Monday, March 17, 1997
For poor, flood left little
Rural Ohio county adds up its losses

The Cincinnati Enquirer

WEST UNION - Disaster here adds up by ones and twos, dozens and scores.

''Usually people grossly underestimate how bad it is,'' Rita Kepner, a spokeswom-an for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), said Sunday. ''They are in denial.''

With a small population dispersed among myriad creeks, forks, runs and hollows, Adams County is still tallying losses.

A veteran of 1993 floods that devastated the Midwest, Ms. Kepner said Tristate damage ''looks like that kind of mess ... This is bad stuff, really bad stuff.''

In Adams County, rains washed down Appalachian foothills of rock and saturated clay, lifting homes off their foundations and turning creeks into deadly, irresistible torrents.

Days later, those same rains and rushing streams raised the Ohio River and inundated Manchester along U.S. 52.

Tragedy in Adams County lacked the sudden drama of Falmouth, where the Licking River tore through like a tornado and drew the national media, but fatigued workers at the emergency operations center here finally have an idea of their losses: $100 million.

''I'm looking at that and maybe even more,'' Paul Howelett, director of the county Emergency Management Agency, said.

That estimate included:

3,000 people displaced in the first week, or almost 10 percent of the population.

500 residences destroyed or damaged beyond repair.

500 to 700 residences damaged, including some that may be razed or scrapped because repairs would be too expensive.

Numerous county roads washed out and least four county bridges ruined.

Hundreds of private culverts and bridges washed out.

Businesses disrupted and commercial buildings inundated, especially in low-lying Manchester.

Then there is the $100,000 a day that Ohio is spending on the Army National Guard, whose heavy combat engineers, military police and medics are complementing local efforts.

Irrespective of federal and state aid, chronic poverty will complicate Adams County recovery.

Few residents could afford flood insurance; fewer have the resources to rebuild and maximum FEMA grants won't even buy new mobile homes.

In January, Adams County unemployment was 16.1 percent, the second-highest in the state, according to Ohio Bureau of Employment Services. Statewide, it was 5.9 percent.

In 1994, according to Steve Kelley, senior economist in Ohio's Office of Strategic Planning, Adams County income was $12,807 per person, lowest in the state, compared to $20,867 throughout Ohio.

''These people didn't have much to begin with and now they've got nothing,'' Manchester Mayor Randy Yates said.

So what will they do?

''Fix it up,'' Troy Ward, 26, said after returned to his mobile home in Wamsley. ''Ripped the carpet off the floor and used the garden hose to wash it out.''

Fix-up also meant restoring concrete block pillars on which the trailer stood near Scioto Brush Creek and shifting the mobile home back onto those pillars.

Although he lacked federal flood insurance, Mr. Ward might be eligible for a minimal federal repair grant up to $10,000, FEMA spokesman Alex Newton said.

It's tougher for homeowners whose repairs exceed 50 percent of the pre-flood value because FEMA generally won't pay a second time for such structures in the same spot.

''At some point, we're going to say, 'enough already,''' Mr. Newton said.

Or, as colleague Ms. Kepner put it, ''Are we going to build them a house? Heck, no!''

That means ''mitigation'' before federal money flows.

When homes are destroyed, FEMA provides rental assistance for up to 18 months of temporary housing, and the Small Business Administration offers low-interest construction loans, Mr. Newton said.

As part of the deal, borrowers must comply with FEMA's mitigation policy that requires the new residence to be built above the 100-year flood. Owners can move to high, dry ground or stay put and rebuild their home in some way that meets that criterion.

That won't be simple. The Ohio River crest of 61.17 feet at 1 a.m. on March 6 was 4 feet below the 100-year flood.

Mr. Newton said another option is for a community to buy out owners in the flood plain and devote the land to flood-compatible purposes like a park.

In those cases, communities can apply for a hazard mitigation grant, with FEMA paying 75 percent and the state, 25 percent.

Dual disasters that hit Adams County complicate these decisions.

On the Ohio River flood plain, Manchester had about half of the county's destroyed residences and municipal officials said those permanent structures and mobile homes will be difficult to elevate above flood level.

Similarly, they said, homeowners willing to rebuild may find insufficient sites acceptable to FEMA and close to jobs and schools.

Relocation may be impractical in the hollows and along the creeks where valued ''bottomland'' often is the only level spot for increasingly common mobile homes.

Moving up steep, potentially unstable hillsides would require costly site preparation and utility hookups and most residents would refuse, county officials predicted.

That wouldn't rule out FEMA help, Mr. Newton said, because grants probably would be available if local authorities - applying federal flood mitigation rules - approved rebuilding and repairs.

Officials in the county emergency operations center said none of this would be cheap.

New mobile homes cost $15,000 to $22,000 each, or possibly $7.5 million to $11 million countywide, and the supply is short with everyone in the Ohio Valley looking for the same thing.

No one knows what it will cost to repair homes that survived the flood but various FEMA programs offer most people some money.

Early last week, FEMA data supported initial Adams County estimates of residential losses.

FEMA inspectors had reported 173 homes destroyed, 119 homes with major damage, 159 with comparatively minor damage, and another 150 that were affected even less but would need some fix-ups.

FEMA spokesman Mr. Newton said those numbers were five or six days old and would rise as colleagues reached farther into the hollows and updated damage assessments.

The same brown waves that tore buildings from their foundations destroyed culverts, peeled back blacktop and undercut Adams County county roads, leaving jagged, impassable gaps and bridges. Deputy County Engineer David Hook said repairs will cost at least $20 million.