Winter Means Flood Season in Ohio

Winter Means Flood Season in Ohio

Are You Ready for Flood Season?

Wintertime in Ohio means flood season.

Take last February, for instance, when the Ohio River crested over 60 feet, making it the worst flood Cincinnati had seen in more than 20 years — since the deadly “Flood of 1997.”

As the calendar turned from February to March of that fateful year, a relentless 12-inch downpour over the southern and eastern parts of the state caused the Ohio River to crest at 64.5 feet. As a result, much of downtown Cincinnati remained under three to four feet of floodwater for several days.

The 1997 flood was the worst flooding event since 1948. And before it was all over, 24 Ohioans had lost their lives. Total damage to southern Ohio communities was estimated at more than $155 million.

NWS Historical Flood Data

Altogether, the Ohio River at Cincinnati has risen higher than 60 feet 22 times since the National Weather Service began keeping records about 150 years ago.

Here are the agency’s top 10 historic crests for the Ohio River:

(1) 80.00 ft on 01/26/1937
(2) 71.10 ft on 02/14/1884
(3) 69.90 ft on 04/01/1913
(4) 69.20 ft on 03/07/1945
(5) 66.30 ft on 02/15/1883
(6) 66.20 ft on 03/11/1964
(7) 65.20 ft on 01/21/1907
(8) 64.80 ft on 04/18/1948
(9) 64.70 ft on 03/05/1997
(10) 63.60 ft on 03/21/1933

And, as you can see, seven of these top 10 events occurred in winter.

At the top of the list — and by far the worst flooding disaster ever to hit the state — was the Great Flood of 1937.

The Big One

In mid-January of 1937, tropical air masses collided with polar air masses over the Ohio River Valley and dropped an estimated 165 billion tons of water onto the Ohio and Mississippi River Basin. This was enough water to cover more than 200,000 square miles of land to a depth of 11-plus inches.

Between January 13 and January 25, six to 12 inches of rain fell over much of Ohio. Never before or since has such an enormous amount of rain fallen over such a large area of the state. (January 1937 remains the wettest month ever recorded in Cincinnati.)

Fifteen to 20 percent of the city of Cincinnati itself was water-covered, leaving thousands homeless. Parts of Cincinnati remained under water for 19 days. But much of the city outside of the flooded area was also paralyzed, due to lack of fresh water, electricity and heat. An estimated 100,000 residents of the Cincinnati tri-state area were permanently displaced by the flood.

USCG to the Rescue

In response, and at the direction of President Franklin Roosevelt and his Secretary of the Treasury, the U.S. Coast Guard mounted the largest relief expedition in the history of the service.

Rescue operations extended from January 19 through March 11 and involved 351 boats of all types, as well as 12 aircraft, 10 of which were amphibious. The USCG also established an emergency radio network that included 244 stations.

It didn’t take long for rescuers to realize that the winter temperatures presented a dilemma. Floating ice in the northernmost parts of the river made navigation particularly hazardous. Rescue crafts sometimes capsized.

Then — when it seemed that things could not get any worse — came “Black Sunday.” On January 24, the floodwaters in Cincinnati caused thousands of gallons of oil and gasoline to spill from storage tanks. The fuel ignited, resulting in the bizarre spectacle of burning buildings surrounded by water.

In order to extinguish the flames, the Coast Guard boats pumped the floodwaters into the already inundated buildings.

The Aftermath

By the time the floodwaters finally receded, the enormity of the devastation — stretching from Pittsburgh to Cairo, Ill. — was revealed. One million people were left homeless, 385 were dead and property losses reached $500 million (about $9 billion in 2018 dollars).

The scale of the 1937 flood was so unprecedented that civic and industrial groups lobbied national authorities to devise a comprehensive plan for flood control. The plan included the creation of more than 70 storage reservoirs to reduce Ohio River flood heights.

The Army Corps of Engineers finally completed the project in the early 1940s. Since then, the new facilities have drastically reduced flood damages along the Ohio. But, sadly, some communities never fully recovered from this epic disaster.

