Sunday, July 22, 2001

Flooding victims begin to take stock


Fairfax residents consider moving

By Lew Moores
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        FAIRFAX — They look out for each other on Simpson Avenue, this tiny, quiet street of only a dozen or so homes that runs for just two blocks, wedged between Bancroft Street and Murray Avenue in this village of 2,000. When it begins to rain heavily, they check the creek that runs behind their homes.

        If the water rises, neighbors say, a police cruiser will head down the street with its siren sounding. When the street begins to flood they knock on each other's doors in the middle of the night. They will leave their houses and move their cars up the street to higher ground. They sleep lightly here.

        Five nights ago a neighbor pounded on Andrea Spritzer's door and told her to leave: The water was rising.

        Five nights ago two of her neighbors died in the basement of their home. Ronald Davenport and his daughter, Anna, were trapped and killed when Little Duck Creek rose and rushed into the homes along Simpson. In the Davenport home the water collapsed a basement wall.

        On Friday they were still cleaning up. Fairfax-Madison Place Assistant Fire Chief Terry Ramsey came by to check on how they were doing. Assistant fire chief since 1996, he has seen flooding on the street, but not like this.

        “Not this devastation,” he said. “Not where people have died.”

        He approached some residents.

        “Have you guys got your shots?” he asked Andrea Spritzer and her mother, Carol Spritzer, who came by to help her daughter clean up.

        “Yes, I just got back from Africa,” Andrea told the assistant fire chief. “I got 'em before I went.”

        Andrea lives next door to the Davenports. The Davenport home was cordoned off with yellow police tape, and plywood covered the basement windows. Flower pots hung from the porch; the front yard was landscaped with flower beds.

        “Mr. Davenport cut my grass, he helped me start my garden, he planted flowers for me, he would take out my garbage,” Andrea said. “That should tell you something about this neighborhood.”

        By Friday morning neighbors talked to each other over the din of tractors and trucks moving up and down the street. Lawns had turned brown with drying mud. A front-yard fence was festooned with the muck and debris of high water. Neighbors who worked outside winced at the stench of raw sewage. A Rumpke truck rolled down Simpson and dropped off a trash trailer. Renee Bohlen carried a downed drainpipe to the trailer and dropped it in.

        “Renee, don't mess with that,” said her husband, Mike Bohlen, as she began to lift waterlogged pink insulation from the curb.

        “I'm just tired of the smell,” Ms. Bohlen said.

        “It's a very close-knit neighborhood,” said Mr. Bohlen, who wore shorts and swatted at biting insects at his legs. “If you have a problem, need a hand, people are there to help. One of the more helpful was Ron.”

        They say the first homes were built on the street in 1939; most were built in the 1950s. There has been periodic flooding over those years, and some think the homes themselves — 40 and 50 years old — are beginning to wear down under the decades of floodwaters. So, too, are the people who live here.

        They've endured this long. People move in and they stay on this street of modest homes and generous neighbors. Turnover is low, say neighbors. They are part of the Mariemont school district, they say, and homes run in the $80,000 to $120,000 range.

        “Creek goes up, we move our cars,” said Mr. Bohlen, who has lived on Simpson 11 years. “Creek goes down, we clean up the mess and go on with our lives. Except this time.”

        Pam Bromagen has lived in her home for 36 years. Each time the water rises it gets worse. Each time, it seems, the water rises a little higher. “Someone stays up and watches the creek,” she said.

        She knows the sound of police sirens and what it means. “It's just in your head forever,” she said.

        Earl Lauman, a firefighter with Fairfax-Madison Place, lives on Warren Avenue, a block over and right behind the Davenport home. “We're all family,” he said. He lost his carpeting as the water rose and reached beyond Simpson to Warren. Now, he said, he's waiting for the kitchen floor to buckle.

        When it rains heavily, he continued, a paramedic unit “will run down here and take a look.” On this day what he looks at is mental fatigue and anguish.

        Ms. Bromagen has found an apartment, a new neighborhood after 36 years. “I'm outta here,” she said.

        Cathi Schellhous said that in the past the water came no farther than her driveway. Then it stopped. She had new, white wall-to-wall carpeting put in recently. Now her carpeting is yellow.

        She listened to Ms. Bromagen and her eyes began to tear.

        “Now everybody wants to go,” said Ms. Schellhous, who has lived here 18 years. “I'm so conflicted. I'm in love with this. But the people I love so much are going to leave. I don't know what I'm going to do.”

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        “We liked the school district, we liked the community,” Mr. Bohlen said. He had lived in Fairfax before and moved away to California, and when he returned to the area he again chose Fairfax, settling on Simpson.

        “I like my house, it's the Mariemont school district, it's in my price range,” said Andrea Spritzer, who has lived on Simpson three years.

        Debbie Davenport, Mr. Davenport's wife, came by her house, accompanied by two Fairfax police officers. She went inside to retrieve belongings. A handful of neighbors crowded around and gave her hugs.

        Village workers with a fire hose Friday drove mud and raw sewage from front lawns and off the street. Little Duck Creek itself was a benign pool of water at the Bedford Street end of Simpson, and was tamed to a small finger of moving water just a block away at the Bancroft end of Simpson.

        In just three years Andrea Spritzer has twice watched the water rise in the street. Three years ago the water reached the bushes in her front yard. Five nights ago the water reached her chest-high.

        She disconnected her computer and television. She left her house with her cat and dog. On Friday her mother, wearing yellow kitchen gloves, began to salvage shoes from the house and placed them in the front yard to dry. Andrea bundled up clothing in plastic bags and hauled them out to a van.

        Mr. Bohlen had started looking for a bigger house in Fairfax before five nights ago. He has heard of the Federal Emergency Managment Agency's Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, where federal money is combined with state and local money to buy out homes that are subject to periodic flooding.

        The program is designed to get people out of harm's way, and has been implemented in such places as Cincinnati, Clermont County, Anderson Township and Colerain Township. It is a voluntary program — homeowners do not have to sell — and it is done on the initiative of the community.

        Mr. Bohlen has never been driven from his house before. Until five nights ago. His wife carried their son to safety on her shoulders.

        Now in his mind's eye Mr. Bohlen could see the homes bought up, razed and the land left vacant. A neighborhood vanished.

        “I don't want to see this be over with, but this would make a great park,” Mr. Bohlen said. “I don't want to make a dime off my house, but I don't want anybody else to live in it either.”

        Andrea Spritzer was of like mind.

        “There's nothing I can do,” she said. “I don't want to sell my house. I don't want this to happen to somebody else.”

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