Sunday, August 31, 1997
Out of deep water
Six months after the flood, the cities, villages
and people are making a surprising comeback

The Cincinnati Enquirer


The chocolate brown, muddy liquid was everywhere. Inundating homes and stores. Washing out roads. Rushing over bridges.

It came fast, so fast that the hard winter ground could not absorb the rain - 10 inches and more - that fell within 12 hours March 1.

Ohio River streams and tributaries in Adams and Brown counties and the Licking River in Pendleton County jumped their banks. Three days later, the Ohio would rise to the highest it had been in 30 years.

The Licking ballooned to 24 feet above flood stage, slamming a wall of water 12 feet high into the Pendleton County towns of Falmouth and Butler.

The Ohio crested about a week later at 64.7 feet, swamping parts of downtown Cincinnati and the river towns of New Richmond, Moscow and Neville in Ohio and Aurora and Lawrenceburg in Indiana.

By the time the water receded, 24 people were dead in Kentucky and Ohio, hundreds were left homeless, and more than $400 million in damages awaited repairs.

The task of pulling out what was lost under the rivers' rampage seemed incomprehensible for the 6,000 or so people whose lives were affected.

Now, six months later, residents across the Tri-state marvel at what they've accomplished.

''If you ever come back, you won't know this place,'' Margie Dunaway said on a cloudy August day as she helped her mother, RosaLee LaFollette, scrub the siding of a small Barkley Street rental home in Falmouth. ''Give us a month or more.''

Damage costs

Towns reassemble

Little by little, Tristate flood victims are at various stages of rebuilding.

In New Richmond, residents and officials hope a federal program to buy or elevate homes will reduce future flood damage.

About 460 structures in the village sat in 6 to 9 feet of water during the flood. Owners of 42 of those structures have been offered the option to use part of a $1.2 million grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to elevate houses or sell them to the city.

Searching for ways to handle such a crisis better next time will be part of flood plans being prepared by officials of New Richmond and neighboring Moscow. ''We will be looking at things like partnering families with other families who don't have a second floor,'' said Robin Hendley, Moscow administrator.

In Adams County, about 30 homes still need repairs, said Paul Howelett, director of the county's emergency management agency. Nearly 100 homes were fixed. Another 62 - mostly mobile homes - were condemned.

The Ohio River deluged Dearborn, Ohio and Switzerland counties in Indiana, too. Half a year later, the Dearborn Plaza shopping center in Lawrenceburg has been reopened.

In Aurora, most homes and businesses damaged by floodwaters are back to normal.

But in Switzerland County and the town of Patriot, officials are working on a disaster plan. ''This was very much of a learning experience for all of us,'' said Gary Wentworth, Switzerland County emergency services director. ''If it happens again, even if it's worse, we will have less impact.''

Mr. Wentworth said anyone who was able to rebuild a flood-damaged home has moved back in. Others are waiting for word on federal buyouts.

''We got lucky this time,'' Mr. Wentworth said. ''No one died. But we've still got a long way to go.''

Falmouth being reborn

The scene today is most striking in Falmouth.

Construction crews crowd the small yards between homes, pounding hammers piercing the air with the rhythm of a church gospel. Falmouth is a city bustling with construction and development.

Once a dying city trying hard to make an economic comeback, Falmouth is being born again. But the revival is not without pain, fear and uncertainty.

Of all the flooded communities, Falmouth was hardest hit. Five people died. More than 250 homes and businesses were destroyed, totaling more than $40 million in losses.

While 97 homeowners wait for a federal buyout to begin, dozens are already back in their homes. On every street, debris left behind by floodwaters collides with signs of new life.

Brown, rough-edged pieces of wood sit in piles in front yards, contrasted against the lush green grass peeking out from between them. Lavish yellow daisies, purple freesia and bright yellow sunflowers outline the perimeters of cinder-block squares.

The foundations of houses lost to the Licking River's assault symbolize what life is like six months later. Their homes knocked down by huge forces, Falmouth's residents are rebuilding from the basement up.

The scene is the same all over town: homes in various stages of construction and remodeling. Residents living in places that look brand new. For many homeowners, the chance to rebuild means an opportunity to add amenities.

Sharon and Raymond Gray refurbished their one-story house on Dickerson Street with air conditioning, a concrete patio and a hardwood entryway. With their home completed, the Grays are making plans to get away to Gatlinburg, Tenn. for a vacation.

''We have a responsibility here,'' Mrs. Gray said about Falmouth. ''We can't get up and leave. We can't run away.''

Russ and Penny Conrad also decided that the city deserved their devotion. They reopened Conrad Hardware and Furniture on Shelby Street with less than its original net worth.

''I had no idea. I was so far wrong on what I thought this would be,'' Mr. Conrad said. ''I underestimated it by geometric proportions.''

Inside the store, which has cost the Conrads more than $500,000 to reopen, rows of new couches line the floor, their bright blues and muted yellows dulled by protective plastic coverings. A side room houses a jumble of new home appliances.

''Right this moment, I'm basically a warehouse. I don't want to be that. I want to be a store again,'' Mr. Conrad said. ''But if I can't make this work, I can always go on and do something else. We've had a flood. It's over.

''You can let it ruin your life or get on with your life.''

A return to what life was like before March 1 can't come fast enough for the families living in Falmouth's temporary New Hope trailer park. Set on a hill a mile south of town, the 86 trailers form a sterile-looking, prefab pocket of a town.

Gary Lea, a single father of three, says he'll stay in the trailer only until a new mobile home on his Rigg Street property is ready.

''I don't know how long it will take,'' Mr. Lea said during a lunch break from his city maintenance job. He spends nights fixing the new home. ''We were down there the other night just goofing off, and just being on our property felt like we were back home, even without a house.''

There are only a few new homes being built for those in the trailer park - which closes in October 1988. But there is some hope in a state plan to let residents buy the trailers if they have suitable land and can afford the upkeep.

''The reason for deciding to sell them is that for some of these folks, there is nothing else for them as an option,'' said Lisa Greene, executive director of the Falmouth Housing Authority.

Demolition and desertion

In Cincinnati's East End, demolition of about 40 buildings is under way, leaving open space where homes once stood in one of the city's oldest, most flood-prone neighborhoods.

Water-damaged buildings on about two dozen East End streets - all old structures damaged repeatedly over the years by flooding - could come down in coming months, pending decisions by property owners to accept buyouts, said Bill Langevin, director of Cincinnati's Department of Buildings and Inspections.

City officials recently allocated about $200,000 to bring down the buildings. Of the 40 buildings, demolition contracts have been signed so far for 19, Mr. Langevin said.

''This flood did substantial damage,'' he said. ''This flood was the last straw.''

Once it is vacant, the land eventually may become part of the city's park and recreation areas along the river, Mr. Langevin said. Federal laws require that any new buildings be elevated 10 to 15 feet above the flood plain.

In Clermont County's riverside village of Neville, flood plans under way could mean the end of the village in about four years.

When the Flood of '97 hit, the community of 225 residents already was working with the federal government on a mitigation plan from floods in 1996. That money has arrived - $924,000 - and will be used to buy homes for demolition or to help build elevated houses.

Twenty-seven property owners will be offered the money, said former Mayor Michael J. Christopher. Buyouts could begin this winter.

But with the new flood came a second mitigation project, which could bring up to $1.5 million for more buyouts.

''That would address the rest of the village,'' Mr. Christopher said. ''Most of the village will be gone within three or four years.''


The Flood of '97