them from the small city of Silver Grove. Floodgates went up from Covington to Dayton, and all three Northern Kentucky counties were declared to be in states of emergency. Every riverfront restaurant, except for Don Pablo's and the Chart House, which are on land in Newport, were closed.
Silver Grove city officials declared a state of emergency by early afternoon.
''I hate to do that, but I'd rather force them out of their homes than attend their funerals,'' said Councilman Jerry Dishman.
Evacuations were reported in Lawrenceburg, Aurora, Utica and New Albany. Shelters were opened in Jeffersonville, Vevay and Corydon. In Aurora, authorities evacuated the lower half of the riverfront community of about 3,800.
The flooding forced the closure of Grand Victoria Casino Resort in Rising Sun. Casino officials said the riverboat would remain closed at least through today because of unsafe conditions on surrounding roads.
The Ohio River between Cincinnati and Louisville was effectively shut to traffic with the closure of locks and dams, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
All along the Ohio River and its tributaries, the floods rose from unusually heavy rain and frozen ground that couldn't absorb the moisture.
''This is a very abnormal event,'' said David Ondrejik, a hydrometeorologist at the National Weather Service Ohio River Forecast Center in Wilmington. ''Some places had 10 to 11 inches (of rainfall) in 48 hours. Rarely do you see 3 to 5 inches over the same period.''
The storm developed from an exceptionally strong flow of warm, moist air traveling north out of the Gulf of Mexico, Mr. Ondrejik said. Strong winds close to the ground helped intensify the devastating effect.
Making matters worse, the storm moved slowly across the region.
''This was like a train with one car after another of rain,'' Mr. Ondrejik said. ''We had plenty of lead time so people could take adequate precautions, but we didn't know it would bring this much.''
Devastation wrought by the watery behemoth unfolded in personal trials and tribulations throughout the Tristate Monday.
In Ohio, the small river community of California was cut off except for one road.
At St. Jerome's Catholic Church on Rohde Avenue, church secretary Jo Ann Leppart supervised removal of the altar from the 133-year-old church. Volunteer parishioners lifted the altar to a flatbed truck and drove it up to the parish hall on higher ground.
''We've got a pretty good group here,'' Mrs. Leppart said about the volunteers. ''We should be ready when the water reaches us.''
Other volunteers rolled up carpet and carried vestments to upstairs pews. They also took up a statue of Jesus. Two statues of Mary and Joseph - up on pedestals - stayed in their places.
''We think they'll be safe,'' said Mrs. Leppart.
Hours later, the darkened church was locked and boarded up as water surrounded its foundation.