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Published: Thursday, 8/23/2007

Flood submerges towns; dozens rescued from Findlay, Ottawa homes


OTTAWA, Ohio Yesterday s sunshine was a mere consolation prize in Ottawa and Findlay, where the overflowing Blanchard River turned those towns into lakes.

We re crossing our fingers the sun stays out and the rain holds off and it doesn t rain anymore, said Ethel Walker, whose Ottawa home was fast becoming beachfront property.

It s just a total disaster, she said.

Longtime residents and village officials agreed, saying the flooding which was expected to intensify today when the river crests in Ottawa was the worst Putnam County had experienced in decades.

Gov. Ted Strickland yesterday declared states of emergency for nine northern Ohio counties, including Putnam as well as Allen, Crawford, Hancock, Hardin, Richland, Seneca, Van Wert, and Wyandot.

This week s flooding is being likened to the Flood of 1913. That late-March storm dropped between 6 and 11 inches of rain across Ohio.

Varying degrees of flooding continued last night on other northwest Ohio rivers, including the Auglaize, Tiffin, Portage, and Sandusky, though none was as serious as the Blanchard.

But all river forecasts remained vulnerable to the threat of additional rain.

Forecasts for the Toledo and Findlay areas continued to include 30 to 40 percent chances of showers and thunderstorms each day through Saturday.

While average rainfall amounts across the region were predicted to be light, the thunderstorms carry with them the potential for local downpours.

This is worse than 81, Municipal Director Jack Williams said, referring to Ottawa s last big flood in 1981. I ve been here 32 years, and this is the worst it s been.

The downtown, where businesses were sandbagged and closed, was under water.

The Putnam County office of public safety announced that all county offices are closed today and said employees should watch the media for updates.

Ottawa s Main Street, which doubles as U.S. 224, was flooded. The village pool was a pond. Churches and homes for blocks were surrounded by brown water their basements filled in some cases to the ceiling.

In Findlay, the scene was much the same.

The downtown and all points along the river and creeks that feed into it were under water.

Displaced residents filled hotels and motels in Findlay.

Where the river left Findlay on its way to Putnam County, the sprawling Wal-Mart store on U.S. 224 had no cars, just water, in its massive parking lot.

Jane Schroeder of Ottawa said her family moved everything out of the basement about 6 a.m. yesterday and found a plumber to reroute the flow from the sump pump to the backyard away from the floodwater, although they had no idea if that would keep the water away.

They and many of their neighbors also took turns at the sandbag line at nearby Ss. Peter and Paul School, which was surrounded by water by afternoon.

We need some no wake signs up, said Julie Lanwehr as a fire truck plowed through the deep water on Third Street, prompting onlookers to step back to avoid being splashed.

Findlay has gone through a lot of tough rain and then we get the aftermath, Ms. Lanwehr said. I m just surprised at how quick it came up. You don t expect it to be that fast, but you can t stop it.

Kayla Smith carries her dog from her home in Ottawa to a raft during a rescue by firefighters. Businesses in the town were sandbagged, and roads and homes were under water. Kayla Smith carries her dog from her home in Ottawa to a raft during a rescue by firefighters. Businesses in the town were sandbagged, and roads and homes were under water.

While fire crews from departments as far away as Wapakoneta, Defiance, Lima, and Van Wert were in town to help with rescue efforts and to cover the local fire station in case of fires, there was little else that could be done to hold off the inevitable.

We just want people to stay off the roadways unless they absolutely have to be there, and if they need help to call the sheriff s office and someone will be there to help them out, Mr. Williams said. It s just going to have to run its course, and we know that.

Based on past experience, Ottawa officials expected the Blanchard to crest 12 to 18 hours after it reached its peak in Findlay, meaning the worst was likely to occur this morning.

Findlay city officials declared the Blanchard had reached an apparent crest between noon and 3 p.m. yesterday when the river remained steady at 8.1 feet above flood stage. It dropped one-tenth of an inch between 3 and 4 p.m., but Findlay Service Director Mike Sobczyk said it was possible the river could rise again because areas south of Findlay received some rainfall yesterday morning.

Hancock County Commissioner Phil Riegle said at least 500 people were evacuated from their homes in Findlay.

