Monday, May 21, 2001

Program aims to reduce riverside risk


By buying out or lifting up at-risk homes

By Lew Moores
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        MOSCOW — They had bought the house just a month before the Ohio River rose. It sits on Second Street here, in a tiny village that spreads from river's edge across the floodplain to U.S. 52.

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        Jackie Wells and Don Rice like it here where the river rolls by, traffic is scant and their son Ricky Wells can roll around the village streets in his wheelchair without an abiding fear. That's why they've stayed, even after the river came up in March 1997, surrounding and then enveloping their home, filling their first floor with more than 3 feet of river water and mud.

        As other families have done here for generations, they cleaned up the mud and moved back in. But the next time, things will be different.

        Ms. Wells and her family are among about 45 homeowners who have taken advantage of the Hazard Mitigation Grant Project, offered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). It is being administered in the state by the Ohio Emergency Manage ment Agency.

        The grants will cost the government about $2.2 million in Clermont County — the largest project of its kind in Ohio, but only a small slice of the $1 billion spent nationwide since 1989 on hazard mitigation.

        “It's five townships and four villages, which is a big area,” said Sima Merick, grant administrator for the Ohio EMA.

        And even though the majority of 260 eligible homeowners in Clermont chose not to participate, FEMA officials are calling the local program a success.

        The homes — from modest mobile homes to some worth more than $100,000 — stretch along the U.S. 52 corridor in Clermont County, from New Palestine on the Hamilton County border to Utopia at the Brown County border on the east.

SPECIAL SECTION
Flood of '97
        Within weeks of the 1997 flood, FEMA, Ohio emergency management leaders and Clermont County officials held public meetings, enlisted the help of about 25 residents, formed a committee and began to identify homes at risk along the flood plain.

        “They went out door-to-door to every single house within the flood plain,” said Elizabeth Nevel, Clermont County's director of public safety services. “They went to over 260 houses.”

        Homeowners were offered options: They could sell their homes, elevate or flood-proof them, or do nothing. The program was strictly voluntary, and the grants do not have to be repaid.

        Ms. Wells and her family chose to elevate their home. So did Effie Suter, who also lives on Second Street in Moscow. Some sold, but most chose not to participate.

Ready for next time

        The process was long and involved; it wasn't until the following July or August, some 16 months after the flood, that the $2.2 million grant was approved.

        Some homeowners balked at what they perceived to be a handout, or at the prospect of having to climb steps to their homes. Others sold on their own.

        About 10 homes have been purchased for demolition; another 28 have chosen to elevate. Perhaps more than a half-dozen will choose to flood-proof, which involves raising water heaters and other appliances out of harm's way. That work hasn't begun and the elevations are in various stages of completion. Elevating costs can run close to $40,000.

        “The next time the water comes up, if we have one less house with damage in it, it was a success,” Ms. Nevel said.

        Besides minimizing physical damage, there are other benefits, officials say. Fewer flood victims will need fire, EMS, police and other local and county services, and insurance costs are kept down.

        There have been complaints. Some have questioned the workmanship of elevations; others have fretted about the time it's taken to get the work done.

        Ms. Wells and her family moved out of their home last October as work began to elevate the house. They watched as workers hydraulically jacked their two-story home slowly upward. It rose close to 12 feet in the air.

        “It was scary,” Ms. Wells recalled. “Almost everything I owned was in the house. What if it fell?”

        The home they purchased a month before the 1997 flood actually replaced a home that was a casualty of the catastrophic flood of 1937. Sixty years later, the river had come back and tried to reclaim it.

After the flood

        When the river rose, Wells Street was cut off, but Broadway was passable. They moved some things to the second floor, loaded up two vans and headed for high ground. When Ms. Wells returned the next day, she needed a boat to get to her house.

        “That's how fast it came up,” she said.

        When the water receded, it left a coat of mud on everything.

        “That river mud is nasty,” Ms. Wells said. “You save good pots and pans, think you've washed them off and let them air dry. Then the river mud just showed up again.”

        Effie Suter saw the river creep into her yard on Second Street back in March 1997. She went to work and when she returned home her two sons were moving things out of the basement and loading up a truck. She spent the next week at her daughter's house.

        She will be 69 in June. This is her second major flood; the first was in 1964.

        “In '64 we lived in an old house across the street,” Ms. Suter recalled. “It got about 6 feet of water in there. We stayed upstairs. I had five children at the time. We stayed upstairs a long time until they made us get out. I would've stayed here this last time. My two sons made me go. They said, "What are you going to do? You got no bed, no furniture, no TV, and they're going to turn the electric off. What do you got?'”

        Ms. Suter will stay in Moscow. Elevation work has not yet begun on her home, which will be raised about 6 1/2 feet. If it turns out as well as Ms. Wells' house, Ms. Suter will be pleased. At her age, though, she finds the prospect of climbing stairs a bit daunting.

        “But it's beautiful down here, especially in the summer. Nobody bothers you. I get out and walk on the streets after dark and feel safe. This is home.”

        Ms. Wells and Mr. Rice feel the same way. With their home now 12 feet higher, they can see the river from the back balcony as it glides past Water Street. More to the point, they feel safer.

        “If the water comes up we're not going to lose things like last time,” said Mr. Rice.

        “I'm here to stay,” Ms. Wells said. “I was raised here.”

Special Section: Flood of '97



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