How one Ohio town is preparing for a future of floods

Ohio Newsroom’s adaptation of Richland Source’s series “Ripple Effect” delves into the aftermath of a wet spring in Ohio. Columbus witnessed record rainfall in April, while towns along the Ohio River, like Marietta and Steubenville, faced flooding. The Black Fork, near Columbus and Cleveland, almost flooded too. Water levels rose close to overflowing, even reaching the base of a bridge in Shelby. Fortunately, the waters receded, offering locals relief. Yet, the threat remains, reminding communities of the unpredictable nature of water’s path.

Shelby’s Flooding History: A Concise Overview

Mayor Steve Schag has a personal connection to the issue.

“Since 1981, I’ve seen the Black Fork’s fluctuations firsthand. I’ve spent many days and nights praying,” he shared.

His recollection of the initial flood remains clear. In 1987, while serving as a pastor, his church’s basement submerged under five feet of water.

“The sight, sound, and smell were unforgettable. It’s an experience no one wants to endure,” he reflected.

Repeatedly, he’s witnessed such floods. In 2007. In 2011. In 2013.

“You feel almost helpless as the river breaches its banks,” Schag expressed.

During a local festival, he recalls bizarre sights, like teddy bears drifting by. “Once, I saw a refrigerator float downstream,” he recounted. “It wedged against the bridge, and people began rummaging through it.”

Though it’s been some time, climate change heightens the likelihood of such events. The U.S. EPA foresees amplified spring rainfall and intensified storms, raising flood risks.

Can a Single City Avert Flooding?

The community of Shelby is actively engaged in efforts to mitigate flooding risks.

Initiated by local farmer John Schroeder in 2017, the grassroots Black Fork Clean Up Project aims to clear debris along 18 miles of the river. Schroeder emphasized the shared goal of preventing flooding in Shelby, recognizing the need for unhindered river flow during storms.

The project, employing a company to remove hundreds of trees and debris, represents ongoing work crucial for flood prevention, noted Erica Thomas of the Richland Soil and Water Conservation District. However, she stressed the necessity of sustained efforts, as debris continually accumulates.

While the city is pursuing its own cleanup initiative, environmental and financial considerations have delayed progress. Mayor Steve Schag highlighted the need to balance conservation efforts with flood prevention measures, considering factors like protected habitats and budget constraints.

Despite these challenges, Schag acknowledged the limitations of localized efforts against the broader scope of river dynamics. He emphasized the need for comprehensive strategies, recognizing that flood prevention requires collective action beyond city limits.

Learning to live with rising water

Instead of solely aiming to prevent river flooding entirely, Mayor Schag and fellow community members are embracing a strategy of adaptation.

The city has undertaken various measures, including the demolition of numerous homes in flood-prone areas and the relocation of key facilities such as the fire station and the former high school football field. Moreover, new constructions near the river are designed to withstand high water levels.

For instance, the recently inaugurated downtown plaza incorporates flood mitigation features. According to Schag, these measures ensure that even in the event of flooding, the area can be quickly cleaned up and made functional again within days.

While it remains uncertain when the Black Fork will flood again, historical patterns suggest it will. Consequently, the city of Shelby is proactively preparing for such events to minimize their impact.

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