Saturday, March 8, 1997

Flood towns wonder how to avoid the next one

Neediest Kids of All Flood Relief Fund
The Cincinnati Enquirer

It became clear what the Ohio River and its tributaries were leaving in their wake as they continued to fall Friday.

The beginning of the end of the Deluge of '97 revealed a landscape of despoiled homes, miles of foul-smelling muck, and flotsam ranging from toppled mobile homes to overturned cars to smashed china plates.

For many river veterans, though the Flood of '97 wasn't their first, it was one of the worst. For some, apparently, enough is enough.

In devastated Falmouth, Ky., Mayor Max Goldberg said his city should relocate its downtown to higher ground, as has been done for some communities near the Mississippi River that were hard-hit by flooding.

''We've been through this before in this town,'' Mr. Goldberg said. ''We ought to do something so it doesn't happen again.''

Mr. Goldberg also said the city needs a dam. U.S. Rep. Jim Bunning, R-Southgate, toured Falmouth on Friday and said he will seek federal money for some type of ''flood-control plan.''

Falmouth, where at least four people drowned, was hardest-hit among Tristate communities inundated by the raging waters.

Earl Wayne Mefford, 17, walked into his parents' house on Riggs Street to find the waterlogged corpse of his toy poodle, Baby, on the kitchen floor.

''Man, I just can't believe this,'' he said, standing outside the kitchen in a Kentucky Wildcats T-shirt, jeans and muddied work boots. ''You can't believe water did this.''

An unexpected and severe storm drenched middle America last Saturday, sending the Ohio and several tributaries surging over their banks. By Wednesday, the Ohio crested at Cincinnati at 64.7 feet, the highest level since 1964. Flood stage at Cincinnati is 52 feet.

In downtown Cincinnati, water surged up toward downtown, surrounding the foundations of Cinergy Field (formerly Riverfront Stadium) and flooding produce warehouses, stopping just shy of Fort Washington Way. The river was expected to stay above flood stage until next Wednesday, but less rainfall and a spell of sunny weather made the river recede more quickly than expected.

The Ohio River dropped to 62.3 feet by Friday evening, said Mike Dangelo, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Wilmington. The river was expected to drop to 60.5 feet by 7 a.m. today and reach 57 feet by Sunday. The river is expected to drop below flood stage at Cincinnati by noon Monday, Mr. Dangelo said.

While the river drops, damage estimates continue to swell.

Estimates from Kentucky and Ohio are now surpassing $350 million, while Indiana has yet to assess the damage. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) reported that 2,391 disaster relief applications have been received in Ohio and 6,000 have been received in Kentucky. Indiana has not yet begun processing applications. President Clinton also declared parts of West Virginia and Tennessee federal disaster areas.

From south-central Ohio to Northern Kentucky to southern Indiana, people returned to ground that the rivers had swamped for almost a week.

The overwhelming mood of exhausted homeowners appeared to swing between stupefaction over the devastation and quiet resolve to clean up the mess.

In New Richmond, more than a handful of residents dipped their small boats into flooded streets Friday and headed off for a first glimpse of their homes. They carried brooms, shovels and disinfectant to begin the slow process of cleanup.

In Aurora, the Ohio fell about a foot and a half Friday, and firefighters began hosing down the streets.

Mark Telinda, 42, owner of Riverside Tile & Marble on Second Street, was able to return to his business. Water had climbed 8 inches into the showroom, ruining the carpet. He was mopping the floor with disinfectant.

''It's going to take awhile to get things back in order, but I guess things could have been a lot worse,'' he said.

While average folks waded back to the wreckage of their homes and businesses, state officials continued to weigh in with support.

Ohio Gov. George Voinovich, who toured southern Ohio by helicopter Friday, said the state would cover the 25 percent local cost required by FEMA for any disaster aid.

''I was most impressed by the spirit of the people who have gone through some tremendous devastation,'' Mr. Voinovich said.

Dale Shipley, executive director of Ohio's Emergency Management Agency, announced that people can begin cleaning up their homes immediately and not worry about waiting for federal and state disaster officials to inspect their property.

''Go ahead and start,'' he said. ''It's OK. We don't have to see your houses dirty. If the door is warped, shave it down. If the window is broken, you can fix it. The inspectors don't need to see what happened - they know what happened.''

He said his agency is setting up centers in each flooded county to answer questions.

Cincinnati's citywide cleanup effort is to begin at 7 a.m. today. Crews will work around the clock through 7 a.m. Monday in flooded neighborhoods.

Safety hazards and clearing streets will get first priority. City officials requested that residents be patient so areas can be made safe.

''We are geared up to be ready first thing in the morning,'' said City Manager John Shirey.

Flood-hit neighborhoods have been divided into five areas - each with its own response team and service center.

FEMA told Hamilton County and Cincinnati that most public expenses for flood cleanup will be reimbursed by the federal government. That means that local governments, churches, schools and non-profit agencies will receive financial aid.

Earlier this week, FEMA approved funds for individuals and businesses in the county. Overtime pay, materials, equipment use and other extraordinary expenses are all reimbursable.

These funds have already been approved for the other flooded counties of Ohio.

''I'm telling our people to document everything, but don't wait on services, get the services out now,'' said Hamilton County Administrator David Krings.

The FEMA approval clears the way for use of federal money to buy homes that are damaged by floodwaters time after time, said Gary Lindgren of U.S. Rep. Steve Chabot's office. Local officials have discussed the buyout plan for Cincinnati's California neighborhood.

A lot of cleanup has to wait until the river retreats to its banks. But work crews, made up of National Guard troops and others, are expected to spend the weekend reopening roads, removing debris, and getting food and medicine to people still trapped in their homes.

Although this flood is the worst natural disaster this area has experienced in three decades, some have begun to find room for hope.

In Aurora, Beverly Nusekabel stood in front of her flooded Fourth Street home and looked down the street toward the river.

''We can see the top of the stop sign again,'' she said. ''It's back. That's a good sign.''

Reporters Laura Goldberg, Anne Michaud, Sheila McLaughlin, Ben L. Kaufman, Patrick Crowley, Sandy Theis, Jane Prendergast, Bernie Mixon and Kathleen Hillenmeyer contributed to this report.