AWE AND THE
Swollen waterways, sorrow caked in mud
BY CLIFF RADEL
The Cincinnati Enquirer
In the end, the flood humbled us.
By its enormity, sending enough water under the Suspension Bridge to drench 1,866 acres with a foot of rain.
By its merciless destructive force, wiping out the city of Falmouth.
By its eerie beauty.
On a sunny day, Cincinnati's riverfront sparkled under waters that ebbed and flowed in swirling shades of orange and rust, copper and milk chocolate.
This flood, this great rush of water, made us small and powerless. It wiped out places we take for granted. It hurt us.
It smashed our machines, tore up our land and destroyed our homes.
It made those who suffered the worst thank God they were alive, or wonder in shock and disbelief exactly what God was up to when he sent the rains pouring down and brushed their lives aside like twigs.
It made the rest of us gape and then take stock of our own lives. Our problems shrank and made room for our hearts to reach out. The flood drew us out of the normal stream of things to help those dragged under by the flood.
So you can't say this flood beat us.
This flood showed us our place by the river.
Water destroys by lifting and pushing.
But its real power is gravity.
MARCH 4: For many Cincinnatians, it was a sight of a lifetime as the Ohio River spilled onto Pete Rose Way and turned produce warehouses into islands.
(Ernest Coleman photo)
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Gravity pulls the rain to Earth, and then pulls streams and rivers and their rampaging overflows relentlessly down any grade. Downhill. Downstream. Down to the river and down to the sea.
Slowly or with freight-train speed, running water envelops everything in its path.
A single flood has many faces. It can be gentle, slowly submerging a basement or a low-lying street. And it can be violent, heaving houses off foundations and stripping them of all their contents.
This flood was born in a freak rainstorm shoved up the Ohio River valley by high easterly winds. The winds were fierce. They had already created killer tornadoes in Arkansas.
Five miles above Louisville the winds rushed over a huge patch of warm, moist air. Rain began to fall. Swift and unrelenting. The storm front rushed on, pouring rain in its wake. Louisville got hit by 10 inches in a matter of hours.
So did Falmouth.
After Falmouth, the storm turned northeast and soaked Brown and Adams counties in Ohio with another 8-10 inches of rain. The storm almost missed Cincinnati. Just the same, it still dropped 3 inches on us during that entire first weekend in March.
That was the beginning of our flood.
Falling on already soggy ground, steep Kentucky hillsides and jagged Ohio ravines, the rain became runoff, gathered speed and rumbled down streams and creeks into the Licking and Ohio rivers.
When the rivers could no longer hold all the water, the flood revealed itself and began to destroy.
MARCH 2: Falmouth, Ky., was buried under the muddy water of the Licking River.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
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In the 10 days between the first heavy rains and flash floods and the day the Ohio River finally fell back below flood stage at the Serpentine Wall, this flood would rage across three states. There would be more than $400 million in damage, hundreds homeless and 24 lives lost.
It would smother small river towns. Challenge the big cities. Snatch cars from roads. And drag whole houses downriver.
The first Monday night, I went down to the river. Mist hung in the air creating the sensation that the flood was everywhere. And it almost was. High water covered riverfront parking lots, spilled into Pete Rose Way, stranded the big warehouses.
But I didn't go just to see destruction.
I had to see the river because I live here.
Cincinnati is a river town. The river defines our boundaries, marks our history, sings our song. It draws us to its shores to watch games and hear music.
And when that river floods, you can feel its pull. Even living on a hill on the west side.
This flood, the worst since 1964, pulled hard, very hard, with a magnetism that whispered, ''Come see me. I may never be this high again in your lifetime.''
I had seen the Ohio run high and wild before. But never this high, never this wild. The 64.7-foot crest on March 5 would make it the ninth-highest flood in history.
MARCH 5: Families were forced out as the rivers rose. New Richmond fireman Rick Mattingly rescues Keith, 3; Daniel, 1, and Roberta Minervini from their Front Street home.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
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Floods are perhaps hardest on memories.
They destroy what we want most to preserve. Photographs of faces we can never touch again. Cherished gifts. A baby's teddy bear. Our homes themselves and all the memories they contain.
A flood can take it all away.
Talk to someone who's just lost everything in a flood. They always mention the little things they lost first. The ashtray from the World's Fair. Their mother's paring knife.
Speak with them some more and they'll tell you how they barely got out of their house. They'll say where they slept the first night of the flood. What they ate.
Ask them what happened the next day or the day after.
They stop, give a frightened, confused look and ask: ''What day is it?''
Floods rob people of memories and leave terrible new memories in their place.
To know the power of the flood, walk the streets of Falmouth.
On the north end of town, a railroad bridge runs over the normally lazy Licking River. It's an old bridge and its girders are covered by thick, black sheets of steel.
A tree trunk juts from one of these sheets. Thrown by the flood it pierced the steel with the apparent ease of a pencil poked through a plastic cup.
MARCH 7: Water stood knee-deep to the statue of Cincinnatus at Sawyer Point, where Brewster Rhoads of Mount Washington went kayaking
(Michael Snyder photo)
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Downtown, a mobile home rests blocks from its foundation. The double-wide is bent, crimped and twisted like a wrung-out dishrag.
A kitchen has spilled its contents across a back yard. The refrigerator's door hangs open next to a maple tree. Two of the tree's lower branches reach inside.
