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Published: Sunday, 1/9/2005

Ohio Valley has history of flooding problems


Erratic weather patterns - from changing temperatures to remnants of torrential hurricanes - have created water-borne catastrophes across the Ohio River Valley for centuries.

Blame for the most recent deluge can be tracked to September, when a pair of hurricanes - Ivan and Frances - churned up the Gulf of Mexico, creating a northward storm fallout that first saturated the ground, then engulfed the banks of the mighty Ohio and its tributaries.

Eventually, much of Marietta, Ohio, was under water after the Ohio River rose 20 feet in just one day. There was no recorded loss of life.

"It's not like any flood in recorded history that we know," Marietta Mayor Michael Mullen said at the time.

But there have been other devastating floods in the Ohio River valley. The first Ohio River flood was recorded in 1773 when native Americans - who called the river "Oyo" - measured its depth at 76 feet: 11 feet above the last great flood in 1997.

Perhaps the first river valley catastrophe of the past century occurred in 1913 when a pair of floods killed hundreds of residents along the riverbanks.

An initial flood in the Mill Creek Valley in January was followed by a later flood in March, in which a five-day deluge produced 10 inches of rain.

The Ohio River and its tributaries - including the Great Miami - rose to flood the entire river valley, claiming more than 450 lives, lifting houses from their foundations in Dayton and Portsmouth and carrying them away. Many homes that remained were left buried in a muddy aftermath.

The flood inflicted an estimated $250 million in damage, and left 40,000 homeless in Dayton alone. Total figures are not known.

Another flood struck in early 1937 after 19 days of rain, snow, and sleet across the Ohio Valley. Unusually high temperatures in areas that fed the river led to a torrential deluge down its banks. Water levels reached 79.9 feet in Cincinnati - the highest in recorded history - while gasoline tanks exploded across the riverbed, drenching the surface in floating pools of fire.

One million people were left homeless across the length of the Ohio, 385 people were killed, and damage was estimated at $500 million.

In late February, 1997, 10 inches of rain fell in just a dozen hours along the Ohio, sparking flash floods and 30-foot swells in water levels along some banks.

The city of Falmouth, Ohio, was hardest hit, with two-thirds of its 2,400 residents affected, including five dead, 250 homes and businesses destroyed, and $40 million in damage. Total damage along the length of the river reached $1 billion, with 24 people dead.

Contact Tad Vezner at: tvezner@theblade.com or 419-724-6050.

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