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Published: 1/9/2005

Floods swamp southeast Ohio

BY STEVE EDER
BLADE STAFF WRITER
John Bolen, owner of a shoe shop in Marietta, Ohio, surveys the flooding that damaged about 200 businesses. John Bolen, owner of a shoe shop in Marietta, Ohio, surveys the flooding that damaged about 200 businesses.
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Flooding along First Street in Marietta threatens homes. Up to 400 residents in the area moved to a shelter. Flooding along First Street in Marietta threatens homes. Up to 400 residents in the area moved to a shelter.
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A billboard in Marietta, Ohio, was intended to assure residents after the remnants of Hurricane Ivan swept through the area that life was back to normal. More flooding has hit the city. A billboard in Marietta, Ohio, was intended to assure residents after the remnants of Hurricane Ivan swept through the area that life was back to normal. More flooding has hit the city.
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Joe Pilkington waits for help in his boat on First Street in Marietta, Ohio, where the Ohio River crested 9 feet above flood level. Joe Pilkington waits for help in his boat on First Street in Marietta, Ohio, where the Ohio River crested 9 feet above flood level.
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MARIETTA, Ohio - The floodwaters filling the streets of this river town surrounded a billboard yesterday that informed onlookers that "Everything Is Back to Normal Here."

But it was anything but normal in the southeast Ohio city nestled at the confluence of the Muskingum and Ohio rivers.

Residents boarded boats to sail through more than two feet of mucky floodwater that engulfed downtown streets after last week's storm. The sight mirrored the wreckage in mid-September after remnants of Hurricane Ivan soaked the region and put Marietta, a city with a population of about 14,000 people, under water.

The waterlogged streets posed an eerily familiar scene for residents and downtown shop owners still recovering from the September flood, which was the worst to hit the area in about four decades.

In mid-October, residents hosted "Ivan Fest," a celebration of recovery efforts that let everyone know that normalcy had returned to this Washington County city.

Or so they thought.

Wearing knee-high boots, John Bolen, the owner of Cobbler John's Shoe Service, an 80-year-old downtown shop, surveyed the damage caused by the latest flood.

"This is like dj vu," said Mr. Bolen, who was among the store owners who prepared for the flood by taking measures such as stacking sandbags in front of their shops and moving products off the floor.

In September, the water rose above predictions and caused massive damage for unprepared shop owners. An estimated 200 businesses were damaged in last week's flood.

"We hadn't had a good old-fashioned flood like this in 40 years; so people were out of practice," Mr. Bolen said yesterday. "It's a shame. A lot of the businesses were just getting back, and then we get this again."

A few blocks away, 8-year-old Hannah Gammon dipped her pink boots into the water while her father, Peter, waded through waist-high water to check on his mother's downtown antique store, "The Tin Rabbit."

"We wanted to check on it to see if the water went down so we can start the cleanup process again," said Kelly Gammon, Peter's wife, as she waited for her husband to return.

"It's just stressful."

Marietta residents had prayed the water would begin receding so they could resume the too-familiar process of cleaning up and restoring normalcy. The water crested at 43.3 feet at 5 a.m. yesterday, more than nine feet above flood stage.

"It's very slow," said Michael Cullums, spokesman for Washington County Emergency Management Agency. He said water levels dropped about a half-foot by yesterday afternoon.

"It is dropping. We are confident it will continue to drop, but not as quickly as everybody would like," he said.

Dozens of communities statewide were dealing with flooding to varying degrees as they thawed out from a mix of snow, ice, and rain.

Residents of northwest Ohio awoke yesterday to a blanket of snow nearly eight inches deep in some areas.

Several nearby southeast Ohio towns including Athens and Pomeroy, and northern West Virginia towns such as Point Pleasant and Parkersburg, were facing flood conditions.

Cincinnati also was bracing for flooding this weekend as Ohio River levels rose.

The storm unplugged power lines in pockets throughout the state, but few homes lost electricity in Marietta. Some homes turned off gas service as a precaution.

