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Published: Friday, 7/11/2003

Taft visits flood-damaged communities


CELINA, Ohio - Gov. Bob Taft said the flooding he saw yesterday in three western Ohio counties was the worst he had seen since becoming governor.

The governor drove through some flooded streets - one where he said he could see fish swimming in the water - and flew over the affected area before meeting with emergency officials handling the flooding emergency.

“Thank God there has been no loss of life. We're grateful for that,” the governor told officials and storm volunteers, who were packed inside a county building. “But the damage has been extensive - and widespread.”

He said he would review damage assessments before determining whether to seek a presidential disaster declaration for the affected counties. State officials said they expect to make a recommendation by the end of today.

Earlier this week, Governor Taft declared a state of emergency in Auglaize, Darke, Logan, Mercer, and Van Wert counties, and Shelby County was expected to be added to the list.

Residents who end up qualifying for assistance could receive loans from the Small Business Association or individual grants to help pay for damage and flooding insurance.

Jane Ford surveys the high water in Rockford, Ohio. Floodwaters have damaged about 100 homes in Mercer County. Jane Ford surveys the high water in Rockford, Ohio. Floodwaters have damaged about 100 homes in Mercer County.

Authorities estimated that 300 homes have been damaged in the region as a result of flooding. About 100 of those homes are in Mercer County, primarily in the towns of Celina and Rockford, said Karl Kaiser, director of Mercer County's EMA.

Governor Taft said he was not planning to stop in any other Ohio counties yesterday but said he sympathized with residents living elsewhere - including the small village of Willshire in Van Wert County, which sits along the flooded St. Marys River.

About 12 homes in that village of less than 500 residents have been flooded, Mr. Shipley said.

“We're very concerned about that situation there,” the governor said of Willshire. He was briefed yesterday about the Willshire flooding by Rick McCoy, who is Van Wert County's EMA director.

Mr. McCoy said he felt comfortable leaving Willshire and its flooded St. Marys River to be present for the governor's stop in Celina. “We're really optimistic,” Mr. McCoy said. “The waters continue to recede. We're down about a foot now.”

That was good news for the county - although waters remained more than eight feet above flood level - which has received about 13 inches of rain since storms first hit last month.

In Willshire, where intense flooding forced the voluntary evacuation of a dozen homes just outside of town, most of the major routes into town were still underwater yesterday.

“Our next concern after this water goes down is the cleanup of the homes and the businesses. That will be pretty expensive,” Mr. McCoy said.

In Celina, home to 10,000 residents, the flooding was caused by an uncontrollable spillage from Grand Lake St. Marys along the city's south side, where small cottages rest along the road and new homes are under construction. Mr. Kaiser said rain brought the lake 22 inches above its normal level. That water flowed over the spillway, causing severe flooding.

The Maumee River crested at 11.04 feet near Defiance at 3:30 a.m. and had dropped to 10.68 feet by 2 p.m. Flood stage is at 10 feet. At Napoleon, the river was half a foot below flood stage yesterday morning and receding.

Michael Sabones, meteorologist in charge of the National Weather Service office in Syracuse, Ind., said dry weather is forecast for today and tomorrow.

He said the passing of a cold front over northwest Ohio yesterday should end the threat of rain for awhile.

“I think the worst is over,” Mr. Sabones said. “With so much water still draining, the drop in the river will be slow, but it will be a drop.”

He said the St. Marys River was highest yesterday at Fort Wayne, Ind., where it meets the Maumee. That indicated some water had drained away from Willshire and other areas downstream.

Mercer County Commissioner Jerry Laffin said the receding river would give emergency workers a chance to get a good night's sleep.

Mr. Laffin said that although the water is receding, significant damage already has been done.

The local radio station, which the county relies on to disseminate immediate information, was threatened by water and so commissioners offered spare space in the county courthouse for its continued operations.

According to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, cost-sharing funds are being made available to those livestock farmers impacted by the storms in the western portion of the state. Eligible farmers would receive up to $1,500 per farm for emergency livestock waste facility construction.

In Van Wert County, the Department of Job and Family Services plans to accept applications for disaster aid at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. today in the cafeteria at Parkway Middle School in Willshire.

Applications also will be taken from 9 a.m. to noon tomorrow at the Job and Family Services office in Van Wert.

Families with disaster-related losses or damage may qualify for up to $1,500 if they have dependent children and meet income guidelines. Grants of up to $500 also are available for people with disabilities, and for those over 55 who don't have dependent children.

Blade staff writers Erica Blake and Steve Murphy contributed to this report.

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