BY GUY BOULTON
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Determining the true economic cost of the Flood of '97 will be an elusive task.
So far, estimates of the damage have varied. The most recent puts the cost as high as $405 million in the Tristate - up from a preliminary estimate of $330 million early last week. But whatever the final tally, the damage will include only part of the economic cost.
The other part is the hidden expense of a natural disaster - the lost wages, the lost business and the sheer time that will go into rebuilding lives, businesses and communities.
''That's not measured in any of these numbers,'' said Richard Stevie, an economist with Cinergy Corp.
Nor is the cost of the widespread disruption - the clogged highways, the delayed river barges - caused by the flood.
Without question, the true costs of any natural disaster are human, not economic. At least 24 people were killed in Ohio and Kentucky. And calculating the cost of repairing and rebuilding damaged and destroyed houses does not measure the heartbreak of losing everyday possessions that become part of people's lives.
But the Flood of '97 also carries an economic price tag.
The cost manifests itself in the weeks of work needed to clean and repair a house or business damaged in the flood.
And it manifests itself in the lost production and sales when a business is shut down.
Rob Mayer, president of Queen City Forging Co., estimated Monday the company has spent $15,000 on wages so far while employees handled tasks stemming from the flood - from moving equipment and furniture before the water arrived to cleaning up afterward.
The next expense will be the overtime needed to make up for the lost production.
There also were incidental expenses - which may be covered by insurance - such as paying $10,000 for booms to prevent machine oil and solvents from leaking into the river.
Businesses up and down the Ohio are incurring similar expenses.
Flerlage Marine, as many businesses did, first lost a week of work.
And Monday, mechanics were shoveling mud out of the Eastern Avenue business' basement instead of working on boats, said Ed Alf, company president.
The flood, at its most basic level, represents an enormous destruction of public and private wealth - from bridges and roads built to last decades to personal possessions amassed over a lifetime.
''It will have an impact,'' Mr. Stevie said. ''How big it is, it's hard to say at this point.''
Some will never reopen
An estimated 7,000 business in Kentucky alone, for instance, have reported flood-related damage, according the Kentucky Emergency Management Agency.
For certain, some businesses will never reopen.
And given that flood insurance is rare, many of the people who lost their homes will incur a financial setback from which they may never recover.
''You never get back to where you were before the disaster - that's what every study shows,'' said James Smith, an economics professor at the University of North Carolina, who examined the destruction from Hurricane Fran in 1996.
A burst of economic activity generally follows natural disasters once the rebuilding begins. That can generate jobs and spur the economy, said Lucia Dunn, a professor of economics at The Ohio State University.
But it also could mean higher construction costs, since some skilled trades are in tight supply in the Tristate.
Further, any economic benefit is an illusion. Rebuilding a road or house destroyed by a flood brings no real gain.
''If these things were somehow good for the economy, we would want them to happen,'' said Pat Fishe, an economics professor at the University of Miami, who saw the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
For most people in the Tristate, the flood has been little more than an inconvenience.
And in proportion to the region's economy, the economic damage will be relatively small.
The estimate of $405 million in damage represents less than 1 percent of the $41 billion in annual personal income of the 13 counties in the Cincinnati Metropolitan Statistical Area. And the damage estimate is for the entire states of Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana.
''The hardest thing about it is the people who are affected personally, rather than the effect on the economy,'' said Eric Thompson, associate director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Kentucky.
More than tornadoes or hurricanes, floods bring a particularly harsh economic cost: Few people have flood insurance.
''So when they rebuild, it's coming out of their pockets,'' Mr. Thompson said.
Few recover completely
Fewer than 10 percent of the people and businesses in Ohio's flood plain carry insurance, the Federal Insurance Administration reports. In Kentucky's flood plain, 12 percent of the buildings are insured. In Indiana, it's 18 percent.
Few people ever fully recover financially from the loss of an uninsured home or a business. It's a setback that will linger for decades. Money saved for retirement, for instance, might now be spent to rebuild homes.
Federal disaster assistance will help offset some of the financial losses.
Low-interest loans, for instance, will be available to most of the people who lost their homes. But those loans will take years and even decades to repay.
''It's not a replacement for insurance,'' Mr. Thompson said.
Federal disaster assistance also will help pay for such expenses as rebuilding bridges and repairing roads.
But the states - and in some cases, cities and counties - will bear some of the cost.
That could mean reduced services elsewhere, said Kalubi Alex Tshiunza, an economist with the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments.
Impact in eastern Ohio
Given the strength of the economy, the Tristate can absorb the cost with little effort, he said. But the impact will be hard on counties in eastern Ohio that have weaker economies.
In January, the unemployment rate in Adams County was 16.1 percent - the second-highest in the state. More than one of seven workers in the county was unemployed. The unemployment rate in Scioto County was 12.7 percent.
Poverty is widespread in both counties. In 1989, per capita income was $8,407 in Adams and $9,253 in Scioto, census data show. By comparison, per capita income in Hamilton County was $15,354.
In other words, for every dollar earned, on average, by a worker in Adams County, a worker in Hamilton County earned $1.83.
''It will take them a lot longer to recover,'' Mr. Tshiunza said. ''It will be with them for some time.''