Saturday, March 02, 2002

Rivers unleashed: Five years ago

Falmouth feels more prepared for next flood

By Cindy Schroeder
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        FALMOUTH — Five years ago this weekend, the Licking River swelled 23 feet above flood stage, slamming a 12-foot high wall of water into this little Northern Kentucky city of 2,700.

[photo] March 2, 1997: When the Licking River jumped its bank, 70 percent of Falmouth was flooded.
(Enquirer file photo)
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        When the raging waters receded, five people were dead, hundreds homeless, and a community was devastated.

        “The rainfall was pretty much off the charts,” said Julie Dian-Reed, of the National Weather Service in Wilmington, Ohio. “We were looking at something along the lines of well over a 100-year event. That means that in any given year, it has a 1 in 100 chance of occurring.”

        If it happens again, though, there will be more warning.

        Today there are new gauges upriver to measure rising waters, a countywide disaster plan, a rescue team with trained divers, and boats.

        During the flood of '97, Falmouth called in water rescue teams from outside the county and borrowed boats from residents to rescue flood victims from roofs.

        Still there is no floodwall or dam to prevent future flooding in the low-lying town at the forks of the south Licking and Licking rivers, said Pendleton County Judge-executive Henry W. Bertram.

        “It's inevitable that (a flood) will happen again,” said Mr. Bertram, who lost his business of 30 years in the flood of '97. “But today, we have a system in place to evacuate the city quicker and protect property better.”

[photo] Max Goldberg, mayor of Falmouth during the 1997 flood, says two-thirds of Shelby Street stores remain closed.
(Patrick Reddy photo)
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        Neither the town nor the county can afford a floodwall and its estimated $41 million price tag. Ditto for a $380 million dam. And the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — the federal agency charged with building structures to reduce flood damage — says that in the dozens of alternatives it studied, the costs outweighed the benefits.

        An extensive review included a hydraulic analysis of the area and insurance data on structures and land within Falmouth's flood plain. With that, the Corps concluded, the community would sustain $29 million in damages if there is another 100-year flood, said John Zimmerman, chief of plan formulation for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Louisville office. No values are assigned for loss of life.

        “We understand Falmouth's plight,” Mr. Zimmerman said, “but unfortunately, the Corps does not construct a project in which the construction cost is greater than the benefits that can be derived.”

All but the roofs

Rivers Unleashed: The Flood of 1997
        On the rainy morning of March 2, 1997, the waters of the Licking River flooded 70 percent of Falmouth, covering all but the roofs of many homes. The muddy waters rose so quickly that dozens of residents climbed to the upper floor of their homes to await rescuers in boats.

        The only warning signals then were fire sirens, officials said. But they were tested often and sounded regularly for fires, so residents were used to hearing them.

        More than 1,500 of Falmouth's residents were displaced and five evacuees died when they tried to go back to their homes or businesses to retrieve possessions or check on family.

        “All of the churches were flooded except for the Wesleyan Church that was built on high ground,” said Judy Hammond, the 68-year-old treasurer of Falmouth Christian Church.

        At Falmouth Christian, the basement of the fellowship hall was filled with mud, and all of the pews, musical instruments and hymnals were lost.

        “Even the funeral homes were flooded, so if anyone scheduled a funeral, they had to hold it at the Wesleyan Church,” Mrs. Hammond said.

        “It didn't matter what denomination you were.”

        Churches, businesses and government offices were closed for weeks, some for months.

        Pendleton County High School was transformed into a temporary shelter, the county library closed for nearly a year to restock its shelves and renovate, and the Falmouth post office operated from a trailer and from the Alexandria post office in neighboring Campbell County.

A warning system

        The difference now, say local and state officials, is a warning system in place and improved response to natural disasters.

        In the summer of 2000, federal officials replaced the McKinneysburg water depth gauge 13 miles upstream from Falmouth. Funded by the Kentucky Division of Water, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Geological Survey, the gauge had been removed three years before the flood, because of budget cuts. Without it, the Weather Service relied on a gauge downstream, making flood forecasting more difficult.

        The McKinneysburg gauge and a second gauge at Blue Lick Springs were added to the Licking River in 2000 and 2001 respectively after public outcry prompted Congress to appropriate money for the National Stream Flow Information program, said Mike Griffin, assistant district chief of the Louisville office of the U.S. Geological Survey.