An upended table rests against a fence. Two matching chairs hang in a nearby oak tree.
On the ground sits a plastic Tupperware bowl. The lid is bent back. Spaghetti and meatballs are inside. A fork rests handle up on the side of the dish.
It's as if someone was just called away in mid-bite.
These sights stunned me. And I was just passing through.
How would I feel if these were my things, my home, my memories plastered to the ground in thick river mud?
Looking at the shattered town, I slowly realized it is impossible to fully imagine another person's worst nightmare.
After hours of walking the streets of this decimated town, you think you can't be moved anymore.
Then you are.
On Saturday, a week after the flood began, day was turning to dusk. The cleanup workers' cars were lined up to get on the town's main drag, U.S. 27.
The day had been a pretty one. Not a cloud in the sky. The sun had dried most of the mud on the streets.
It was supposed to be a pretty sunset. But no one could see it. Every driver had his lights on. And it was getting hazier not darker.
The setting sun was obscured by the orange mud dust kicked up by all the cars.
DT>All my life, I've been hearing about a flood like this. When I was little kid and the Ohio River overflowed, my grandfather would take me down to his basement and show me his scrapbook of the '37 flood.
He'd tell me about waiting in line for fresh water. Having no lights. He'd tell me the stories with hushed reverence, the experiences undiminished in his mind even after 20 years.
MARCH 8: The force of the Licking River washed a house in Butler, Ky., off its foundation and atop two vehicles on Mill Street.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
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I remembered our annual summertime trip to Coney Island. We'd always walk to the boat ramp and look at the pole marking the years and the level of each flood.
The high-water mark of 79.9 feet from 1937 loomed over my head as the undisputed king of the floods.
You hear the stories. But it takes living through something like this, as my grandfather did and now we have done, to have the power of a flood seep into your bones, deep into your memory.
A flood this big runs through everybody's back yard and touches everyone's heart.
Along a stretch of Kellogg Avenue, I passed a gawker standing on the sidewalk taking pictures.
He was discreet. He wasn't taking a struggling person's photo or running up on a flooded porch to get a better view of the Ohio running through the house.
He was just there to see the river.
He was surprised to find people in the houses. He thought they had been evacuated. When he aimed his camera he saw residents standing and talking in small groups. They were clutching their chests -- to keep their hearts from breaking. And some were sobbing.
They were worried. They might not get all of their possessions out. They might not get them up on blocks or up to the second floor. This time, the river might get them.
What the gawker saw in his lens, forced him to look into his heart.
What he saw made him put away his camera. He walked to a Red Cross center he had passed on his rounds.
He went in and volunteered for flood-relief duty.
Until this flood, I used to think people were either stupid or crazy or a little bit of both to live by the river. It was dirty and dangerous. Rivers here have a habit of overflowing their banks.
So, why live on the river?
MARCH 5: John Shropshire of New Richmond saw his hometown from a new perspective as he floated down Front Street, past a house that had burned the previous day.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
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I asked that in flooded New Richmond, the East End, Falmouth, Lawrenceburg and on California's Kellogg Avenue.
The people in these places looked at me like I was crazy.
Just two words.
The floodwaters have receded.
Ruined possessions are stacked in front of houses with water lines under the eaves.
Cars have returned to downtown's riverfront lots.
Barges slip past the stadium. Sunlight dances in silver streaks on the living river.
The mud is being scooped, shoveled and trucked off to be buried like toxic waste we hope will never rise again.
In the flood's aftermath stands a stronger sense of community.
No matter where we live, on the hills or on the shoreline, we are alike for a time, sharing the dreams and sorrows of a river town.
When the Ohio River climbed rapidly into the riverfront stores of New Richmond, Metzger's Hardware was jammed. Not with shoppers. But with helpers. They were lugging tools upstairs and stacking goods on higher shelves.
At one point, the owner looked around. He noticed he didn't know most of the people in his store from Adam or Eve.
In Red Cross shelters, food-collection centers, in hometown streets where there seemed no way to begin, the people came.
We spend millions to keep a football team on the river to give us a sense of community.
We spend days drinking beer and eating German food along Fifth Street each fall to give us a sense of community.
We talk about community each Sunday in church, each week in City Council, each night in school-board meetings and trendy bars along Main Street.
But in a river town it only takes a flood to make a community, to show us our place along the river.
The lasting lesson of a flood is its awesome power and our tiny grasp on the world.
A flood separates us from the things we hold dear. Dissolves the routine. And leaves us with a glimpse, however painful, of all that is important.
A flood destroys. A flood recedes.
And we begin again as the water continues to flow just beyond our reach.
MARCH 12: As Larry Ferguson moved debris, Collins Market in New Richmond displayed confidence.
(Kevin J. Miyazaki photo)
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Day 1, Saturday, March 1, 1997
Day 2, Sunday, March 2, 1997
Day 3, Monday, March 3, 1997
Day 4, Tuesday, March 4, 1997
Day 5, Wednesday, March 5, 1997
Day 6, Thursday, March 6, 1997
Day 7, Friday, March 7, 1997
Day 8, Saturday, March 8, 1997
Day 9, Sunday, March 9, 1997
Day 10, Monday, March 10, 1997
Day 11, Tuesday, March 11, 1997
Day 12, Wednesday, March 12, 1997