Saturday, March 02, 2002

Why stay on the river? 'It's home'

Towns aim to be more prepared

By Tom O'Neill
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        To people who live and work along its banks, the Ohio River is both the beauty and the beast.

        On the fifth anniversary of a devastating flood, those who stay close to the Ohio are philosophical: The river's beauty is a treasure to be enjoyed every day. The beast roars as it did in March 1997 but a few times a century.

        If that.

        “Why stay here? It's home,” said Norman Collins, retired owner of Collins Market on Front Street in New Richmond, overlooking the Ohio. “You get all frustrated, go out and look at that beautiful river, the hills of Kentucky.”

        He bought the Clermont County store in 1972, and his son, Norman Jr., now owns it. As he stands in the riverfront market, Mr. Collins' head is below the mark on the wall showing how high the floodwaters were.

        Across the street and over the embankment, the Ohio River busily goes about its day.

        Through afternoon snow flurries, barges creep along. The village's flood gauge stands tall and alone. You can close your eyes and hear the river lapping its shore.

        It's calming.

        But in '97, that gauge began disappearing in the mud, debris and chocolate-brown water that swallowed much of New Richmond.

        In about 24 hours, the Ohio River rose 19 feet.

        Few saw it coming.

        “Always expect the unexpected,” said Violet Speth, 84, of the East End. “It was bad enough, but we stayed. You just don't walk off. Why leave?”

        Mrs. Speth's family, living in the nearby California neighborhood in 1964, lost everything in that year's flood. The worst, she remembered, was 1937. She was 20 then. That's the highest the river ever rose in the 20th century, cresting at 79.9 feet.

        On March 5, 1997, it crested at 64.7 feet, nearly 13 feet above flood-level and the highest since 1964. Tributaries such as the Licking River swelled, sweeping five Falmouth, Ky., residents to their deaths.

        Damage totals: $180 million in southwest Ohio, $70 million in Northern Kentucky, and $4 million in southeast Indiana.

        For months, river towns were a landscape of mud, bleach, mops, hugs, churches, journalists, volunteers, paperwork, politicians, tears, debris, row boats, aggravation and resignation.

        And resiliency.

        “It's always a concern,” Ivy Shropshire, 54, of New Richmond, said of the next flood. “But people take it in stride.”

        Most do, but some didn't. Residents whose homes dropped in value by 50 percent were eligible for buyouts through the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA), and state and local governments. Fifty-seven of the 100 New Richmond homes eligible were bought this way. New Richmond received two FEMA grants of $1.2 million each, village manager Dave Kennedy said.

        According to 1990 and 2000 U.S. Census figures, New Richmond lost 7.9 percent of its population (189 residents), to 2,219 residents in that decade. That skid began in March '97.

        And it was the younger ones who left. In that time, for instance, the median age of New Richmond's residents rose from 29.6 years to 33 years. But the village continues to rebound, especially in flood preparations.

        “If you didn't think we were prepared in '97, and we weren't, we're trying to be prepared next time, and we're not entirely there yet,” Mr. Kennedy said. “My goodness, we need to be better prepared next time. We owe it to them.”

        New computers will speed communication for the next flood. New phone lines were installed. Flood-aid packages have been stockpiled.

        “If we had to move to the school tomorrow,” Mr. Kennedy said, “we're ready to go.”

        The number of homes at 64-foot flood level fell by more than 100, to 331 from 434.

        Mitigation typically involved sealing basements, constructing floodwalls, elevating homes, or moving large appliances and utility boxes above flood level.

        Much of the low-lying land purchased is now, or will become, part of a new recreation system.

        Down on Front Street along the river, Mr. Collins recalled spray painting a message on the plywood that covered his store's front windows.

        He saw it the next night on a newscast.

        He wrote simply, “We will be back.”

        He was right.

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