Deadly floods and tornadoes hit 8 states 44 are killed, thousands lose homes in disasters

March 04, 1997|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

In Arkadelphia, Ark., a man begged a reporter to say something nice about a woman who died in an avalanche of brick and broken lumber, and a woman searched for a missing tree.

In Stumptown, a little-bitty place in West Virginia, an old man died in the flood because he worried about what the water had done to his house and went home a little too soon.

And in Brown County, Ohio, an old woman sat on top of a hill in a big house and almost dared the river to rise.

In eight states, from as far west as Texas to as far east as the West Virginia mountains and as far north as Pennsylvania, victims and near-victims calculated the damage of a late-winter storm. The death toll, 44, surpassed even the most grim expectation of rescue workers. As floods continued to threaten parts of Ohio and Kentucky, people wondered how much worse it might get.

President Clinton today will visit Arkansas, where 24 people were killed, most in tornadoes and violent thunderstorms.

Nine died in Kentucky, where floods washed roads out from under cars. Five people drowned in Ohio, where the worst of the flooding was still to come in some areas, and four more in Tennessee, including a woman whose car was washed off a bridge near Memphis. The wind killed two people in a mobile home in Texas and a middle-aged man in Mississippi.

Those spared were left grieving over others and wondering how to cope with destroyed and damaged homes.

Some 3,000 people had to be evacuated near Louisville, Ky., where city workers slid concrete flood walls into place to try to hold back the rising Ohio River. Outside Cincinnati, suburban towns were evacuated. In north-central Kentucky, small towns flooded to their rooftops.

In Arkadelphia, where six people died, the piano player at the First Church of the Nazarene, Nancy Lloyd, sat at the ruined piano, in a sanctuary of splintered pews and scattered hymnals, and cried. "I'm fine," Lloyd said, staring at the piano. "I'm fine."

The tornadoes destroyed downtown Arkadelphia on Saturday, killing 37-year-old Donna Duboise, who had planned to be an accountant. It is tax season, so she was at work when the storm hit.

Yesterday, Andy Berry, a certified public accountant, picked through the rubble of his office, where she had worked. "Sometimes I hated her and sometimes she hated me, but it's like that, you know?" Berry said.

Then his knees buckled, and he began to sob. "Please say something nice about her," he said. "Please. Please."

Just outside town, Carol James found her trailer -- the half still there -- moved 30 feet. She had lived there with her 14-month-old baby. They have no insurance.

Helen Delamar Lowedermilk, 72, 5 feet tall and fragile, walked through downtown with her niece, Kenny Pickens, 52.

"What I'm looking for is my Grandpa's old magnolia tree," she said as she walked. "It's where I played every day as a little girl."

The tree was there, but the wind had stripped it of its leaves and most of its limbs, so they did not recognize it at first.

In Kentucky, the bad thing was, they could see it coming. Sunday morning, after more than a foot of rain had soaked the ground around Greg Kelly's home in Lebanon Junction, he marked off 6-inch increments on a board and nailed it to a tree in his back yard. By midday, the water that overflowed the banks of the nearby Rolling Fork River had washed over its banks and was rising at the rate of two feet an hour.

When it lapped at the front porch, he and his wife, Susan, packed a few clothes and photographs, tied down the picnic table and loaded their four children into the pickup truck. They spent the night in it.

Yesterday, they sat inside a Red Cross shelter at the Lebanon Junction Elementary School and listened as the bad news trickled in from kinfolk and friends. Dozens of people in this community, about 35 miles south of Louisville, had lost everything but their lives to the worst flooding the area has seen in three decades.

Floods also hit West Virginia, where three days of relentless rain forced hundreds from their homes. Calhoun County rescue workers begged people not to go home too soon, not until the waters had receded.

But 73-year-old Kenneth "Mike" Harris worried about what the flood was doing to his house and tried to return Sunday night. He was found dead about 1 a.m. yesterday. Rescue workers said he had apparently left his truck when it stalled in high water and drowned or had a heart attack.

In nearby Ripley, on high ground beside the Ohio River on Front Street, Miriam Zachman waited confidently in her river front Italian villa, which is on the National Register.

The river was at 57 feet yesterday and is expected to crest at 62 later this week.

"It takes 70 foot to put water in this house," she said.

Pub Date: 3/04/97

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