WCPO Cincinnati
Cincinnati Enquirer
National Weather Service
Coast Guard Compass

Can the Ohio River Be Saved?

Can the Ohio River Be Saved?

Ohio River Tops List of Most Polluted

The Ohio River is the most polluted body of water in the United States.

In fact, more than 24 million pounds of chemicals were dumped into the Ohio River by industries and businesses in 2013. That’s according to the most recent Toxic Release Inventory report produced by the Ohio River Valley Sanitation Commission.

How Bad Is It?

Although this sounds alarming, that figure is actually down from the high point of 33 million pounds in 2006. About 92% of the pollutants are nitrate compounds, commonly found in pesticides and fertilizers.

And, even more surprisingly, the river technically meets the human health standards for nitrates. So minimal changes are being made in their regulation.

But nitrates on the only problem the Ohio River has. Levels of mercury — a potent neurotoxin that impairs fetal brain development — in the Ohio River increased by more than 40% between 2007 and 2013, according to EPA data.

On the Waterfront

The Greater Cincinnati Water Works is well aware of the chemical levels in the Ohio River. Apparently, they have both carbon filtration and ultraviolet (UV) disinfection treatment systems in place to remove the toxins.

According to Jeff Swertfeger, Water Works’ Superintendent of Water Quality Management, “This facility is specially designed in order to remove the industrial-type contaminants like the gasolines, herbicides, pesticides, and things like that. If they get into the Ohio River and they get into the water, we can remove them here with our system.”

He added that the Water Works monitors chemical levels hundreds of times a day to ensure the drinking water is safe.

So Who’s to Blame?

Despite several clean-up initiatives and stricter regulation over the years, Ohio River industries still discharge more than double the amount of pollutants than the Mississippi River receives.

Most of the toxic compounds emanate from AK Steel’s Rockport, Indiana, plant, according to environmental website Outward On.  But the plant shifts the blame to farm run-off from nitrogen-based fertilizers. Currently, the EPA does not require farm run-off to be reported in their Toxic Release Inventory.

Science has shown that nitrates contribute to toxic algae blooms and oxygen-depleted dead zones. (Once such area in the Gulf of Mexico, for instance, is about the size of Connecticut.)

One Vision for Restoration

But Collin O’Mara, President and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, is hoping to ignite a new vision for the region’s most vital natural resources.

“Twenty-five million people live in the Ohio River Valley Basin,” O’Mara said. “That’s almost a tenth of the country. And yet we’ve seen virtually no investment of federal resources in trying to clean up the legacy pollution. The Ohio is still the most polluted waterway in the entire country.”

That is not acceptable, according to O’Mara. “We’ve been working with some of the mayors and different advocacy groups in the region, trying to just begin talking about the Ohio River as a system and [develop] a vision for the entire watershed.”

Because the Ohio is considered a “working waterway,” it’s typically been treated as simply a support for larger industrial facilities. And while industrial jobs are important, O’Mara says, we cannot afford to degrade our waterways.

“Right now across America, the outdoor economy is about a $646 billion economy. It employs more than six million people. And that puts it on par with many of the largest industries in the country. A lot of those jobs are water-dependent jobs related to fishing or swimming or outdoor activities. So one of the cases we’re trying to make is that it doesn’t have to be ‘either/or.’ The technologies exist now that we can actually have some industrial facilities and still not have to contaminate the waterway. ”

O’Mara added that “Given the political power that’s in the region between Pennsylvania, Ohio and Kentucky—I mean, you have some of the most important people in Washington that live along this watershed—there’s no reason why we can’t have significant investment go into the region.”

One thing is clear: Without significant change, the environmental future for the Ohio River is grim.

Hope Floats

But O’Mara is optimistic.

“If we can show progress in the Ohio River Valley…in a place that has a lot of legacy pollution…we can make it work anywhere.”

Until then, lest we forget what crystal clear water actually looks like:

WLWT Cincinnati
Environmental Law & Policy Center