Tuesday, April 1, 1997
Rebirth a labor of love
Flood-strangled areas sprouting new life

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Standing in his mud-streaked driveway, Joseph Taravella hosed down the dirty claw-like garden cultivator he held in his hand.

It was among a few garden tools he had managed to salvage from his wrecked garage.

''I had the most beautiful yard in Falmouth,'' the 66-year-old man said sadly. ''I had chrysanthemums here. This was all landscaped. Now it's all gone.''

Mr. Taravella gazed grimly at his muddy yard, with its flattened bushes, and at his house, with its savagely bent black-and-white front awning, its bowed floors, busted-out windows and leaning walls. He has been living in an apartment since the flooding Licking River virtually submerged his neighborhood in this Kentucky town four weeks ago.

''My house is totaled,'' he said. ''Even if they built me a new house here free of charge, I wouldn't move back. I'm not going to live in fear. This flood took everything I worked for for 40 years of my life.''

One month ago today, a group of vicious thunderstorms struck the Ohio River Valley. A record-setting 6.5 inches of rain fell that day in Adams County, triggering flash floods in the Ohio River tributaries that washed away houses, mobile homes, roads and bridges.

The Licking River jumped its banks at Falmouth and tore through more than half the town. The Ohio River rose 19 feet in 24 hours and crested on March 5 at 64.7 feet, its highest mark since 1964.

The raging flood waters that engulfed many Tristate communities one month ago have long since receded. But the flood continues to affect thousands of lives as businesses work to reopen and as people either struggle to make their homes habitable or search for a new place to live.

In some of the hardest-hit areas - such as Falmouth, New Richmond, and Patriot, Ind. - some residents nervously wait to see when or if they will be able to move back into their homes.

Others have shoveled the muck from their houses, stripped the interior walls and ceilings of plaster and envision moving back into their houses within two months. Some have already moved back into their homes, but are still working to repair minor damage.

In every community the flood reached, its fury left a trail of destruction and heartache that hasn't faded.

The flood killed five Falmouth residents. Sections of Falmouth still look like they were attacked by an army of crazed soldiers. About 500 structures in the town are damaged beyond repair and will have to be demolished.

The War Zone

In Mr. Taravella's neighborhood, cement walks lead to quagmires of mud where houses once stood. For block after block, piles of rubble and debris sit in front of empty houses with boarded-up windows, collapsed roofs and battered walls.

''I call it a war zone,'' said Falmouth City Councilman Jeff Carson.

City Council must decide whether to apply for federal money either to buy out the owners of destroyed houses who want to sell or to build a dam. The home owners could build new homes in other parts of Falmouth, Mr. Carson said.

''All isn't lost,'' Mr. Carson said. ''It's just the first chapter of a new beginning.''

In nearby Butler, shreds of cloth and pieces of plastic still hang high in the trees along the Licking's banks.

Destroyed trailers have been removed from Mill Street. Residents and volunteers work in salvageable homes on the flood-ravaged street.

Rich and Pat Danehe stood in the living room of the Mill Street house they had bought two weeks before the flood waters reached the roof.

On this day, the floors were dusty, but free of the coating of smelly mud. They hope to move back in a few weeks.

''It's starting to look a lot more like home,'' Mrs. Danehe said with a smile. ''I feel a lot better.''

The future is less certain for Jack and Connie Adkins in Patriot, Ind. Since the flooding Ohio River's backwater destroyed their white double-wide mobile home, they and their three children have been living in a one-bedroom apartment.

''There's not a lot of room, but it'll do until we get something,'' said Mrs. Adkins, a lifelong resident of this town of about 200 people.

Mrs. Adkins, 43, said she's worried that she and some of her neighbors might not be permitted to move back to their lots because of the danger of future floods.

''I don't think I should have to move because of the flood,'' she said. ''It could happen here again in a few weeks or it could be 50 years. You just don't know.''

Not back to normal

David and Pam Kahle and their two children have already moved back into their two-story house on Front Street in New Richmond.

Until they replace their destroyed furnace, they're heating their house with two kerosene heaters.

Mrs. Kahle said she's prepared for the additional work it will take to restore their house to its original condition.

''It's just going to take a while to get everything back to normal,'' she said.

In Cincinnati's East End, the White and Spicer families plan to move back into their homes on Setchell Street in one to two months.

Kemper ''Fred'' White had a simple explanation for why he and his wife, Kim, haven't even considered relocating to higher ground: ''My wife was born and raised on this street.''

Richard and Dolores Spicer and their three children moved in with a relative Thursday, their third move since the flood.

''I feel like I'm living a nightmare,'' Mrs. Spicer said wearily. ''But God has been good because it could have been worse. Nobody in the East End lost their lives, and that was a blessing.''

While many people are trying to repair their homes, thousands of business owners are trying to rebuild their livelihoods.

At River Downs, which had been covered by 5 to 7 feet of flood water, scores of workers are preparing the facility for its scheduled April 12 opening date for the live racing season. Since March 20, it has been open in a limited capacity for simulcast racing.

The smell of sawdust permeated the lower clubhouse, as workers replaced damaged floorboards and counters. More than 35 dehumidifiers hummed loudly.

In the barns, workers scraped dirt from the horse stalls and sprayed the walls and floors with high-pressure hoses and chemical sanitizers designed to kill bacteria.

''It's amazing how far we've come since the flood,'' said John Engelhardt, River Downs spokesman. ''It's not going to be easy, but we're going to be ready by April 12.''

Conrad Hardware, Furniture & Gifts is one of the few damaged businesses in Falmouth that has reopened since the flood.

In their building's 110-year history, flood water had never seeped into its first floor. But in last month's disaster, about 5 feet of water filled the first-floor rooms and left a residue of 7 inches of mud.

A week after the flood, Russ and Penny Conrad reopened their store with limited inventory and have been selling mattresses and appliances from trailers in back.

''We're still kind of in a state of shock,'' Mrs. Conrad said.

For many people, the flood was a stunning reminder of the dark, fierce side of the rivers and creeks that usually flow tranquilly near their homes.

Mrs. Spicer will never feel the same about the Ohio River, her neighbor for the 14 years she has lived in the East End.

''It took everybody off guard,'' she said. ''We'll never underestimate the river no more.''