Saturday, March 8, 1997
When river rises, fortunes fall

Reporter Howard Wilkinson a toured flood-stricken Ohio River communities for 2 1/2; days this week to chronicle the damage - and the lives affected.

BY HOWARD WILKINSON
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Fortunes, like rivers, rise and fall.

If you live in one of the hundreds of cities, towns and hamlets that line the Ohio River, or along one of its normally quiet tributaries, you know that when the river rises, your fortunes fall.

For more than 200 years, since the first settlers made their way downstream on the Ohio - back when buffalo still grazed on the bottomlands and the only lights were the campfires of Shawnee hunting parties - the river has been a maker of fortunes.

The rich veins of coal under eastern Kentucky and West Virginia might as well have stayed unmined had there not been a river to move it. Ohio towns like Portsmouth, with its railroad yards, and Ironton, with its steel mills, would not have needed to be.

Most people in the river towns of Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia and Indiana genuinely love the river. It has given them, directly or indirectly, whatever they have in life.

From time to time, the river takes its toll: the waters rise; the tributaries overflow. And the people pay - some with their homes, others with their livelihoods, and some others with their lives.

The torrential rains and resulting flood that struck the Ohio River valley a week ago left devastation and desperation from Marietta, Ohio, to Louisville.

River demands its due

In places like Falmouth, Ky., and Adams County, Ohio, people lost their lives; thousands of others paid the price for living on or near the river with the destruction of their homes.

John Jewell of the riverside hamlet of Friendship, Ohio, in Scioto County, about 5 miles west of Portsmouth, was one of those. His family has lived for generations near where Pond Run flows into the Ohio.

Last Saturday morning, Pond Run was its usual self - a tiny brook to walk across without getting the top of your boots wet. By Saturday night, it was a wide and raging river, burying Mr. Jewell's two-story brick home in about 12 feet of water. A cinder block building nearby, where Mr. Jewell does auto body work, was half-submerged.

''Every tool, every piece of equipment I have - ruined,'' Mr. Jewell said. ''That water took most everything of value I had.''

Mr. Jewell had built the house with his own hands in 1980; then he lost it in a divorce settlement. But he had bought it back a year ago, and, just last Tuesday, took out a flood insurance policy. Sunday, he called his insurance agent and found out his policy would not kick in until 30 days after purchase.

''That bowled me over,'' Mr. Jewell said. ''What's the point of buying insurance if it doesn't cover you?''

A person who has suffered the kind of losses Mr. Jewell has seen in the past week might well be angry at the bad hand he has been dealt. But Mr. Jewell will have none of that.

At the grocery store he operates in Friendship, he has been working night and day, making sandwiches for the Ohio National Guardsmen and local firefighters who have been working around the clock.

''I suppose I could jump in the water right now and end it all, but I'm not the suicidal type,'' Mr. Jewell said. ''There's people worse off than me.''

Widespread damage

Thousands in the Ohio River valley shared Mr. Jewell's loss. In his county of Scioto alone, more than 000 homes were evacuated and more than 600 homes damaged or destroyed.

Not 10 miles as the crow flies from Mr. Jewell's home was another place where the waters brought destruction.

Blue Creek is not, strictly speaking, a town. It's a collection of house trailers and century-old houses along the banks of the creek of the same name that flows into the Ohio in Adams County.

Last weekend's rain - 11.45 inches - caused a wall of water to rush down the Blue Creek valley, uprooting 100-year-old trees, lifting house trailers off their foundations and leaving little but scrap metal behind.

Thursday afternoon, 29-year-old Hazel Godwin, mother of two small children, poked through the mud around the twisted remains of her trailer
picking up loose pieces of china and coffee cups strewn over the ground.

''This is enough for me; I'm trying to find a place up,'' Mrs. Godwin said, pointing to the bluffs above the Blue Creek.

The water washed through Blue Creek and on to the Ohio, leaving behind mud and destruction. But some 30 miles upriver, south of Greenup, Ky., where the Little Sandy River runs into the Ohio, people in the hamlet of W-Hollow found that the water came and stayed.

By Wednesday, the water in a normally shallow stream had created a lake 20 feet deep in an area of mobile homes, summer camps and cottages west of W-Hollow.

Wednesday afternoon, Greenup County Sheriff's Deputy Steve Salley and Carl Salyers of the Kentucky Fish and Wildlife Department took off in a small motorboat for one of their regular runs around the flooded basin.

Their boat puttered by dozens of houses with water up to the roof peaks, propane tanks floating downstream, furniture washing up against the shoreline.

''We had to come in with boats and rescue a lot of people and we got most of them out in the nick of time,'' Mr. Salyers said.

In nearby Greenup - where a sandstone monument outside the courthouse honors Cincinnati Reds pitching coach Don Gullett, a native son - residents were taking rowboats to their homes Wednesday, trying to check the damage.

Upriver from Greenup about 20 miles on the Ohio side is South Point, a Lawrence County town of about 3,800. There, the floodwaters damaged a handful of homes in the low-lying areas; most people stayed high and dry.

Waiting 'boring as hell'

But on the Ohio River in front of the town, about 20 barges, normally loaded with coal, were moored around some tiny islands, stranded there until the floodwaters recede and the river is open to traffic again.

''It's money flying out the window every minute we stay here,'' said barge captain Jim Ensley, whose crew had been stranded in South Point since Sunday. ''Worse than that, it's boring as hell.''

South Point is just downriver from Huntington, W.Va., where a massive flood wall protected most of the city.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers office in Huntington controls the locks and dams along the southern Ohio, eastern Kentucky and West Virginia sections of the river.

Peggy Noel, a spokeswoman for the Corps in Huntington, said many people have a misconception about the dams and locks along the Ohio.

''People think the locks and dams are for flood control, and they think they somehow failed,'' said Ms. Noel. ''They're not. They're for regulating the flow of river traffic and they do a good job at that.''

Now, Ms. Noel said, the biggest problem the corps faces is cleaning up the debris - uprooted trees, housing material, trash of all kinds - certain to gather at the dams and locks.

Cleanup will be a massive problem up and down the Ohio when the waters fall back.

City rolls up sleeves

This morning in Cincinnati, city crews will start rolling into the East End, Columbia Tusculum, California, Sayler Park and other neighborhoods to begin the process.

City Manager John Shirey said the city will dispatch 200 dump trucks, 50 front-loaders and backhoes, eight street-flushing crews, 30 chain-saw operators and 100 crews with brooms, hoses and shovels.

''We're going to work our crews 24 hours a day'' in shifts, Mr. Shirey said.

But most of the small towns don't have the resources that Cincinnati has.

Friday morning in Aurora, Ind., volunteers from Campbell-Hausfeld, a company in Harrison, Ohio, were helping business owners pump water out of their stores. Water still covered half of Aurora's downtown business district.

In the middle of downtown, crews were pumping about 3 feet of water out of the basement of the Aurora First United Methodist Church. Water ruined the fellowship hall and church kitchen. Church trustee Jim Blair said it would be ''quite a while'' before the church is functioning normally.

''There's mostly old people in this church and I had no idea how we'd get all our belongings out of the basement,'' Mr. Blair said. ''But, Monday, all of the sudden a bunch of volunteer firemen showed up and helped us.''

''It was a miracle,'' he said. ''There's a lot of people out there who need miracles right now.''

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