Is the Ohio Valley Prone to Flooding?

First of all, if you’re here wondering where the heck is Ohio Valley? Let’s get that out of the way. 

“The Ohio Valley refers to the Ohio River Valley,” TV meteorologist Ben Gelber told WOSU Public Media. “Technically a river valley would just be a few miles wide but we tend to broaden our definition.” 

By broadened definition, he means this. First, the Ohio River is the center of the valley. Second, forecasters divide the valley into three sections: upper, middle and lower. The Upper Ohio River Valley begins at Pittsburgh and follows the I-70 until northeastern Kentucky. The Middle Ohio River Valley, meanwhile, includes Columbus and Indianapolis all the way down to Lexington and Louisville. Finally, the Lower Ohio River Valley starts at Evansville through Cairo, Illinois, covering southwestern Indiana and western Kentucky.  

“Loosely defined it includes a good portion of Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, extreme southwestern Pennsylvania, extreme northwestern West Virginia, and down to the junction of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers,” Gelber explained.

Now back to the question: Is the Ohio Valley (or Ohio River Valley) prone to flooding? The short answer is yes – water damages and claims the Ohio Valley as its own, regularly.

Ohio River Valley Floods

Where there are rivers, floods are inevitable. That’s just the course that nature takes. So, it isn’t surprising news that floods have been occurring in the Ohio River Valley long before European settlers built their homes alongside the river’s shores. Alluvial deposits even point to glacial floods. 

However, increased settlement in the area certainly has contributed to the more recent flooding. The Ohio River is an invaluable resource for the communities that run alongside it. But, heavy rainfall and snowmelt, which arrive with winter and early spring, bring with them an increased risk of floods. Annual floods are expected and normal in the area. 

Still, there are flooding events that stand out for one reason or another. Below are some of the most significant flooding in the history of the Ohio River Valley. 

  • The Great Flood of 1913

The flooding that occurred in late March 1913 was the content of the national news for several days. Runoff from the great flood equaled the amount of runoff that would be normal for a six-month period. 

This significant runoff gave rise to water levels in rivers reaching a crest of 22.9 feet. The rain and the flood wave started from the headwaters and upper tributaries before making their way down stream. The floodwaters from the stream reached the main stem rivers when local runoff was heaviest. This resulted in a peak flood wave in the Scioto, Great Miami, Muskingum and Wabash Rivers. 

  • The Ohio River Great Flood of 1937

Another great flood happened in 1937. From January 13 to 24, so much rain fell – more than 19 inches – that the month is considered one of the wettest months in Cincinnati.

“The Ohio River Great Flood of January 1937 surpassed all prior floods during the previous 175 years of modern occupancy of the Ohio River Valley,” the National Weather Service says. “The overall scope of the flood surpassed the major floods of 1884 and 1773, and geological evidence suggests the 1937 flood outdid any previous flood.” 

The entire Ohio River was in flood, from Point Pleasant, West Virginia to Cairo, Illinois. Seventy percent of Louisville and 90% of Jeffersonville, Indiana was submerged under floodwaters. And, the waters crested about 10 to 30 feet higher than flood stage (55 feet).

The Great Flood of 1937 left about 350 dead and almost 1 million lost their homes. An estimate pegs the total flood damage to $250 million in 1937 dollars (or more than $3.3 billion).

  • The Ohio Valley Flood of 1997

NOAA’s Office of Hydrology describes the flood that hit the Ohio River Valley in March 1997 as “a rare occurrence.” The water levels reached the highest they’ve had in more than 30 years after between 6 and 12 inches of rainfall. 

Major flooding overtook six states across the region, including southern Ohio and parts of northern Kentucky. Flash floods hit hilly terrain and areas with poor drainage. Rural and urban areas near small streams also saw the waters rise. And, communities along the river and its tributaries experienced serious flooding, such as along Brush Creek, the Scioto River and Great Miami River. 

Many counties were declared natural disaster areas. In the aftermath, hundreds got injured and 33 people were killed. In addition, 14,000 homes got damaged or destroyed, more than 20,000 applied for disaster relief, and total damages reached over $500 million (1997 dollars). 

  • The 2018 Ohio River Flood

In February of 2018, residents of several states along the Ohio River saw the worst flooding in over two decades. Rainfall ranged from 3 inches to more than 8 inches across the region, according to the rain gauges of the Metropolitan Sewer District. Total rainfall was a record 10.47 inches, dethroning the previous record of 9.84 inches in February 1884 which reigned for 134 years. 

“The 2018 flood had significant impacts on Kentucky’s Ohio River communities,” said Carey Johnson, assistant director at the Kentucky Division of Water. “Floodwall closures had to be exercised, pump stations were activated and the areas that commonly flood during river floods became inundated.”

The most at-risk areas were smaller suburban areas outside of major cities along the Ohio Valley, NASA’s Kane Cook, the DEVELOP team lead, said. The flooding also resulted in 667 miles (1,073 km) of major roadways becoming impassable and 16% of hospitals inaccessible. In all, the flooding caused more than $18 million in damages to highways, bridges and local infrastructure in the area, according to the Courier Journal

  • The Spring Flood of 2024

Severe weather in the spring of 2024 came in full force after just a few days of downpour led to 3 to 4 inches of rainfall that started over the Easter weekend. Staff of flood-prone buildings, such as Wheeling Island Hotel-Casino-Racetrack, knew just what to do, i.e., they started to move things out of the basement. 

“We are always prepared,” Kim Florence, president and general manager of the building, told WTRF.com. “It really doesn’t matter if it’s two inches of water or three feet of water. I mean, our preparations are the same.” 

The waters crested on Thursday evening, reaching 41.85 feet, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). This was the highest for Wheeling since 2005 and the 23rd since 1901.

The waters finally subsided on April 7.