In Ottawa, area firefighters took dozens of people from their homes to dry ground by boat. Property damage from the flooding was expected to be high, but no injuries had been reported.

Among those who were rescued by boat was Alice Laibe, who has lived in Ottawa for 52 years and only had to leave her North Maple Street home because of high water two or three times in the past.

Mrs. Laibe said she recently had surgery so her two sisters Mary Johnson, of Whitehouse, and Rita Martin, of McComb, Ohio were staying with her to help during her recovery.

Instead, the three women were helped into a rescue boat by firefighters, then delivered to the local American Red Cross shelter in a bright red Hummer.

I m glad they were there with me, Mrs. Laibe said looking at her sisters. I was supposed to go to Findlay today to get my stitches out, but that s not going to happen.

U.S. 224, the main route between Findlay and Ottawa, follows the Blanchard River and was washed out in several spots.

Other than rescue workers, few people reported to work. Many of their workplaces were not fit to be opened.

Kendra Kuhlman, of Ottawa, said she called her boss at Gustwiller s clothing store on West Main Street yesterday, but he told her to stay home.

He had to walk through a foot of water to get to the door, Ms. Kuhlman said. Now we just wait.

Electricity was off in many parts of Ottawa.

The Red Cross shelter set up at Trinity United Methodist Church lost its power about noon. Officials were waiting for generators to be brought in to keep the operation going.

Sarah Hermiller, executive director of the Putnam County chapter of the Red Cross, said she expected to keep the shelter open for the next few days.

The shelter was busy yesterday as evacuees arrived to seek refuge or to await pickup by friends or relatives.

In Findlay, the Red Cross shelter established at St. Andrew s United Methodist Church was threatened by flooding early yesterday, so about 60 evacuees who spent the night were moved to the Cube, a recreation center. The Red Cross also set up a shelter at Arlington High School.

Boats from Findlay and other northwest Ohio fire departments as well as a few piloted by private citizens were busy yesterday rescuing stranded people. Downtown Findlay was mostly flooded, Findlay police Chief William Spraw said.

People are still calling, wanting to be evacuated, he said late yesterday. We have not forced evacuations. If someone wants to stay, they stay.

There were no injuries reported, and the city s water supply had not been affected, officials said.

Findlay is split by the swollen Blanchard River, which at least partially immersed downtown businesses, homes, streets, and even cars that had not been moved from LaRiche Chevrolet-Cadillac on East Main Cross.

The public cemetery was underwater, although nearby I-75 remained open. A neighborhood on the city s east side was flooded, too, Chief Spraw said.

When the Blanchard crested, it was just two-thirds of a foot lower than the historic 1913 flood. The river s crest was less than a foot higher than it was during Findlay s 1981 flood, but yesterday s devastation goes beyond that of 26 years ago, Chief Spraw recalled.

Some downtown Findlay business owners were able to combat rising waters with sand and bags supplied by the city.

Mike Miller, owner of Waldo Pepper s Restaurant about two blocks south of the Blanchard, said he and another downtown business owner started fortifying their entrances about 1 a.m. yesterday after the river s water reached Main Street.

When sandbags ran out, they filled trash bags with sand, Mr. Miller said. And while a couple of inches of water seeped into Waldo Pepper s front entrance on Main and three to four inches came into the back banquet entrance, the restaurant fared far better than 90 percent of businesses downtown, he said.

Still, Waldo Pepper s likely will be closed for a while.

When the water goes away, you assess the damage, and you sit down and start figuring it all out, Mr. Miller said.

A block or so farther south on Main, pumps could not alter the tide of water filling the basement of Marathon Petroleum Co. LLC s office building, which was closed because of flooding. Water also was flowing into the first floor, an employee said.

Even farther south of the Blanchard, at another Findlay premier employer, Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. s offices and tire factory were open yesterday. Employees able to make it to work were trying to fill orders and conduct other business, said Patricia Brown, a company spokesman.

Of course, safety is our first concern for our employees and their families, she said.

Staff writers David Patch, Ignazio Messina, and Mark Zaborney contributed to this report.

Contact Jennifer Feehan at: jfeehan@theblade.com or 419-353-5972.

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