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Why Was This Flood Different From Previous Events?

Days after the crest, Ohio and Little Miami River floodwaters still cover the fields west of Newtown.
Bill Rinehart
Days after the crest, Ohio and Little Miami River floodwaters still cover the fields west of Newtown.

The Ohio River is slowly falling back to pre-flood levels. As communities start to clean up, there are some calling for a fresh look at how human activity affects flooding.

When the Ohio River began its rise in February, New Richmond Village Administrator Greg Roberts says the community started looking at a map drawn up to show which properties would be affected at 55 feet, where the river would reach at 58 feet, and so on.

"The 1997 flood was a wake-up call. My predecessors basically set up the plans and the measurements, the information for residents," Roberts says.

In that flood, the Ohio River hit about 64 feet. This time, the Ohio crested at 60.5 feet.

Downstream from New Richmond, other communities also base their flood plans on information from 1997. Newtown Police Chief Tom Synan remembers that one. " '97 was kind of like a bathtub filling up, where it just gradually came up and you could pretty much time it by the hour and know where it would be. This was different. It was running a lot more rapidly. It was probably filling up there about every half hour and we were noticing changes."

Normally, when the Ohio River floods, it pushes water back up into the Little Miami River. That's what causes problems around Newtown and northern Anderson Township. Heavy rains Saturday night didn't help the situation, but overall, Synan believes the difference this time was, in part, because the landscape has changed. 

"It's not just Newtown, it's also the communities surrounding it. The bike trail came in. The fields have pretty much stayed the same, but in Newtown we've added some businesses. There's been some homes taken out on the west side," Synan said.

Both the stormwater runoff and the river flooding concern Carla Chifos. She's a school of planning associate professor at the University of Cincinnati who thinks about how nature and cities interact.

"Water has to go somewhere. It always has," Chifos said. "We think if we cover it up, if we get rid of that creek, if we do other things that we seem to do, we don't see it and the water will disappear. Well, it doesn't."

There are local rules and regulations about development and the effects on local water flows, Chifos said. She said what happens here affects Louisville. Just like planning decisions in Pittsburgh matter here.

"It seems like the impetus to really make a big change in how we think about things seems to take a crisis," she said.

In short, Chifos said, think globally and act locally.

In the meantime, Anderson Township Fire Chief Mark Ober said his and other departments will be watching for the next flood. "We're just more concerned about where it comes over at a certain location because then it cuts off roads. We have to alter our response areas."

Hamilton County Commission President Todd Portune wants to have a county-wide meeting to look at the bigger picture. That meeting hasn't been scheduled yet.

Copyright 2021 91.7 WVXU. To see more, visit 91.7 WVXU.

Rinehart has been a radio reporter since 1994 with positions in markets like Omaha and Lincoln, Nebraska; Sioux City, Iowa; Dayton, Ohio: and most recently as senior correspondent and anchor for Cincinnati’s WLW-AM.