        Mr. Griffin said the McKinneysburg gauge was eliminated in 1994 after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' budget was cut. When officials publicized the impending cut, no one stepped forward to save the gauge, so it was removed, he said.

        “McKinneysburg was the first gauge we lost due to funding cuts, so we thought, "Why not make that the first one we put back in?'” Mr. Griffin said.

        Although the proposed federal budget would cut funding for the McKinneysburg gauge next October, the Corps, state and Pendleton County officials say there is money in hand to replace it and Kentucky Division of Emergency Management officials say they can afford the $150-a-year maintenance.

        When the flood hit, Pendleton County DES Director Craig Peoples had been on the job three days and there was no disaster plan.

        Within a year, Mr. Peoples and the Kentucky Department of Emergency Management had developed a map that showed which streets in Falmouth were likely to flood when the river reached certain levels to determine which areas should be evacuated first.

        The county has also purchased a mobile command center for its DES director and will break ground on March 8 for the county's first emergency operations/911 center, just one item in its $1.4 million Flood Warning Evacuation Plan. It's something Mr. Peoples lobbied for after he was forced to move his operations five times in the month after the flood.

        Scheduled to open in January, the center will provide better coordination during emergencies, and it will include an emergency alert system that can be programmed to call phones on a particular street and warn residents to evacuate.

        A computer at the center also will monitor communications from river and stream gauges around the clock, and top county officials will automatically be called, should rising waters threaten the town. Information on rainfall and stream height also will be available to the public via the Internet.

        In 1997, local rescue workers lacked the training and equipment to properly deal with the rapidly rising river and swift currents, authorities said. Today, the 38 members of the 3-year-old Pendleton County Search and Rescue Inc. include 17 certified divers, and team members are trained in a number of things from maneuvering boats in swift currents to making rope rescues across raging rivers.

        “After the flood, six of us firefighters saw a need for a search and rescue team,” said rescue team chief Mark Hart, 33, a former Falmouth volunteer firefighter who grew up in the riverfront town.

        “We're still a young department and there's still a lot we need to learn, but we're training constantly.”

Turning around

        The floodwaters ultimately caused $36.5 million in damage. Two hundred homes were destroyed, and dozens more torn down — including 86 purchased in a federal buyout — because of structural damage. In all, 37 of 118 Pendleton County businesses affected by the flood did not re- open or moved.

        “Only one thing will help the town, and that's employment,” said former Falmouth Mayor Max Goldberg, 88.

        Two-thirds of the businesses on downtown Falmouth's Shelby Street remain closed, as well as half of those on Main Street. “City leaders need to get more business and industry in here so there'll be jobs available,” Mr. Goldberg said.

        Since the flood, Mayor Gene Flaugher estimates there's been more than $1.5 million in commercial investments in the city's hard-hit west end, and the city is in the midst of a number of infrastructure, sidewalk and facade improvements in the heart of its downtown. Also expected to provide an economic boost is the Paul Patton Commerce Center, a 75-acre industrial park being developed one mile south of Falmouth on the hilltop site of the former New Hope trailer park for residents displaced by the flood.

        With help from many regional and state agencies and officials, Falmouth is turning around, said Bill Mitchell, a community development specialist with the Northern Kentucky Area Development District. Now that the groundwork has been laid for cleanup and infrastructure improvements, he said officials plan to do more marketing of downtown Falmouth.

        “We've suffered some losses, but I think the town's stronger now than it was before the flood,” Mr. Flaugher said.

        Falmouth resident Darrin Brown spent about eight hours five years ago perched atop a second-story rooftop with his wife, mother, and 8-year-old son.

        They could see firefighters near a viaduct “about two football fields away,” but until out-of-town rescue teams could arrive, they lacked the boats to reach them.

        “When you're up on top of a building and you've got your family with you, and you know you're limited on rescue, it gets kind of scary,” recalled Mr. Brown, who's now a member of Pendleton County Search and Rescue Inc.

        As cars and houses broke loose and swept by the Browns in the swift-moving current, the captain of the Falmouth fire department tried to prepare his family for the worst.

        “I told them, "If this thing goes, hang on to some of the (debris),'” Mr. Brown said.

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