"Initially, there was a sense of disbelief that the worst flood in nearly 40 years would repeat itself less than four months later," Mr. Cullums said. "Now there's a sense of resolve."

Ed Reno, the interim executive director for the American Red Cross of Washington County, said 350 to 400 people were displaced from their homes because of the Marietta flooding. The organization opened a shelter to house people who were forced to evacuate.

"Our mission is to make sure the needs of the individuals are being met and they have food and shelter," he said.

Scrubbing watermarks off his home on Front Street near downtown Marietta, Randy Tucker, 40, said residents must be resolved to work through Mother Nature's latest test.

In September, his home and his other nearby properties took a bath during the floods. Mr. Tucker was still finishing that cleanup job when the water returned this weekend.

"They say if it comes up and leaves anything, it is going to come back and get it," said Mr. Tucker, who works for the city's water filtration department.

"I thought that was an old wives' tale, but it is standing up," he said.

Frances Cassandro felt fortunate that her home was spared in the flooding, but she said the devastation inflicted on others "makes you sick."

"We lucked out," Ms. Cassandro said. "I just prayed a lot. Let's put it that way."

Her backyard, which usually houses baseball fields and an aquatic center, looked more like a river yesterday morning.

The tips of fences and trees stuck out from the brown water covering the ground, and several trailers and cars were stranded in the midst of the flood.

"It's miserable. It is really devastating," she said.

Her neighbor, Roger Arnold, 45, said he feared that light rain showers on Friday night would put the town in deeper water.

Surveying his backyard yesterday, Mr. Arnold was hopeful that the worst was over as the water moved closer to his home.

"It looks like it is going down a little bit," said Mr. Arnold, who tucked his motorcycle on high ground at his neighbor's home. "It has been something being this close to it.

"I feel for the businesses downtown. But it'll dry up and you just hope for the best."

Hoping to lend a helping hand to the people of Marietta, John and Barb Kanney of Massillon, Ohio, loaded up their car and headed into town Friday night.

They hoped to arrive in time to help locals prepare for the impending flood, but they were a little late.

"We have a real warm feeling for the people of Marietta," said Mr. Kanney, who travels to the town several times a year with his wife. "You just feel lousy for them, but we like coming down here no matter what.

"There's of a lot of history down here," he said.

For generations, Marietta's downtown has served as a gathering point for residents looking for comfy small town eateries and stores.

But Marietta's history carries an even deeper significance in American history as the first permanent settlement in the Northwest Territory.

In 1788, a group of men arrived at the intersection of the Muskingum and Ohio rivers and established a settlement. Marietta's plot along the waterway has made it a key location for trade.

Will Dimit, 70, who owns First Settlement Square Restaurant in downtown Marietta, said there's a lot of history in his town - and residents won't let it get washed away.

"It's a friendly downtown here," he said. "Marietta is one of the last of the towns with viable downtowns."

Mr. Dimit's restaurant, which was spared from flooding, was packed with customers yesterday. Patrons shared their stories while lending some encouragement and praise for people who were already getting to work on restoring homes and stores.

"Everybody seems to be taking it pretty much in stride this time," Mr. Dimit said.

Inside the restaurant, lifelong Marietta resident Pat Wall read newspapers and chatted with locals about the wreckage caused by the latest flood.

Ms. Wall, who has vivid memories of floods from the 1940s, delivered food to the shelter to help victims this time.

"When I was little, I would put boots on and come down here," she said.

"In the 1940s, they knew what to do with the floods," Ms. Wall said.

Elder residents agree that the floods from more than a half-century ago put the town in deeper water than the worst recent floods, but they were usually prepared.

"Years ago, we really had floods," said Harry Fitzgerald, 75, who owns the Best Western motel in Marietta.

In 1937, Mr. Fitzgerald remembers a flood that led to at least five weeks of water on city streets.

In those days, Mr. Fitzgerald said, a local man named Pop Farley could predict the flood levels with great accuracy.

"In the middle of the night, my mom woke me up and said we are going for a boat ride," he said.

Contact Steve Eder at:seder@theblade.com or 419-724-6728.



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