Tuesday, October 14, 2003

Fairfax can't raise money
to buy flood-prone homes

By Steve Kemme
The Cincinnati Enquirer

FAIRFAX - Every time it rains, Albert Pavely and his neighbors move their cars to higher ground a couple of blocks away and nervously watch Little Duck Creek to see how high it rises.

"I hate to live that way," the 77-year-old man said. "It's a constant worry."

Pavely and most other Fairfax residents who live in the bottom land near Little Duck Creek want to leave the flood-plagued area.

After the devastating flood two years ago that killed a Fairfax man and his adult daughter and damaged dozens of homes, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers devised a $7.8 million plan to buy out and demolish 41 houses east of Watterson Road and to restore that area to its natural state.

But Fairfax has been unable to come up with the required $2.7 million in local match money. As a result, the plan is in limbo - and so are the residents. Very few can afford to move elsewhere without selling their homes, and they can't sell their homes because of the flooding threat.

They live with the gnawing fear that at some point, normally placid Little Duck Creek will once again turn into a raging river and destroy their houses or, worse, take more lives. Residents say the floods have worsened in recent years because of development upstream.

"We're sitting ducks," said Andrea Spritzer, whose next-door neighbors, 48-year-old Ronald Davenport and his 21-year-old daughter, Anna, drowned in their basement in the July 18, 2001, flood.

The memories of that night are fresh and painful.

Some of the neighbors vividly recall Debbie Davenport, Ronald's wife, screaming for help as she stood on her front porch as several feet of water engulfed the houses on Simpson Street and nearby streets.

"I saw them carry their bodies out of that house," said 67-year-old Wanda Bowman, who lives across the street. "That's something you never forget."

'There's death in this valley'

On the flood's one-year anniversary, Debbie Davenport hung on her vacant house's porch a large vinyl banner. It features a blown-up photo of Ronald and Anna taken at a family reunion two years before their deaths. Davenport, who moved with her 13-year-old twins to another house in Fairfax, said she won't take the banner down as long as her former neighbors remain in danger.

"It's a reminder that there's death in this valley and it will come again," she said, standing on the sidewalk in front of her old house.

"If I take the banner down, the people in this county will forget. I can't go on and be at peace as long as I know others may suffer the same fate they did."

The residents of the flood plain east of Watterson Road feel frustrated that they're still waiting for buyouts two years after the flood. They feel burdened by financial pressures as well as by the fear of another flood.

Spritzer, 33, had a $19,000 lien slapped on her house after the 2001 flood when her insurance company refused to pay for some of the repairs to her house. A less-severe flood in May put her car under six feet of water. Fortunately, her insurance did pay for another car.

"I bought this house five years ago because it's a great house and it's in the Mariemont School District," said Spritzer, who's taking college classes and working full-time as an assistant manager of a retail clothing store. "I didn't think there would be that bad of a flood."

Esther Crabtree, who lives two doors from the Davenports' old house, said she's refrained from refinishing her deck and buying a new dishwasher.

"You really can't do anything to your house because what's the use? It will just be torn down," the 68-year-old woman said. "I feel like I'm just existing."

Battling financial problems

Spritzer accused village officials of dragging their feet on the problems of residents in the Little Duck Creek flood basin east of Watterson.

"We feel that no one is looking out for the people of Fairfax," Spritzer said. "The village of Fairfax has done absolutely nothing for us."

But Fairfax officials say they have been working hard to obtain the needed money for the plan and feel as frustrated as the residents.

"It's not like we don't care about them," Mayor Ted Shannon said. "We're working every day on this."

Fairfax has other financial challenges besides finding funds to help flood victims. The village has a half-percent earnings tax increase on the Nov. 4 ballot just to maintain services. The slow economy and the loss of several large employers have placed the village in a difficult financial position.

Someone is being helped

"We're concerned about just meeting our expenses to run the village," Village Administrator Jennifer Kaminer said.

The village was able to cough up $110,000 as its local share to secure $900,000 in funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Ohio Emergency Management Agency.

But that money is for the flood plain that includes Watterson and two streets west of Watterson. It will enable the village to hire contractors to buy and demolish seven homes and to flood-proof 15 others.

Fairfax officials believe they can accomplish that by October of next year.

But residents east of Watterson, while glad someone is being helped, complain about the village taking care of the western flood basin before the eastern basin.

Kaminer said village officials applied for FEMA funds for the western basin because they expected FEMA to provide only $500,000 and the Clean Ohio Fund and Hamilton County's federal Community Development Block Grant funds to provide more than $2 million in local matching money for the eastern basin. Instead, FEMA will issue $900,000 for the western basin, and Hamilton County allocated only $75,000 for the eastern basin. The Clean Ohio Fund has issued nothing so far.

Fairfax will develop a priority list for potential buyouts and buy and demolish houses as it acquires more money.

Who's next?

The village still might receive money from the Clean Ohio Fund, Kaminer said. In the meantime, she said, she will keep searching for possible government grants. Of course, that doesn't satisfy the residents who are trapped in the flood plain.

Although Debbie Davenport now lives outside the flood plain and is trying to build a new life, she worries over the long delay in removing families from the flood-prone area.

"I don't want to see someone else's house number come up with the next roll of the dice when it floods again," Davenport said.

"That night of the flood, it was my address, 3983," she said. "Whose house number will come up the next time tragedy strikes?"

E-mail skemme@enquirer.com

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