Keith Smith spent time in Falmouth as residents evacuated because of a warning of a potential flood that brought back memories of March 1997. The flood never happened and his investigative story on what happened earned a second place award for Best Investigative Story.
The judge said, "An interesting topic and one I"m sure citizens wanted to hear. This piece slipped into first person, though it appeared would be a news story, not a column."
The story is below.
The Flood that wasn't: What happened to change a 10-foot drop in river crest forecast?
“It’s not a matter of if but rather when Falmouth floods again,” said Julie Reed, meteorologists with the National Weather Service said.
Knowing that, the National Weather Serivce along with several other agencies are trying to gather as much information as possible to provide the best forecasts they can, but like this past flooding projection, it can be fraught with inaccuracies.
The NWS forecast for the Licking Basin in which Falmouth is located called for heavy rain on Wednesday after a rise of 20 feet in the river level on Monday night into Tuesday morning.
While the rain falling in Pendleton County contibuted, the rainfall upstream of the South Fork of the Licking River plays the largest role in the flooding of that branch.
For the Main Fork, the rainfall in the Big Sandy area (Morehead) contributes to the volume of water in the Main Licking. The Cave Run Lake helps control the river level.
“There were higher estimates of rainfall in the Licking Basin from radar. They dissipated,” explained Reed as to why the change of a forecast that included a 10-feet drop in the river crest.
She added that the rainfall came in strips and it is hard to predict whether those strips with large amounts of rain will fall in a narrow Licking Basin which feeds the Licking River or shift to the Kentucky Basin which does not affect Pendleton County.
While the near flood of 2020 did not have the effect on Pendleton County that was first feared, it did provide information that will be vital in the NWS projections being more accurate in the future.
In a collaboration of the Corp of Engineers, Department of Local Government, Pendleton County Fiscal Court, City of Falmouth, NWS and the Division of Water, a new river gauge was installed five years ago.
In 1997, the same rain gauge had to be manually read and was underwater. The gauge now provides information automatically and the volume of water that is in the river rather than just the depth of the river.
Up to Tuesday, there was little historical information on river volume to base projections off of, but there is now better data to base future predictions.
The United States Geological Society’s river gauge on the South Fork comes into play more for projections for Falmouth, but the rain gauge in Cynthiana does not provide volume levels to give information on how much water is heading to Falmouth.
“There is not a lot of rain gauge information in Central Kentucky,” said Reed. “It is not an exact science. We don’t want people to become complacent with future forecasts and not listen to local officials.”
One area lacking is the river gauge in Butler.
“We have talked with (State Senator) Wil Schroder and (State Representative) Mark Hart about funding to replace the Butler river gauge on the bridge,” said Pendleton County Emergency Director Michael Moore.
Presently, that gauge is not tied to the system.
He indicated that instead they relied on the historical information from Mayor Greg McElfresh’s knowledge from what areas of Butler would be flooded based on river heights.
He was present in the command center to be involved in the information and decision making on Tuesday morning.
The information that is used to make the decisions are available to the public through www.pendletoncounty.ky.gov under the Government and Emergency Management tab.