March 4, 1997
JIM LEHRER: We do go first tonight to the flooding story and to Margaret Warner.
MARGARET WARNER: The Ohio River reached its highest crest in 30 years today, forcing thousands of people from Tennessee to Ohio to evacuate their homes. The flooding was caused by record downpours from Friday night to Sunday morning. At least 49 people have died in violent storms heading the South and Midwest since last Friday. Tornados, torrential rains, and flooding have caused extensive damage in states from Texas to Pennsylvania. In Arkansas nine counties were declared federal disaster areas after more than a dozen tornadoes slashed a 260-mile path through the state. Twenty-five people were killed by the twisters which local officials call the deadliest in the state in nearly 30 years. Yesterday, Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee described the site.
GOV. MIKE HUCKABEE, Arkansas: The best word that we can use to describe what’s happened here is "apocalyptic." It is something equivalent to a huge bombing run from the Southwest corner to the Northeast corner of Arkansas. We have a wide swath of devastation where it’s just unprecedented in its scope.
MARGARET WARNER: President Clinton, accompanied by James Lee Witt, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, toured storm-damaged Arkansas today.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: I look into the eyes of so many people here today, and I wish there were more I could say and do, but I can tell you this: I’ll make you a little prediction. Within two years what we’re looking at today will look better than it did before the storm hit because of all of you. And we’re going to do what we can to help you.
MARGARET WARNER: Rain has been the major problem in Kentucky and Southern Ohio. Rising flood waters have caused widespread damage and 15 deaths, and the rain continued today. Waters from the Licking and Ohio Rivers have forced local officials to close roads and call for evacuation of low-lying areas. Kentucky Governor Paul Patton has declared a state of emergency throughout his state, and Ohio officials have declared a state of emergency in 16 counties there.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, for more on this weather we’re joined by Ken Haydu, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service based in Wilmington, Ohio, he analyzes conditions in three states along the Ohio River; and James Williams, the chief of staff of the Ohio Emergency Management Agency. Welcome, gentlemen. And Ken Haydu, starting with you, what more can you tell us about the extent and severity of this weather?
KEN HAYDU, National Weather Service: This weather situation was an extremely unusual event. Some of the flooding that we have had in the southern part of Ohio equated to about 10 inches of rain in a 24-hour period. That’s the most rain that has ever fallen in a 24-hour period in that part of the state. Running some preliminary analysis on this--and the results are still early--it equates to about the kind of a flood that you would expect in about one in one thousand years in South Central Ohio.
MARGARET WARNER: That’s a lot more than a 100-year flood.
KEN HAYDU: Much more than a 100-year flood.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. So what triggered this?
KEN HAYDU: Well, what we had, we had a low pressure area over Western Kentucky and a strong cold front that was trailing Southwestward into Texas. As the cold front moved Eastward, there was violent uplifting of the air, and you had severe thunderstorm and numerous tornados across Texas, Mississippi, and Arkansas, up into Tennessee and Kentucky. While that was going on, we had a warm front extending Eastward from the same low that was causing widespread rain over Kentucky and Southern Ohio. As the front moved closer to the North, we started getting widespread thunderstorm development, and very heavy rain developed over the area.
MARGARET WARNER: So you’re saying that tornados in Arkansas and flooding in your region are very much related?
KEN HAYDU: They sure are.
MARGARET WARNER: Where’s the flooding worst right now? We’ve had a map up, and--
KEN HAYDU: Okay. The worst flooding, the worst flooding and the damage hit was in Foumount, which is about 50 miles South, Southeast of Cincinnati.
MARGARET WARNER: And that’s in Kentucky, correct?
KEN HAYDU: Exactly. And pretty much the whole city is underwater there at this time. Now, that flooding was caused by the Licking River, and the Licking River is beginning to subside quite rapidly now. Flood warnings were out in that area eight hours in advance. The crest was forecast on the river.
MARGARET WARNER: So given the severity of the weather, are you surprised by the number of fatalities?
KEN HAYDU: Yeah. And there’s a good answer by that. I think the public is seeing now the results that they have on their investment in modernizing the National Weather Service. Awhile back the Weather Service modernized with new Doppler radar systems and new high resolution satellite, and it was through the use of these tools that we were able to put out timely watches. The flood watch was actually issued Friday night, and the warnings were issued 10 hours later, after that, and it’s because of this new technology that we were able to do a great job. Before the technology, five or ten years ago, a flood of this magnitude may have killed 40, 80, maybe even 100 people. Don’t misunderstand. Just a few lives are still a few too many, and our sympathy and our love go out to the victims at this time.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Jim Williams, turning to you, how are you coping with this weather in your state, in Ohio?
