Friday, March 7, 1997
Forecasters defend
performance on warnings

Weather alert called
'best job we've ever done'

BY TIM BONFIELD and LUCY MAY
The Cincinnati Enquirer

As the death toll rises in the Flood of '97, some residents of stricken areas are questioning whether there was adequate warning of the disaster.

But officials with the National Weather Service say warnings were issued at least several hours before flooding occurred - even in Falmouth, Ky., where the raging Licking River swamped the town and claimed at least four lives.

''This is the best job we've ever done,'' said Ken Haydu, meteorologist-in-charge at the National Weather Service in Wilmington. ''Based on our warnings, (authorities) were able to evacuate the entire city.''

Some residents say the full extent of the emergency wasn't made clear until almost midnight Saturday, forcing many families to leave their homes in dark of night.

Clarence Adams, who lives near Falmouth in Morgan, Ky., said state police and the National Guard are doing a great job now. ''But where were they Saturday afternoon about 2 o'clock?'' he asked. ''Why didn't they come through town letting people know?''

Doug Garner, who co-owns a Century 21 office in Falmouth, said initial flood warnings that predicted the Licking would crest at 40.5 feet vastly underestimated the flood and might have lulled some residents into a false sense of security.

Longtime Falmouth residents have lived through smaller Licking River floods. Many felt that they knew how they would be affected by a 40-foot crest, he said.

But the most recent estimates place the crest of the Licking River at 52 feet - a full 12 feet higher than the early predictions and 5 feet higher than the previous record of 47.1 feet set in 1964.

''Too many people were depending on that water stopping at that crest level they were reporting,'' Mr. Garner said.

Flood warnings were issued. Whether people heard them or took them seriously are different questions.

''We didn't have no warnings. The fire whistle didn't blow. Nobody knocked on our doors - not on my street,'' said Gladys Wallace, 72, of Falmouth, who fled her home at 11 p.m. Saturday after the pounding rain climbed to her knees inside.

Veteran river residents and weather experts still say they were amazed at how much rain fell last week and how fast the water rose.

The forecast

Here's how word got out about the Flood of '97:

The rains that triggered the floods started falling late Friday and early Saturday.

Storms and potentially heavy rains - 1 to 3 inches - were predicted by the weather service and most media outlets.

But nobody envisioned the volume of rain that actually fell.

More than a foot of rain fell Saturday in parts of Kentucky; 5 to 9 inches soaked parts of Adams and Brown counties.

It was the type of rain that experts rarely see except in hurricanes.

''It was a one-in-a-thousand-year event. I've never seen anything like it in my career,'' said Mr. Haydu, who has worked with the weather service since 1978.

The flood warnings

The National Weather Service in Wilmington issued its first flood watch at 11:30 p.m. Friday for southern Ohio.

The Louisville office issued a flood watch for Kentucky at 6:55 a.m. Saturday.

At 10:24 a.m. Saturday - with rain falling at an inch an hour - the weather service issued its first flood warning for the Licking River. The warning predicted a near-record flood and estimated that the river would crest at 40.5 feet by 7 p.m. Sunday.

A revised flood warning was issued at 12:45 p.m., stating that the river was ''rising quickly.'' But forecasters did not revise the crest estimate.

Foot-by-foot, hour-by-hour, the water rose, flooding homes along Water Street and covering parts of Ky. 22 east of downtown. Yet it would take more than 10 hours for the National Weather Service to revise its crest prediction.

At least some evacuations occurred Saturday afternoon, officials say.

But Mr. Garner said it was 11:45 p.m. before he saw police and firetrucks moving street by street urging Falmouth residents to leave their homes.

Mr. Haydu of the National Weather Service said the amount of warning given to Falmouth residents was far better than warnings a few years ago.

In 1990, flash floods in two creeks sent a 30-foot wall of water surging into Shadyside, Ohio, near the West Virginia border.

The flood damage was mostly limited to one county, yet 26 people died.

During that disaster, there was a flood watch in effect but no flood warning. Now, the technology is better, Mr. Haydu said.

A Doppler radar system installed in 1994 gave forecasters much more warning of the storms that caused the Flood of '97.

Had this year's storm struck five to seven years ago, the death toll would have been ''in the hundreds,'' Mr. Haydu said.

''Any loss of life is totally unacceptable, but we're real happy that the loss of life wasn't significantly higher,'' he said.

Kathleen Hillenmeyer and Jane Prendergast contributed to this report.

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