Sunday, March 16, 1997
As flood recedes, heroes emerge
Ordinary people risked lives, made sacrifices

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Neediest Kids of All Flood Relief Fund
When circumstances called for extraordinary measures, regular folks became instant heroes in the Flood of '97.

They rolled up their sleeves, summoned courage from inner places, and extended a helping hand or made do in less-than-ideal situations.

Professionals trained for disasters, their skills sharpened at other people's hurricanes and tornadoes, adopted that can-do, take-charge manner and created order out of chaos, aid out of helplessness, relief out of disaster.

Heroes abound in the many stories of the Flood of '97.

These are some of them.

The 3 a.m. phone call March 2 awakened Bill Carruthers from a peaceful sleep at his home in Hyde Park.

The Licking River was rising around the St. Luke Alcohol & Drug Treatment Center in Falmouth, Ky., he was told. Staff members needed help.

Flooded-out residents were at the center's doors, asking for shelter. Nursing home patients had been evacuated there, too. People were wet and cold. The center was low on food and drinking water.

Mr. Carruthers, vice president for human resources at St. Luke Hospital, got out of bed and assumed his role as deputy team commander for the hospital's Disaster Medical Assistance Team (DMAT).

"I said, 'OK, I will get to you blankets, water and reserve rations, and I will bring litters,' " he recalled. Little did he know what lay ahead.

By 5 a.m. that Sunday, Mr. Carruthers and Dan Tillet, St. Luke's warehouse supervisor, were loading a supply truck at the hospital's Fort Thomas site.

Around 6 a.m., Falmouth phone lines were down, so a Grant County emergency dispatcher paged Mr. Carruthers, sending along the Falmouth center's new request for a full medical team.

Between 8 and 9 a.m., Mr. Carruthers' military-style truck was able to barrel through standing water on the roads leading into Falmouth and reach Pendleton County High School, the logical spot for University Hospital's Air Care helicopter to land, which it did before 9 a.m.

As waters continued to rise, some of the St. Luke supplies were distributed to the high school rescue shelter. The rest were ferried by a National Guard boat to the St. Luke treatment center on the other side of town. By then, all of Falmouth's roads were impassable.

Had Mr. Carruthers arrived an hour later, said Air Care flight nurse Nancy Von Rotz, his truck might never have made it to the high school.

Ms. Von Rotz and the Air Care team stayed for several hours, opening transportation routes, setting up two health outposts, coordinating volunteers and treating Falmouth evacuees for flood-related hypothermia, cuts, bruises, respiratory problems and chest pains.

From that point on, nurses, doctors, firefighters, flood victims, truck drivers, helicopter pilots, paramedics and complete strangers pitched in. And on that first critical day of the flood, Mr. Carruthers commanded what became the emergency outpost for all of Falmouth at his hospital's drug treatment center ‹ one of the few Falmouth buildings on high ground.

"It's a nice thing to see how so many American people from so many different backgrounds come together in times like this," Mr. Carruthers said. "There's a lot of emotional outpouring, there's an obvious feeling within the American character to help each other when there's a crisis."

At 3405 Eastern Ave. in Cincinnati's East End, Rich's Stern Drive & Marine Repair added "disaster relief" to its normal boat businessduring the flood's first crucial days.

Theresa Ayers of Linwood was so touched by the plights of several friends and relatives affected by the flood that she canvassed area stores for donations of food and set up distribution at Rich's. Flood victims were offered free food from Bruegger's Bagels, the Bonbonerie, Mount Washington Bakery, Pepsi-Cola, Ameristop, Subway and Keebler.

"We know the Red Cross is there, but a lot of people won't leave their homes because of vandalism and stuff, so this is here for them," Ms. Ayers said. "Everybody is being so wonderful. People are really pulling together."

To the people in New Richmond, they're "angels."

About 20 northwest Ohioans, members of Mennonite and Amish communities, set up the Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) in New Richmond on Thursday to help complete strangers rebuild their lives.

They're carpenters, painters, electricians, plumbers and general laborers, providing their professional building services as one way of fulfilling the Bible's teachings to help others.

For the next six months or longer, the MDS members will help in flood-ravaged communities in exchange for supplies. The disaster team was founded in 1950 to help communities recover from storms.

"They're like angels ‹ it's incredible," Paul Blatz of New Richmond said last week after a crew showed up unannounced and began cleaning debris from his father's back yard. "They certainly are doing the Lord's work."

A truck's value turns golden during a flood.

Kevin Kelly of Vevay, Ind., kept his busy. When floodwaters began rising, he drove to Elizabethtown to move items from where he works to higher ground. Then he drove to downtown Aurora to move equipment out of his wife, Laura's, Main Street beauty salon.

Then he became a roving hauler for Aurora residents and business owners who needed help.

"Some (people) we knew; some we didn't," said Mr. Kelly, an Aurora native. "You're there and they needed you."

There was a flood of another kind at Woodland Elementary School in Butler County ‹ a "flood of pennies."

It just so happened that teacher Nancy Whipple's third-graders were studying Butler County's 1913 Great Miami River floods when the Ohio and Licking rivers overflowed their banks. After brainstorming for ideas on helping flood victims, the children launched a "flood of pennies" campaign during morning announcements and visits to classrooms.

"It's amazing how much money we've gotten," said Linda French, principal of the 715-student school in Lakota Local School District. "We've got a whole supply cart filled to the brim with jars and stacks of coins."

PNC Bank on Tylersville Road will count the money Monday.

