Looking Back: 2004 and 2005 Floods Changed College Preparedness

It was Friday Sept. 17, 2004. Remnants of Hurricane Ivan had just come through dropping almost five inches of rain over the Mid-Ohio Valley during the day. The Ohio River and its tributaries were already swollen due to three and a half inches of rain from the week before, when remnants of Hurricane Frances came through.

Early that Friday morning the National Weather Service in Charleston predicted that the Ohio River at Marietta would crest just above flood stage. Then later that afternoon, the National Weather Service called off the flood warning and said that the Ohio River at Marietta would crest more than a foot below flood stage.

After hearing about those predictions, Marietta College administration held a meeting. “The administration met on Friday and we were told that we would not have any flood waters on the campus. The Director of the Physical Plant called me in the afternoon and told me I did not have to worry,” said Bruce Peterson, Director of Residence Life at Marietta College.

Little did Peterson, Marietta College, or the city of Marietta know what was in store for the Ohio River in the coming hours. Then around 10 p.m. Friday, the National Weather Service changed the prediction again. This time, the Ohio River at Marietta was going to crest at 41.5 feet by late afternoon Saturday, Sept. 18. That night the river rose quickly. Some would even say they were able to watch the Ohio River creep closer and closer to their homes and businesses as the minutes passed by.

“On Saturday at 5:45 a.m. Fred Smith, Physical Plant Director called me by cell phone from the Don Drumm Stadium locker rooms where the water was already flooding. Don Drumm is the lowest point to actually flood, at 34 feet. He also told me that they predicted the flood waters to enter Pioneer, A&H and ATO Houses on Fourth Street, and that there would be a couple of inches of water in each of those buildings,” said Peterson.

Marietta College officials notified students at 8 a.m. Saturday that this was happening. For those buildings that were going to be affected, items were moved up off the floors and some items were put in main level lobby areas. Bethany Dykstra, 26, of Charlotte, N.C., was a junior at Marietta College at the time of the flood.

“I remember my RA pounding on my door at 8 a.m. yelling for me to move my car because the Hermann lot was flooding. I was living in Dorothy Webster at the time, so I wasn’t affected by the water coming up. Since it had rained pretty heavily the day before, I had already moved my car to the Gathering Place parking lot, since the Hermann parking lot would flood from time to time. I got up, threw some shoes on, and moved my car to Fifth Street, grumbling the whole way. As I walked down the mall towards my dorm, I saw that cars were already underwater in Hermann. I immediately went to get dressed and investigate,” said Dykstra.

By noon on Saturday, the Ohio River occupied Pioneer, A&H and ATO Houses at a level of five feet. Damage was also done to Fayerweather Hall, and sewers backed up on the first floor of Mary Beach. When it was all said and done, the Ohio River crested at 44.97 feet in Marietta on Saturday around 5:30 p.m. That was the highest crest recorded since 1964, when water levels rose to 45.2 feet. To get a better idea of how high it was, the Ohio River water level was at the crossbars of the field goal posts at Don Drumm Stadium.

The damage done to those residence halls was much greater than expected. The three residence halls on Fourth Street were closed, due to significant damage on the first floors. Thousands of dollars in personal property like books, computers, and clothing were lost. There were also vehicles damaged from the flood waters.

“The three buildings on Fourth Street house 120 students. We checked those students into two hotels on Pike Street. They lived in the hotels for roughly a month. All of the walls, appliances, doors, and bathrooms were destroyed on the first floors of the three buildings,” said Peterson.

Classes at Marietta College were canceled for the week of Sept. 20, 2004. Most students went home, except for fall athletes, some McDonough Leadership students, Resident Assistants, and some of those students who lived far away. Dykstra was one of those students who stayed on campus.

“Since I lived in South Carolina at the time, I stayed in my dorm. Lots of students went to help clean up the town, but I got sick, so I spent the first few days in my dorm, sick. McDonough put together some last-minute programs, like showing movies at night to give the students who were still there something to do. I helped out at my job also, working at The Castle,” said Dykstra.

The cleanup process started after flood waters receded, where students, staff and faculty moved water damaged property to the science building. There were also large piles of rubble outside each of the three residence halls.

“The college was in the process of renovating some lab space in the science building, so piles of personal property were organized by room number so the students could come and reclaim items that could be salvaged,” said Peterson.

It took quite a while for Marietta College and the city of Marietta to get back to a sense of normalcy. Hours upon hours of hard work by people of all ages were put into making the city look like the Ohio River had never touched the streets of Marietta. But the reality of the effects the flood had loomed over the city, especially those homes and businesses that were completely destroyed.

The Pioneer city was still recovering from the September 2004 flood in January 2005, when the National Weather Service predicted a crest between 43 and 45 feet in Marietta. According to The Marietta Times website, a state of emergency was declared in Marietta and Washington County on Jan. 6, 2005, because of those crest predictions. On Jan. 8, the river’s crest was 43.3 feet.

“This time faculty and staff were on campus and went to the halls and packed all the students personal property and college owned property and moved everything into semi trucks. When the students returned we had all their personal property marked in organized piles in the main lobby. Rooms were completely cleaned and repaired before they returned to campus,” said Peterson.

It was a hard lesson learned for area residents and schools after both floods. The last major flood before the September 2004 flood was in 1964. Since then, more businesses have come to the area, and other construction projects have too, altering the flood plain. The city of Marietta saw areas flood in September 2004 that they had not seen flood before.

Since the September 2004 and January 2005 floods, Marietta College has made the susceptible residence halls “flood friendly”. Carpet was removed from the floors of the residence halls on Fourth Street and floor tile was put in place. Plaster board walls were hung horizontally instead of vertically, so it would be easier to repair the walls that get damaged. And all of the doors are numbered now on the hinges so they can be removed quickly and put back in the right spot after the water recedes.

“Marietta College now has a systematical method for clearing student personal property and college owned property from the help of the Physical Plant and Residence Life, if a major flood were to happen again. We know exactly how many semi trucks we need on site to remove personal and college property. And we are also able to obtain a large number of boxes on short notice that are needed to pack up personal property,” said Peterson.

Normally, when a flood occurs in Marietta, and anywhere else, the water comes up slowly, and homeowners and businesses have time to move their belongings out. September 2004 was an exception. Nobody had any idea how fast the water was going to come up, and how high the water level was actually going to get. Marietta College is now very prepared to face a flood.

This article was written by Stacy Frederick, a student taking Media Writing Two at Marietta College.  Look for more articles from the class to appear on Writing on the Mall in the coming weeks.  If you are interested in writing for Writing on the Mall, please e-mail patrick_h at writingonthemall dot net.