Thursday, March 6, 1997
1937 led
to controls

Reservoirs, barriers
protect river towns

BY CAMERON McWHIRTER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

While this flood is an awesome example of nature's destructive power, it's nothing compared to 1937.

Just ask Eleanor Roth, a lifelong resident of Columbia Tusculum.

Ms. Roth, 79, remembered roasting wieners with her family at her basement furnace and sipping donated water to celebrate her 19th birthday. It was Jan. 26, 1937, the day the flood crested at 79.99 feet, the highest in Cincinnati history.

''The whole town was closed,'' she said Tuesday. ''We couldn't get down, we couldn't get out. The whole place was shut down.''

At the '37 flood's crest, nearly one of every eight people in the Tristate was left homeless. Almost one-fifth of the city was covered by water. In Northern Kentucky, about one-third of the river communities of Kenton and Campbell counties were flooded. In Indiana, Lawrenceburg, Aurora and other river towns were inundated.

Damage was about $31 million - a figure that would be close to $1 billion in today's dollars.

That deluge led the government to build more than $3.5 billion worth of flood protection on the Ohio River, including reservoirs, levees, floodwalls, dams and a computerized warning system.

In 1937, the Ohio had no flood-protection system. Seven months before the flood, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had signed legislation ordering the Army Corps of Engineers to begin constructing flood protection for the Ohio and other major rivers. The '37 flood sped that effort.

Today the Army Corps of Engineers, with regional headquarters in Cincinnati, operates 76 anti-flood reservoirs in the Ohio River basin. Set along various tributaries of the Ohio, they have a combined winter capacity of more than 5.48 trillion gallons.

As a result, the corps' Water Management Division estimates that they can reduce most ''natural'' floods at Cincinnati by about 9.6 feet. But the system covers only about one-third of the 180,000-square-mile drainage area of the Ohio River.

The Metropolitan Sewer District maintains a corps-built barrier dam at the end of the Mill Creek as well as a floodwall to protect the Mill Creek Valley from the Ohio.

The dam, built in the 1940s, contains eight 6,500-horsepower pumps that can push 9.6 billion gallons into the Ohio daily.

The floodwall along Cincinnati's riverfront, also built in the 1940s, runs 1.5 miles from Fort Washington Way to the railroad tracks in Lower Price Hill. It was built to withstand a flood of 83 feet.

Covington, Newport and Dayton all have levees able to withstand an 80-foot flood.

Norb Bischoff, 75, recalled climbing out the second-floor window of his parents' house in Dayton, Ky., to escape the '37 flood.

Today the house is gone, cleared to make way for a giant floodwall.

''It's too bad about the house, but the wall's been great for the community,'' Mr. Bischoff said.

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