Ohio River Projected to Crest Below Flood Stage Today

Photo by Ian Hicks Top, High water covers Wheeling’s Heritage Port as the Ohio River rose steadily throughout the day Saturday.

WHEELING — Emergency officials are keeping a close watch on the Ohio River as the latest forecast predicts a crest less than 3 feet below flood stage at Wheeling early today.

Meanwhile, area responders and the U.S. Coast guard dealt with a potentially dangerous situation on the river as more than 40 barges came free from their moorings early Saturday and were floating freely between Benwood and Moundsville.

According to the National Weather Service, the river was expected to crest at 33.6 feet at 1 a.m. today. Throughout much of Saturday, the predicted crest was closer to 35 feet, but the forecast was revised late in the evening. Flood stage in Wheeling is 36 feet.

By 9 p.m., the river had risen to about 33.2 feet — leaving much of Heritage Port underwater, with the river climbing the steps that lead from the venue to Water Street.

Throughout the day, a large amount of ice could be seen flowing downriver at a rapid rate.

The water level had risen steadily since Friday morning, when the river reading was just 20.7 feet.

Lou Vargo, director of the Ohio County Emergency Management Agency, encourages residents in flood-prone areas to watch the forecasts closely, but he said it’s not time to panic just yet.

“I’m hoping with no additional precipitation today, it’ll stay pretty static before crest. … We’re going to be constantly watching the river,” Vargo said.

It’s what’s coming down the road that has Vargo more concerned.

“Looking at the forecast we could have some more precipitation Monday and Tuesday,” he said.

According to the NWS, at 34 feet sewers begin to back up on the lower end of Wheeling Island.

With a long history of flooding, Vargo said residents of the Island know what to expect.

“They’re really familiar with that river and I’m sure they’re watching the predictions as closely as we are in emergency management,” he said.

On Friday, a significant amount of rainfall coupled with rapid snowmelt after the temperature got into the 60s on Thursday led to creek and stream flooding around the Ohio Valley.

Despite the area receiving 6 or more inches of snow late Friday and early Saturday, Vargo doesn’t believe that will be much of a threat.

“We’re going to stay below freezing weather all week, so ideally the river could crest and drop before we get any worse,” he said.

Regarding the barge situation, about 45 of the unmanned craft were floating freely on the river, according to a statement released by the Coast Guard.

In response, the Moundsville Police Department closed the Moundsville Bridge to passing traffic at about 7 a.m.

Dispatcher Jerri Moore said the bridge remained closed for three hours as members of the U.S. Coast Guard worked to retrieve the barges. She said multiple barges collided with the bridge’s pillars.

An inspection by the West Virginia Division of Highways found the bridge to be in stable condition, Moore said.

The Coast Guard reported most of the barges had been retrieved by evening.

Murray Energy Corp. spokesman Gary Broadbent confirmed that at least some of the barges involved in the incident are owned by the company.

He said the company was not at fault for them coming loose, but he declined to provide any further detail.

It’s unclear what caused the barges to come free.

Officials with the Coast Guard, which was leading efforts to retrieve the barges, could not be reached for further comment.

The overnight snowfall also led to some problems for the traveling public Saturday, as a semi-truck jackknifed at about 7:30 a.m. in the westbound lanes of Interstate 70 near Elm Grove.

The highway was closed for about three hours, but is now open, according to Wheeling Police Department spokesman Philip Stahl.

According to Stahl, the crash occurred when the truck driver attempted to pass another vehicle that had braked suddenly. Stahl said the force of the crash snapped the semi’s cab in half, and sent the driver to a nearby hospital for possible head trauma.

The vehicle ahead of the truck was not involved in the crash.

Stahl said the semi driver will likely face several citations, including failure to maintain control and driving too fast for road conditions. Officers also are investigating whether the driver had a commercial driver’s license.

Stahl said condition on the interstate remained “slushy” Saturday morning due to the mix of ice and snow received overnight.

Additionally, the Wheeling Police Department reported seven vehicle accidents between 8 p.m. Friday and 7 a.m. Saturday — all attributed to the blast of winter weather.

Stahl said at about 10 p.m. Friday, another semi-truck suffered a minor incident very close to where this morning’s accident occurred.

He said none of the reported seven crashes resulted in any major damage or injuries.