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Health, Science & Environment

How one Ohio town is preparing for a future of floods

Water flows down a town's main street. A fire truck waits on the right side of the road.
Richland Source
Water begins to spill over East Main Street in downtown Shelby during a flood in July, 2013.

This story was adapted for the Ohio Newsroom from a four-part Richland Source series called Ripple Effect. Read the entire series at richlandsource.com.

It’s been a wet spring in Ohio.

Columbus saw record rainfall during a serious storm in April. And towns all along the Ohio River, from Marietta to Steubenville, have experienced recent flooding.

Last month, the Black Fork, a branch of the Mohican River that flows between Columbus and Cleveland, came close to flooding too.

Water rose so high it lapped against the base of a bridge that runs through the center of the city of Shelby, before receding back to its normal, winding path.

Locals let out a sigh of relief. Because, sometimes, the water keeps climbing.

A brief history of flooding in Shelby

Mayor Steve Schag knows this first hand.

“Having lived here now since 1981, I've watched [the Black Fork] ebb and flow, and as you can well imagine, said a lot of prayers over many days and nights,” he said.

His memory of the first time he experienced a flood is still vivid.

It was 1987 and he was working as a pastor. His church basement filled up with five feet of water.

“The look of it, the sounds of it, the smell of it — that’s just not something that you want to go through under any circumstance,” he said.

Water covers a high school football field in Shelby.
Richland Source
Water from the Black Fork covers W.W. Skiles Field during flooding in 2013.

But he’s experienced floods like this over and over again. In 2007. In 2011. In 2013.

“You almost feel helpless because as the river begins to fill its banks and begins to overflow, it's just not something you can stop,” Schag said.

Once, around the time of a local festival, he remembers watching prizes like teddy bears float by.

“I saw a refrigerator floating down the river,” he said. “It hit the bridge and stuck there. And some guys went on the bridge, opened the refrigerator and were pulling things out.”

It’s been a while since the water’s gotten that high, but now, due to climate change, scenes like this could become more frequent.

The U.S. EPA predicts spring rainfall will increase and severe rainstorms will intensify over the next century — both factors that increase the risk of floods.

Can one city prevent a flood?

The people of Shelby are working to stop those floods from happening.

In 2017, local farmer John Schroeder started a grassroots initiative, the Black Fork Clean Up Project, to clear 18 miles of the river.

“We don’t always get everything we want,” Schroeder said, “but we all can agree that we don’t want flooding in Shelby.”

His group figured if the river can’t flow freely, big storms will push it up until it overflows into the town. So the project hired a company to remove hundreds of downed trees and debris.

Work like this can make a difference in certain cases, said Erica Thomas, the director of the Richland Soil and Water Conservation District.

But it has to be an ongoing effort.

“You don’t just clean it once and then it’s forever clean,” she said. “There’s always going to be trees falling in and debris and stuff that needs removed.”

The city is working now on its own initiative to clean the river, but environmental and financial concerns have held up the process.

“There are certain timeframes that you can do this work without endangering the habitat of mussels in the river or protected bats and so forth,” Mayor Schag said.

He anticipates the city will present its plan as soon as this fall.

At the end of the day though, there’s no one silver bullet for preventing floods.

“Our funding can only extend from one city limit sign to the other city limit sign,” Schag said. “The Black Fork is a wonderful natural resource that flows through our city. But there's only so much we can do before the Black Fork gets here and after it leaves town.”

Learning to live with rising water

Instead of focusing on stopping the river from flooding entirely, Schag and other community members are also trying to learn to ebb and flow with the river.

The city has demolished dozens of homes in the floodplain. It’s relocated places like the fire station and the old high school football field.

And when it builds new facilities near the river, they’re built to withstand high water.

The town’s newly opened downtown plaza is an example.

“That's all been built with flood mitigation components in place,” Schag said. “Whenever they do experience flooding, the next day we just wash things down and dry things out and it'll be ready to go within a matter of days.”

It’s impossible to predict when the Black Fork will flood next.

But if history is a harbinger of the future, it will flood. The city of Shelby wants to be ready.

Read more about the history of flooding in Shelby and the city’s quest for solutions at richlandsource.com.

Health, Science & Environment The Ohio NewsroomshelbyfloodingOhio News
Hayden Gray is a staff reporter at Richland Source, where he the city of Shelby and northern Richland County news.
Erin Gottsacker is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently reported for WXPR Public Radio in the Northwoods of Wisconsin.