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Could it happen today?

April 8, 2013
By Jasmine Rogers ( , The Marietta Times

By the time the devastatingly high waters of the Ohio and Muskingum rivers had receded in April 1913 from their 58.3 foot peak, the worst flood in the history of Marietta had come and gone. But whether it marked the last time the area would see that level of flooding is open to debate.

Though many modern technologies and flood prevention techniques have been put into place, flooding is still a major problem across the country, pointed out Sarah Jamison, a hydrologist for the National Weather Service and a member of the Silver Jackets, a multi-organization group of volunteers dedicated to reducing the risk of flooding and increasing flood awareness.

"Flooding is still the No. 1 weather-related killer in this country," she said.

The weather conditions that led to days of relentless rain in 1913 were unique, said Jamison. Not one, but three low pressure systems came rolling east to meet a high pressure system so strong it formed a wall, essentially forcing all three low pressure systems to dump catastrophic amounts of rain over a relatively small area.

But unique does not mean the same conditions could not be recreated, she said.

"If we had that exact same weather pattern happen, yes, we could get that same volume of water," she pointed out.

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A similar weather pattern could easily cause a comparable amount of rainfall over the Ohio River basin.

The 1913 flood was not as bad as it would have been if there had been snow on the ground or the rivers had been already high.

Flood risk reduction projects in place now make it possible to some degree to control the flow of water in the Muskingum River.

Modern warning systems such as river gauges and more advanced weather prediction technology have meant better preparedness in the event waters do surge.

Source: National Weather Service and Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District.

If that amount of rainfall did reoccur, localized problems like flash flooding in hilly area would reoccur, she said.

But much has been done since 1913 that could prevent much of the widespread destruction if the same storm were to transpire today.

"The Muskingum River Basin has really done some groundbreaking work with flood prevention. The efforts done there will dramatically reduce the impact from such an event today," she said.

Recognizing that something needed to be done to mitigate future floods, Ohio answered the 1913 flood crisis by calling for the formation of watershed conservancy groups. The Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District was formed in 1933 after a long planning and fundraising period, explained MWCD Public Affairs Administrator Darrin Lautenschleger.

"The conservancy district was organized for two primary purposes - to reduce the effects of flooding within the MWCD and to preserve flood water for public use," he said.

To achieve this, a series of 16 dams and reservoirs were built along tributaries leading into the Muskingum River. The closest reservoir, Seneca Lake in Guernsey and Noble counties, holds back 3,550 acres of water.

Seneca Lake and other reservoirs in the MWCD are used to store excess water. The waters are then strategically released into the Muskingum River by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers when the flow is least likely to cause flooding, explained Lautenschleger.

It is a significant development that means even if the area were to see the same storm system again, it is much less likely to result in the same high river levels, he said.

"Since the construction, more than $10 billion worth of potential property damage has been spared from flooding and countless lives have been saved," he said.

Lautenschleger cited a January 2005 event comparable to the 1913 flood in terms of rainfall. That January, seven of the 16 reservoirs reached a new record high for the level of water being stored behind the dams.

"That was the most significant flood of record since 1913 according to the Corps of Engineers. What is notable about it was that there were two primary things that did not occur in that event. One - very little property damage reported. And two - there were no lives lost," he said.

Though the dams and reservoirs play a huge part in controlling the water level of the Muskingum River, the Ohio River, which wreaked its own havoc during the 1913 food, has no such widespread system in place.

Because it flows into the Ohio, controlling the flow of the Muskingum does mitigate some of the possible ferocity of the larger river, but there are also other uncontrollable factors that could play a hand in making a similar rain event even worse today.

"In 1913 there were actually a few factors in our favor," said Jamison. "There wasn't snow on the ground and the rivers weren't already high."

Even with mitigation efforts in place, it is certain that another 12 trillion gallons of water falling over the Ohio River basin over the course of four days would cause flooding, she said.

The effects of such a flood on Marietta today would be crippling, said Marietta City Councilman Michael Mullen, I-at large, who also owns a business on Front Street and was Marietta's mayor during the last several flood events.

"As I'm looking out of the front window and thinking about what water in the second floor of this building would do to my business, it would be devastating. Even with early warning, you can move out all of the contents, but you still have a huge impact with that much water for that long a duration," he said.

The September 2004 flood provides a comparable event in terms of businesses being closed, said Charlotte Keim, president of the Marietta Area Chamber of Commerce.

"It does create a considerable hardship. Any time businesses are not open, they're losing money. I know the year of the 2004 flood we had owners that didn't make any money that year," she said.

Communication would be the first line of defense when it comes to future high water events, said Mullen.

"A lot of reacting is about trying to get the word out to the citizens with as much notice as you can. We have some emergency call systems that would let us make a phone call to everybody who has a land line in town," he said.

Similarly, the county is working on building a more reliable communication network.

"Right now we're working on the emergency operations center outside of the flood plain. Once that center gets into effect, we'd still be able to have county-wide communication even when the power is out," said Washington County Commissioner Ron Feathers.

In addition to advanced warning before the flood, the communication system would enable help to be quickly dispatched to where it is needed most, he said.

Still, a flood of 1913 proportions would ruin a lot of area infrastructure, he predicted.

But Jamison does not think that similar rain would lead to similar flooding a second time around.

"I think the river levels wouldn't be quite as high because of the construction efforts," she said.

Additionally, much better flood forecasting systems are in place, meaning people could get out faster and save more belongings, said Jamison.

"In 1913, they obviously didn't have a lot of the weather prediction tools we are fortunate enough to have today. The weather service would be able to give several days notice that this is coming," she said.

Several flood gauges also make it possible to stay current on river levels. Last week, the Ohio River at the Marietta pumphouse was hovering around 18 feet, 40 feet shy of where it crested 100 years ago.

In the end, there's only so much anyone can do to keep the flood waters from coming, said Jamison.

"If Marietta did somehow reach that same severity, the good things would be you'd have advanced notice, there are a number of emergency response teams in place, we have relief shelter, you have sanitation, all of the which was not around during the 1913 flood," she said.

Cleanup efforts would also likely be much faster, said Mullen. An army of dump trucks and heavy equipment helped residents and business owners clean up after the 2004 flood, he said.

"Certainly our ability to address a post high water event is much stronger than it was 100 years ago," he said.



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