The Floods Of 1997


Shortly after MSD began its second half-century of service, the community was stricken by the heaviest rainstorm on record — soon followed by the seventh-highest Ohio River flood in history.

Southern Jefferson County was hit especially hard by the rains of March 1.  At the top, a truck makes its way along flooded Minor Lane near Southern Ditch.
MSD Photo by Martin E. Biemer

The storms began Friday night, February 28th. By the time they ended 33 hours later, the county had been drenched with from 8 to 12 inches of rain. Nearly all of the floodplains along local streams had been filled; many had overflowed.

In the former swamplands south of Louisville, streets and entire neighborhoods were flooded. Thousands of homes suffered flood damage.

Rising water flooded yards (left) along Blue Lick Road.
The Jefferson County Police dive and rescue squad (right) tows its inflatable raft back to dry land after rescuing stranded motorists on National turnpike just north of Interstate 265.
MSD Photos by Martin E. Biemer

Throughout MSD’s service area, sewer lines were overwhelmed. Water backed up into the basements of thousands of buildings.

As the storms moved slowly eastward through Kentucky and Ohio, the Ohio River rose rapidly. MSD crews went to work along the floodwall system, installing 24 of the 45 street closures and activating all 15 pumping stations. On Friday, March 7th, the river reached its seventh-highest level on record — 15.76 feet above flood stage in downtown Louisville, or about 26.6 feet higher than normal.

The action at Sixth Street shows how the closures in the Ohio River floodwall work when high water threatens. First, a steel framework (left) is erected across the street.
Next (right), metal plates are positioned one by one, and bolted to the steel framework; the sandbags piled in the foreground will be used to seal small gaps where the closure meets the pavement.
MSD Photos by Martin E. Biemer

It was the second time since the floodwall was completed that the river had risen high enough for it to provide substantial protection; in 1964, the crest had been about 2.5 feet higher. But it was the first time that the flood protection system had worked almost perfectly in a crisis; MSD’s maintenance and training programs had paid off.

As the river neared its crest on March 6, the lunchtime crowd on the riverfront Belvedere gazes at the water flooding the street and the parking garage below them — and held back by the closure in the middle distance.
MSD Photo by Martin E. Biemer

The local flooding, however, illustrated the need for more action. MSD technicians and engineers began touring the flood-stricken areas before the rain stopped falling, gathering information on water levels and damage. MSD immediately expanded its basement backup program, first offering it to everyone in areas where backups were reported, and then expanding it to all sewer customers.

In the months to come, MSD would launch a major study of the problems in the eastern neighborhoods where basement backups were widespread. And the agency would recommend a revised and expanded floodplain ordinance to Jefferson Fiscal Court, with much stricter provisions than the federal flood insurance program requires.

MSD History continued - The Next 50 Years