One Town's Battle With a Swollen River

Despite debacle, people show a rare resiliency

Chest-high floodwaters surging through this blue-collar Ohio River town have swept away homes, soaked buildings to the rooftops, and claimed the life of one resident.

But the churning, caramel-colored waters haven't drowned out hope among the resilient folk who call themselves "river rats."

"The place I lived in is probably in Owensboro [downstream] by now," says West Point's police dispatcher, shrugging off the loss of his mobile home. For him, the river's toll is nothing new. Years ago, flood waters drove his family from their home a few days after his birth. Later, the house was washed away.

The wreckage is mounting from some of the worst flooding this century of the rain-swollen Ohio and its tributaries. The slow-moving torrent has left more than two dozen dead and caused an estimated half-billion dollars of damage in a string of counties from West Virginia to Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana.

Yet, as the crest of the river moves south, many riverside dwellers appear to have forgiven the Ohio for its latest rampage - much as they would a volatile relative. In West Point, even hard-hit residents seem as inclined to crack jokes as they are to complain over the cruelties of Mother Nature.

Just south of West Point, National Guardsman Daniel Holbrook drives his olive-green Humvee down the last dry stretch of Highway 31 and plunges it into three-foot-deep floodwaters. As cold water gurgles up through the jeep's floor, Mr. Holbrook heads toward downtown West Point, now a tiny island encircled by the Ohio and its tributary, the Salt River.

"That sign has an altogether new meaning," Holbrook says, pointing to the rapids engulfing a signpost that reads "Salt River Dr." Down the road, water laps at the roof of an abandoned car shop; a van floats out front. "That's a strong current," he says. "It could sweep you away."

Holbrook's all-terrain jeep and three others are now the only way in and out of West Point, a historic river outpost about 25 miles southwest of Louisville. Last week, guardsmen helped evacuate most of the 1,200 residents. About 30 holdouts, many of them town employees, stayed behind.

On the high ground of Main Street, Sandra Bratcher stands around with a few other townspeople, looking frazzled. Ms. Bratcher, the disaster coordinator for Hardin County, is waiting for officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to arrive for an inspection.

"My brain is fried," she says, sipping a hot beverage on her sixth straight day on the job. "We won't even be able to estimate damages until this water goes down," she says, but adds that the toll will "definitely" run to tens of millions of dollars.

Across the street sits an old red caboose filled with bottles of drinking water and food trucked in by the Army. Donations of rubber gloves and cleaning supplies, which have sold out at nearby stores, are trickling in. Emergency workers are giving tetanus shots in a makeshift clinic. In a nearby office, an emergency worker answers a call. An evacuee is asking about her home. The worker listens to the address, then silently winces.

"Ma'am, your house is under water." Pause. "Yes, I've been told it's about five to six feet deep in the street." Longer pause. "Well, I wish you the best of luck and we'll be praying for you, too." The emergency worker hangs up and shakes her head. "Poor lady."

Facing huge frustrations, West Point residents might be expected to call it quits. After the Mississippi River flooded in 1993, some towns, such as Portage des Sioux, Mo., saw half their population leave. Others, like Valmeyer, Ill., picked up and moved to higher ground.

But as waters slowly begin to recede, West Point residents are adamant that they, and their town, are here to stay. "We've got this Salt River mud between our toes and we just couldn't leave here," says David Bennett, a retiree, as he sits on a porch chatting with friends about the floods of 1937 and 1964.

That morning, Mr. Bennett visited his house by boat and found it under four feet of water. He'll have to rip out paneling, but it could be worse, he says. "In 1964, it was under 10 feet."

West Point survives because its people pull together, says resident Lee Price, whose roof caved in last week. "It's gonna take time to get everything back to normal," he concedes. "But ... neighbors and good old-fashioned help goes a long way toward alleviating fears."

"You know, we're river rats," says Edith Setari, an elderly woman wearing a purple jogging suit and hair curlers. Ms. Setari's modest house, one of a handful that escaped the flood, is now home to Bennett, as well as numerous refrigerators, dishes, and other property salvaged by friends. "They left me a little path to get back to my bed. I'm thankful for that," she says.

West Point residents know the river can be deadly. Price's neighbor, Larry Frost, was found drowned Friday after he apparently attempted to walk out of town. The father of three "was a good man and I'll miss him," says Price.

Here, however, people seem to take in stride what the river takes away as well as what it gives. "The river community is sort of unto itself," says the police dispatcher. "Come down to the river on a June night when the stars are out, and you'll appreciate it."

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