JAMES WILLIAMS, Ohio Emergency Management Agency: Well, we--the weather is clear, and it’s caused all kinds of difficulties and tragedies throughout the southern part of the state. And we are responding to the events in terms of flooding and rescue, evacuations, and then repair of the damages when the water goes down.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, how have residents responded? Did they respond to the warnings that Ken Haydu just mentioned, or did you find you had to go in later and rescue a lot of people?
JAMES WILLIAMS: For a lot of people in the interior portion we had what was determined as flash flooding. And those floods came up very suddenly from the 10 inches of rain that Ken talked about. The--later on the run-off came to the Ohio River, and we have had some warning time for the counties of Claremont County and Hamilton County down by Cincinnati, where people have had a chance to evacuate and prepare for the floods that are sure to come.
MARGARET WARNER: Looking at just what you had to do so far, what’s been the most difficult thing for you emergency management people?
JAMES WILLIAMS: In the beginning, the most difficult thing was accounting for people who were trapped by the sudden rushes of water down the hillsides in Southern Ohio. This washed away homes and vehicles and destroyed a lot of property. And it isolated communities and areas because of bridges that had been washed out and small roads, and even state highways that were torn apart by the waters. So trying to get in and account for people and perform the initial rescue was the most difficult step.
MARGARET WARNER: Ken Haydu back to you. First, explain to us the term that Jim Williams just used, which is flash flood. We use that term all the time, but what does it really mean?
KEN HAYDU: Well, flash flood is basically when you have a wall or a large body of water that rapidly moves over an area. And this can occur within a 30-minute period. We issued over 48 flash flood warnings in Ohio and Kentucky, and our average lead time was about an hour and a half. The biggest problem is getting this information to the people. We--you know, the National Weather Service is the sole provider of weather information to the media and the Weather Channel. We’re the only ones that issue the flood warnings, the river warnings through special guidance from the Ohio River Forecast Center.
And we really appreciate the media helping us to get this information out. But if people don’t have a TV on, the only other source of getting this information are through automated, no-weather radios, where we can tone-alert the radio to go off inside somebody’s house so it would wake them up or give them the information that they need to evacuate.
You know, in the olden days, again, without some of the technology, probably a lot of these warnings wouldn’t even went out. While several people were rescued, it’s amazing the number of fatalities were so low, and we’re finding out that the fatalities were not people that were in houses. The fatalities were people that were in their vehicles, that were driving across flooded roads. And the biggest problem in Ohio--we lose more people to flooding than we do tornados and severe thunderstorms combined--and the problem is several people are used to driving through water when it’s ponding, maybe downtown, but you cannot drive through water that’s rushing across a road. Even if it’s shallow, by the time it gets halfway up your tires, your car’s going to be swept off the road. And all the people that we’ve lost in Ohio were in their cars, not in their houses, when they were killed.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Tell us now what to expect. Is it going to get worse before it gets better, or--
KEN HAYDU: Well, we were hoping to get a little break in the weather. Just before I left the office, the updated forecast for tonight has rain starting after midnight over the Southern half of the state. And once again, it looks like the sections that were hit in South Central Ohio will be receiving some more rain tonight. We’re looking for about a half to 3/4 of an inch of additional rain tonight. We do not expect it to linger, but the problem is we only get a temporary improvement before the next shot of rain comes in this weekend. We’re concerned. We’re monitoring the situation very closely. Again, thanks to the Doppler Radar and the satellite technology that we have, we’re working constantly with the state emergency managers and also the local emergency managers within each of the counties.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let me get back to the state emergency manager. Jim Williams, are you prepared for this next surge of rain?
JAMES WILLIAMS: There’s been a lot of evacuations along the river, and we’re telling all of the residents to pay attention to the weather radio systems. And we’re trying our best to get the word out on what to do, what precautions to take, and how to move away from these areas that are predicted to flood. We hope that we don’t lose any more lives, and we’ll do our best in conjunction with the media to get the message out to people to stay away from these high water areas. And if you know that you’re in a flood plain, by all means be very cautious and move out if you’re threatened.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Well, thank you both, gentlemen, very much, and good luck.