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Flood refugees come face to face with unthinkable

March 7, 1997

FALMOUTH, Ky. (AP) _ In their first look at their flood-ravaged hometown, weary refugees came face to face with houses in the middle of streets, trailers on their sides and roads covered in ankle-deep muck.

It made them think the unthinkable: that they may not have a home to return to _ and some of their friends may not have gotten out alive.

``The trailers, they looked like bumper cars,″ Patrick Bass said after weary evacuees were allowed their first bus tour on Thursday through the town of 2,700 along the Licking River.

National Guard troops used bulldozers and other heavy equipment to clear away crumpled houses and piled-up cars. Some houses were ripped from their foundations and flung 100 feet by the floodwaters.

Rooftop-high waters had been receding since the weekend, but residents had been kept out as search teams using dogs found at least four bodies _ an elderly woman in her house and a man, a woman and a 14-year-old girl pulled from two trailers.

``It’s just awful,″ said Becky Fogel, who knew 54-year-old victim Hazel McGovney and her daughter Crystal. ``Hazel was a hard-working good-hearted person. She believed she could handle any situation.″

Authorities ended their door-to-door search for bodies on Thursday, marking checked homes with red ribbons tied to door knobs. Some homes also were marked with Xs _ too dangerous to enter because of gas or severe structural damage.

Bass said he and his wife left town just before the floods hit _ to see a concert by country music star George Strait _ and a friend who was staying in their home hasn’t been seen since.

``He’s probably gone,″ said Bass.

At the height of the flooding, this once-tidy town 35 miles southeast of Cincinnati was swamped, with only the roofs of homes and the twin humps atop the McDonald’s sign visible amid a milky lake.

Now, it is covered with a goo the color of coffee with two creams that sucks at your boots as you walk.

Falmouth was among the hardest hit from the floods that forced thousands from their homes along the Ohio River and smaller streams in Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia. Floods and tornadoes were blamed for tens of millions of dollars in damages and at least 55 deaths, the latest Thursday when two bodies were pulled from a submerged car in Huntington, W.Va.

And while the Ohio remained at its highest levels in 33 years, officials expressed optimism that the worst may be over. The river was 15 feet above flood stage in Louisville on Thursday at 38.5 feet, and was expected to crest late Friday at 38.7 feet.

``I expect it’s going to fluctuate, not go up a great deal more,″ said National Weather Service hydrologist Mike Callahan.

But in West Point, a town of 1,300 near the confluence of the Ohio and Salt rivers, chest-high floodwaters flowing swiftly through the streets rose several inches Thursday, prompting authorities to issue an ultimatum to about 45 stubborn holdouts.

Saundra Bratcher, coordinator for disaster emergency services, said the Coast Guard was leaving at nightfall and taking their boats with them.

Coast Guard Lt. Michael Hart took that message to the K&I Cafe, announcing to the six people sipping coffee and smoking cigarettes: ``You can take it to the bank, we’re out of here at dark. We’re here to help but I’m not here to endanger my people.″

Tim Shively, whose sister owns the cafe, leaned back in his chair and responded: ``I’m not going nowhere.... I can’t afford to leave this unguarded.″

Rhonda Daniels, the cafe’s owner, grabbed her coat, took the money out of the tip jar and said: ``I’m going. If it was just me, I’d stay, but I’ve got kids.″

In Lockport, a tiny community of about 150 people on the Kentucky River northeast of Louisville, the fear of looting had residents sleeping in their cars and campers.

In Utica, Ind., meanwhile, 25 National Guard troops worked through much of the night to sandbag the only open road out of town, reduced to a single lane by the encroaching flood waters.

Curious residents came to the water’s edge to check the damage to homes. Ray Kramer, 83, scanned rooftops and chimneys protruding from the swirling water as railroad ties and other debris floated by.

``These people know it’s going to happen, but they build here anyway,″ said Kramer, who’s lived in the river town for 50 years. ``That guy down there built some apartments to rent _ they’re soaked. If you live here your whole life, you know it’s going to happen sooner or later.″

In Falmouth, hopeful no more bodies would be found, authorities turned their attention to tracking an ever-changing list of people whose whereabouts were unknown.

As many 100 names were on the list at one point, but authorities believed most had simply evacuated and not been able to contact relatives.

Jerry Hensley, 18, was able to cross his name off a missing-persons list at the American Red Cross shelter set up at nearby high school.

But he and friend Tony Strunk, 20, agreed they’d narrowly escaped Sunday night from gushing waters that rocked Strunk’s four-wheel drive truck as they fled town.

``We could have still been missing,″ Hensley reflected. ``This is weird.″

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