Forecasters: Ohio River Flooding Could Be Worst in 13 Years

Ohio River Expected to Crest at 42 Feet in Wheeling by Monday

WHEELING — Forecasters are expecting the worst flooding on the Ohio River since January 2005 to occur in the early part of this week.

The remnants of Tropical Storm Gordon began moving through the Ohio Valley on Saturday. When it finally dries out late Monday or early Tuesday, the National Weather Service predicts the storm will have dropped at least 4-5 inches of rain on portions of West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania. The rainfall amount could be as high as 6-7 inches in some areas.

As that water moves toward the Ohio River, it could crest at almost 42 feet in Wheeling by Monday night. Flood stage in the city is 36 feet.

“We’re expecting an event similar to Hurricane Ivan,” Wheeling-Ohio County Homeland Security and Emergency Management Director Lou Vargo said.

Vargo was referring to river flooding that occurred in September 2004, when the Ohio River crested at 45 feet. The National Weather Service predicts the river will crest at 41.8 feet this week. The last time it reached 42 feet was in January 2005. By way of comparison, the river reached 38.9 feet when it flooded in February this year.

“It’s not in our favor,” Shannon Hefferan, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Pittsburgh, said.

“Weather systems like this are usually associated with tropical systems.”

Hefferan said almost 1.5 inches of rain already had fallen in Wheeling by 6 p.m. Saturday. By 6 p.m. today, she said, forecast models predicted another 1.5 inches of rain will fall across the region.

Although the weather service had issued flood watches for streams, creeks and the Ohio River, Hefferan said she expected those watches to become warnings by today. By Monday, when all the water makes its way to the river, she said she expects moderate flooding from East Liverpool in the north to Point Pleasant in the south.

However, she said, even The Point in Pittsburgh is expected to be at least partially underwater at some point before Tuesday.

“We’ll have a gradual, steady flooding,” she said.

Vargo said when the river reaches about 42 feet, Wheeling Island residents experience basement flooding. Northern portions of the Island also could see flooding, as will the areas behind Wheeling Island Stadium. South Wheeling also sees flooding in those conditions, he said.

In Marshall County, people in McMechen began preparing for floods as the rain poured late Saturday night. McMechen Police Chief Don DeWitt said between 10-12 volunteers came to the city’s garage to begin filling hundreds of sandbags to help protect homes and businesses from rising water.

“We’ve got a couple of young guys who came who are working in there pretty hard,” he said.

DeWitt said a few companies donated the sand. They included Weldon Construction, Precision Pipeline LLC and Capstone Energy Services. Volunteers were expected to continue through the night and into today with the sandbag effort.

Meanwhile, Vargo said emergency officials in Ohio County met Saturday morning to prepare. He also sent in a request to the state of West Virginia to have members of the National Guard available if necessary.

“If the river does flood, there could be cleanup on the Island and South Wheeling that needs to be taken care of,” he said.

Vargo said emergency officials were watching streams and creeks late Saturday and early Sunday. However, neither Hefferan nor Vargo said they expect flash flooding to be an issue because the rain will fall over a longer period of time.

“We’re just very cautious, especially throughout the night,” he said.

Hefferan said the weather service is keeping an eye on Tropical Storm Florence for the next possible major weather event. The storm, which had been a hurricane at one point but was downgraded again, was 800 miles southeast of Bermuda on Saturday evening. It is expected to become a major hurricane — Category 3 or higher — by the time it makes landfall in the Carolinas later this week.

But that storm might be too far east to reach the Ohio Valley, she said. For now, forecast models show a period of drying out as the week goes on, with only scattered showers possible after Tuesday.

Still, she said, the weather pattern during the next couple of days is cause for concern.

“People think it might not happen, so they don’t pay as close of attention,” she said. “They should be aware and stay informed.”

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