More than once, West Union real estate agent Tom Partin and his best friend, John Gutman, have gassed up their Seadoo XP wave runners when Adams County creeks rose, cruising for thrills on their watercraft toys.

But the trip two weeks ago on a churning, rushing Blue Creek was no joy ride.

"It was pretty wild," said Mr. Partin, who was on his way to work in West Union the morning of March 2 when a truck-phone call from Mr. Gutman alerted him to an Adams County Sheriff's Department plea for boat owners to help rescue people.

On the spur of the moment, he arranged to borrow Mr. Gutman's Seadoo, a two-person watercraft with handlebar-like steering.

James McCann, a carpenter (and non-swimmer) who was doing some work at Mr. Partin's office that morning, helped load the watercraft and joined the effort.

Both were en route to a Bethany Ridge Road rescue scene when the sheriff's department received another call: Six people were stranded on the Cassel Run Road bridge, out of range of rescue vehicles. When Mr. Partin and Mr. McCann arrived at Blue Creek, it was rushing and wide.

"We just backed down to the water from the road, threw the Seadoo in the creek, put on a life jacket and away I went," Mr. Partin said. "The water was pretty powerful. It ripped the asphalt off of roads. It turned trailers around."

It also was swamping the bridge where Barrett Deskins and his girlfriend, Tina Jones, had taken cover in their pickup with Ms. Jones' sons, ages 6, 8 and 11, and Mr. Deskins' 17-year-old nephew. They had been stranded for eight hours.

"It was really scary when you see these big gas tanks coming at you, and you don't know if they're going to hit the bridge and catch on fire," Ms. Jones said.

But they were equally wary of Mr. Partin's two-man watercraft.

"They were nervous about letting the kids on," Mr. Partin said, detailing how he was flipped twice from the wave runner, once by brushing against a telephone pole at the edge of the creek, another time in rough water. "Their eyes were really big watching me. My eyes were really big."

But Mr. Deskins knew rescue was a now-or-never event, and within minutes, the life-jacketed children and adults were given the rides of their lives to shore, one at a time.

"When I got home, my wife kind of gave me some thunder," said Mr. Partin, insisting he was not a hero. "You really do not think about it until it's over. Then you start measuring the risk and wondering, ŒMy goodness ‹ was that really a good idea?' But when you're there, you don't think. You just do it."

How to single out American Red Cross volunteers, of which there were hundreds performing herculean tasks? Red Cross spokeswoman Barbara Giles had particular praise for three:

Jan Ludwig of Westwood, her leg still healing from a home accident last summer, manned phones at the Red Cross' downtown headquarters, answering hundreds of calls and soliciting donated lunches from area restaurants for 150 headquarters workers.

Brenda Boorer, volunteer chairwoman for Pendleton County, went from standby status to disaster shelter director ‹ her first such assignment ‹ in a matter of hours when the Licking River began rising. And when the first disaster-relief building began to flood, she found new space for residents in Pendleton County churches.

Nathan "Nat" Nattin, manager of Procter & Gamble's corporate contributions group, arranged for the distribution of more than $1.5 million in Pampers, Jif, Charmin, Crest and other P&G products to Red Cross relief groups throughout the Midwest. He also urged his employer to donate $200,000 to the Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund and, when approval was given, personally delivered the check to officials at the Sycamore Street headquarters.

They were exhausted, fueled only by catnaps in between rescues.

But Higginsport, Ohio, volunteer firefighters helped move antique carpeting and furniture to the upper levels of the 1830 River House Bed and Breakfast in Higginsport, co-owned by Pat Costa.

"I can't thank them enough, really," Mrs. Costa says of the workers who helped save the historic home. "Those boys were on the job day and night ‹ and they're volunteers."

Regina Markwalter knew she could help when she saw the American Red Cross setting up a relief shelter in Aurora.

Mrs. Markwalter, a registered nurse, volunteered because she was aware of the need for people with medical skills in shelters. She spent the night of March 3 and most of March 4 at the shelter, worked her regular night shift at a Lawrenceburg nursing home, and returned to the shelter Wednesday and Wednesday night. Catnaps sustained her.

"Yeah, I've been here for long hours. I wouldn't have it any other way," she said. "I'll definitely do it again if there's ever a need."

Her daughters, Irene, 14, and Neysa, 15, helped. So did her husband, John.

"It's not that I've done anything special," Mrs. Markwalter said. "Everybody has been special. The teamwork has just been so incredible. It's been nice to use my skills to feel like I'm contributing something."

Mrs. Markwalter knows it will be difficult for flooded-out residents to return to their soaked homes.

"I'm sure the hardest is yet to come for these people," she said. "If they need something or just need to talk, I'll be there."

Who were those men?

No one knows, but the St. Luke Hospital Disaster Medical Assistance Team (DMAT) team is glad they materialized.

On Sunday afternoon, a National Guard Blackhawk helicopter dropped some DMAT team members ‹ a doctor, several nurses and paramedics ‹ and 600-700 pounds of medical gear into a school parking lot outside Falmouth. Only problem: The team was still about half a mile from Pendleton County High School, where the rescue shelter was.

Out of nowhere, said Bill Carruthers, DMAT deputy commander, came four "good old boys" on four-wheel-drive, all-terrain vehicles. Leather jackets and all, revving their engines.

"Need help?" they asked.

Within minutes, the medical team and gear were loaded up and delivered overland to the high school's front door.

Then the ATV riders took off down the road and were gone.

Contributing to this report: Lisa Donovan, Dana DiFilippo, Beth Menge and Christine Wolff.