BY CAMERON McWHIRTER
The Cincinnati Enquirer
The bloated Ohio surged to a 64.7-foot crest at Cincinnati on Wednesday, the highest flood in the Tristate since Lyndon Johnson was president.
While the Ohio is expected to stay above flood stage for a week, the receding Licking River revealed a grim toll in the decimated city of Falmouth, Ky.: three more dead in the worst natural disaster in that community's history. Twenty people remain missing there.
''We anticipate finding more bodies as we move through town,'' said Col. Bruce Pieratt of the Kentucky National Guard, whose troops were conducting house-to-house searches.
Four bodies have now been recovered in Falmouth. In all, confirmed deaths from the floods reached five in Ohio and 17 in Kentucky.
Forecasters predict the Ohio will recede only slightly today, staying above the 52-foot flood stage until at least next Wednesday.
''It's going to recede, but it's going to be a slow crawl,'' said Mike Dangelo, meteorologist with the National Weather Service. ''Two days down the road, we're still going to see the water 10 feet above flood stage.''
Hydrologist Len Mazarowski at the Ohio River Forecast Center in Wilmington, Ohio, said the three-day river level forecast for Cincinnati was 64.2 feet today, 64 feet Friday and 63 feet Saturday.
Communities downstream have yet to experience the worst the river has to offer. Late Friday or early Saturday, the river is expected to crest at 38.5 feet in Louisville - more than 15 feet above the 23-foot flood stage there.
The volume of water rushing through the Tristate has been monstrous. At the 52-foot flood stage, 3,403,855 gallons of water pass by Cincinnati every second. At Wednesday's crest, the flow was 5,161,890 gallons per second.
Meanwhile, the Licking River, a tributary of the Ohio, was leaving behind acres of foul-smelling muck, hundreds of destroyed buildings and muddied corpses.
Falmouth residents returning to their homes Wednesday found little comfort.
''I lost everything,'' said a shaken Pam Dawson, 38. ''I don't know what I'm going to do.''
Federal, state and local officials started to answer that problem Wednesday with visits to flooded areas and emergency meetings.
Vice President Al Gore cut short an extended tour of the region because of rain and low clouds. He made a brief trip to the flood's edge near Cincinnati's Pete Rose Way. Mr. Gore told assembled politicians and media that federal aid for area flood victims would be forthcoming.
''The entire United States of America will come together to help Cincinnati and the surrounding areas on both sides of the river to recover from this flood,'' he said. ''We will be there to do our part and make you whole.''
The vice president also announced that Hamilton and Clermont counties had been declared federal disaster areas, bringing to 16 the number of Ohio counties eligible for federal assistance.
With Mr. Gore was James Lee Witt, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). He said seven FEMA disaster teams spent the day traveling the flood area to assess damage.
Ohio Lt. Gov. Nancy Hollister, who flew into Lunken Airport to meet with Mr. Gore, had meetings with state officials to coordinate the state relief effort.
''We have whole communities under water,'' she told the vice president. ''We're trying to stay five steps ahead, because the real work is ahead when the water drops.''
Gov. George Voinovich's office announced late Wednesday that he is cutting short a trade mission to Asia because of the flooding. He is expected to return a week early, on Friday or Saturday.
Cincinnati and Hamilton County officials asked the state to bring in National Guard troops to help with the cleanup.
''Our biggest challenge may be yet to come in dealing with the recovery from the flood,'' said City Manager John Shirey.
David Rager, director of the Cincinnati Water Works and coordinator for the city's flood effort, said extra help will be needed as soon as possible. ''We need extra bodies,'' he said.
In Kentucky, Gov. Paul Patton added Kenton, Campbell, Owen, Gallatin and 11 other counties to a list that he wants to receive federal disaster relief. Nine counties have already been declared federal disaster areas.
Mr. Patton, who toured Falmouth with local officials, described the wreckage as ''the worst flood I think I've ever seen in Kentucky.''
In Indiana, Gov. Frank O'Bannon declared a state of emergency in all of Indiana's 13 river counties.
In the three states, more than 2,200 National Guard personnel have been activated. Damage in Ohio and Kentucky has been estimated at well over $270 million. Thousands remain homeless.
The most severe damage was in Kentucky, where relief officials estimated that damage will exceed $232 million - with most of the losses occurring in the Falmouth, Cynthiana and Paris areas.
Officials in 89 of 120 Kentucky counties have declared local emergencies, said Mike Lynch, a spokesperson for Kentucky Disaster and Emergency Services. ''We know that the dollar amount is going to go up as rivers recede,'' he said.
Nancy Dragani, chief of public information for the Ohio Emergency Management Agency, estimated that Ohio has sustained $40 million in losses, including $25 million in losses to public infrastructure. ''That is roads, public buildings, bridges, and schools and water systems,'' she said.
The agency estimated that $15 million in damage has occurred to homes and business.
The agency estimated that 3,000 households have been affected.
The Ohio Army and Air National Guard mobilized 840 personnel throughout the state. The federal disaster declaration for 16 Ohio counties allows federal assistance to individuals through low-interest loans, temporary housing and grants.
In Cincinnati, 250 homes were evacuated, including 160 homes and 14 businesses around Lunken Airport, said Mr. Rager.
Altogether in Hamilton County, 500 homes have been evacuated, said Donald Maccarone, director of the Hamilton County Emergency Management Agency (EMA).
Forty-five families were evacuated from Newtown on Wednesday after a cataract broke at McCullough's Run, a man-made creek. The flood quickly swamped a six-block area of downtown and closed Main Street.
''Within two hours, it went from a puddle about 2 feet wide to this,'' said resident Jodi Couch, 31, gesturing toward the flood. ''It was just seeping in all around us. Bubbling everywhere.''
Waters even reached the Queensgate Correction Facility, the 822-bed county jail. Inmates have been put to use stacking sandbags.
In Indiana, Alden Taylor, public information officer for the state's Emergency Management Agency, said officials requested a federal presidential disaster declaration for the 13 counties that border the Ohio.
He said there were no dollar estimates available but said damage has been substantial.
Roads throughout the Tristate are closed because of flooding, creating gridlock for many local commuters. Many traveling downtown from the eastern, western and southern suburbs have run into gridlock. Mr. Shirey pleaded with local residents Wednesday to take advantage of increased Metro service and carpools.
Cincinnati police stepped up patrols in the East End, and were also using a volunteer surveillance team of private citizens to help keep looters from evacuated homes. None had been reported, police said.
Reporters John Eckberg, Kym Liebler, Lisa Donovan, Julie Irwin, Anne Michaud, Tim Bonfield, Kimbra Postlewaite, Beth Menge, Michael Hawthorne, Cindy Schroeder, Mark Braykovich, Bernie Mixon, Laura Goldberg, Patrick Crowley and Gregory A. Hall contributed to this report.