BY ANDREA TORTORA
The Cincinnati Enquirer
FALMOUTH - Clouds hung low and the sky was dark and somber over downtown Falmouth on Wednesday, as if in mourning for the lives stolen from this once-vibrant rural town.
As the flood waters recede, the tragedy spreads: Four bodies have been found, as many as 20 people are listed as missing, and officials say most of the remaining buildings will have to be razed.
It was the first time since Sunday, when the Licking River turned this Pendleton County community into a sea of rooftops, that the deadly power of rushing water was visible.
Up and down the streets, crews of firefighters and search dog teams looked for victims Wednesday.
Nearly a foot of mud in some places and the condition of homes - many off the foundation and blocking roads, others completely ripped apart - make the searches tougher.
Carrying axes, cans of spray paint and red and yellow plastic ribbon, these men and women hacked their way through every structure.
''We're trying not to cause any more damage, but we've got to get in every spot to make sure there isn't someone inside,'' Alexandria Firefighter Dennis Rauch said.
A blue ''X'' marked on a home indicates it has been checked. A red ribbon tells officials nothing was found.
A yellow ribbon means there's something inside - a person, a pet, or dangerous damage - that needs to be looked at further.
A yellow ''X,'' like the one put on the home of Elizabeth Kraczek on Montjoy Street, means the building is unstable.
An elderly widow, Mrs. Kraczek almost survived. An emergency medical technician who identified her body said Mrs. Kraczek had left home and was staying in a shelter when she decided to return.
That's when the flood waters swept up the German immigrant. She was found dead Tuesday.
On Wednesday search crews also found the bodies of an adult man and woman and an adolescent girl.
In the mobile home where two of the bodies were found, firefighters found a dog alive in a top kitchen cabinet. They think the water got so high the dog was able to swim into the cabinet, authorities said.
The bodies had not been identified as of Wednesday night.
Pendleton County Coroner John Peoples said those found dead in searches conducted Wednesday also had been in safe shelters and returned to their homes.
Craig Peoples, deputy sheriff, said he is worried about the 20 people unaccounted for. He hopes those residents are staying outside the county.
What's left in Falmouth's streets gives indication of just how fast the flood waters rose. A red Chevy Blazer packed full of someone's belongings sits in the middle of Shelby Street. In front of it, a pickup truck hauls a dishwasher and furniture.
Another truck pulls a pop-up camper; all are frozen in time. The vehicles are stuck now - a neighbor's home and someone else's shed block the road.
Donna Lonaker, 38, knows her house is heavily damaged. Her husband went to see it Wednesday.
''There's another house in our back yard and part of it on the tracks,'' she said. ''We'll be lucky if there's anything to clean up.''
A Falmouth police dispatcher now living in a shelter at the Pendleton County High School with her family, Mrs. Lonaker said the flood took everyone by surprise.
''We were getting the word out as fast as we could, even after our office was flooded,'' Mrs. Lonaker said. ''I heard they moved my family out, but I had to help get others out.''
Though the town looks like a war zone, along the streets and in the shelters are small signs that things will get better.
Though Eva Sue Cavanaugh's home has relocated a block away, now on top of J and L Ashland on U.S. 27, a few things are still working inside: a smoke alarm beeps, breaking the thick silence.
The greens of tulips and crocuses border cinder-block foundations.
Families are being reunited. Brittany Lonaker, 8, and her sister Magen, 4, were staying with their aunt in Butler when the floods hit. With their parents in one shelter and they in another on the other side of the county, it took a few days to make connections.
''We were away from each other for three days,'' Brittany said as she hugged her mom, Lisa, 30, at the shelter.
Cars carrying a few residents were being let into town.
David Dunaway, a firefighter working on relief efforts, stopped by his family's home and found it devastated.
''I'm just happy I got my family out,'' Mr. Dunaway said. ''I guess it doesn't matter what happens to the house as long as we're all OK.''
But for many what they will see when they return home will be a shock. Some homes don't even exist anymore - blown to pieces scattered over other's lawns.
Mayor Max Goldberg, who saw his city rebuild from a crushing flood in 1964, said he believes in the power of his fellow residents.
''People here have lost their homes before and now they've lost them again,'' Mr. Goldberg said. ''But we've got strong people here. We're country people and we can handle it.''
Before survivors are let back into town, they are being given immunizations for diphtheria and and tetanus at the shelters. More than 1,000 people have been immunized at an emergency medical center.
And though officials understand the frustration residents feel about being kept away from their homes, they stress the need to shut off leaking gas lines, live electric wires and ensure the safety of homes before opening up the city.
Officials reported their first injury among those fighting the flood Wednesday when a firefighter from the Southern Campbell department cut an artery in a hand during a house inspection. He was taken to St. Luke Hospital East in Fort Thomas, where he is in good condition, said Pendleton County Fire Lt. Mark Hart.
The thought of the heartache and nightmares ahead in the rebuilding of Falmouth makes Rick Brown even more passionate.
''I got tears in my eyes,'' said Mr. Brown, a part-time volunteer firefighter and deacon at the Falmouth Christian Church. ''If I could get out, I'd get out tomorrow. ... I love the town. It's a great town. If I could pick the whole damn town up and move it away from the river, I'd do it tomorrow.''
Jane Prendergast, Kathleen Hillenmeyer and Lucy May contributed to this story.