Biggest Flood in 20 Years Hits Ohio River

February 26, 2018, 4:33 PM EST

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Above: Coney Island amusement park in Cincinnati, Ohio, floods on February 24, 2018, as the Ohio River rises. (Brian Lewis)

The worst flood event in 20 years is underway along the Ohio River in Ohio and Kentucky, and damaging moderate to major flooding continues from Texas to Michigan in the wake of heavy rains that fell last week in the center portion of the country. According to, a number of cities in the Ohio River drainage basin have received their heaviest February rains on record, including Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (7.04 inches), Evansville, Indiana (9.03 inches) and Louisville, Kentucky (10.47 inches). As of Monday morning, over 200 river gauges reported levels above flood stage, primarily from the Great Lakes to eastern Texas; seven locations in northern Indiana and southern Michigan set record river levels last week. Six deaths have been blamed on the floods thus far—2 in Michigan, 2 in Kentucky, 1 in Illinois, and 1 in Oklahoma.

Flood alerts
Figure 1. On Monday morning, flood warnings were posted for the Ohio River from West Virginia to Illinois, and the Lower Mississippi River from Illinois to Louisiana.

The region gets a break from heavy rains Monday through Tuesday afternoon, but another potent rain storm is headed for the Tennessee and Lower Mississippi River Valleys Tuesday night through Thursday, which will add to flooding woes there. Of greatest concern is a swath from central and southern Arkansas into Tennessee, southern Kentucky, northern Mississippi, northern Alabama and northwest Georgia Wednesday into early Thursday, according to an excessive rainfall outlook from NOAA's Weather Prediction Center.

Precipitation forecast
Figure 2. Predicted precipitation for the 5-day period ending at 12Z (7 am EST) Saturday, March 3, 2018. Heavy rains in excess of 3” are expected in a swath from Arkansas into northern Mississippi, northern Alabama, and southern Tennessee. Image credit: National Weather Service

On Sunday, the Ohio River at Cincinnati crested 8.53’ above flood stage, its highest level since it crested 12.7’ above flood stage on March 5, 1997. On Monday morning, the Ohio River at Louisville, Kentucky was cresting about 13’ above flood stage, the highest water level there since March 7, 1997, when a flood 3' higher than the 2018 flood arrived. During the 1997 Ohio River flood, major flooding impacted a total of six states, killing 33 people: 21 in Kentucky, 5 in Ohio, 4 in Tennessee, and 3 in West Virginia. Hundreds of injuries were also reported. The most severe flooding occurred in Ohio and Kentucky, with dozens of counties in each state declared natural disaster areas. Close to 14,000 homes were damaged or destroyed, and over 20,000 home and business owners applied for disaster relief. Damage estimates totaled more than $500 million (1997 dollars). The 2018 Ohio River flood is not as great as the 1997 flood, but damages have the potential to rise above the $100 million mark.

By Wednesday, the peak flood crest of the Ohio River will join with the Mississippi River at Cairo, Illinois, where major flooding is expected, with a crest 8’ below the record crest of May 2, 2011. Flood waters from the Ohio River are predicted to cause moderate to major flooding along several hundred miles of the Lower Mississippi River next week. By March 17, a flood crest 9’ above flood level is expected to  reach Red River Landing, Louisiana, near the Old River Control Structure. Moderate flooding--the 15th highest flood in record--is expected there.

Tornado damage
Figure 3. Volunteers and neighbors clean up debris in Adairville, Ky., Sunday, Feb. 25, 2018, after an EF2 tornado with 135 mph winds swept through. (Bac Totrong/Daily News via AP).

Record 283-day streak without a tornado death ends

On Saturday, the nation’s record 283-day streak without a tornado death ended, when an EF2 tornado touched down in southern Logan County, Kentucky, killing one person near Adairsville. It was the first tornado fatality in the U.S. since May 16, 2017. The previous record-long streak was 219 days set June 25, 2012, through Jan. 29, 2013. Before that, the record was a 197-day span that ended Feb. 28, 1987. An average of 30 people were killed annually by tornadoes over the past three years, 2015 – 2017.

The Weather Company’s primary journalistic mission is to report on breaking weather news, the environment and the importance of science to our lives. This story does not necessarily represent the position of our parent company, IBM.

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Dr. Jeff Masters

Dr. Jeff Masters co-founded Weather Underground in 1995 while working on his Ph.D. in air pollution meteorology at the University of Michigan. He worked for the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990 as a flight meteorologist.

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