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Do you remember the 1969 flood?

By DON HOHLER • Jul 4, 2019 at 3:00 PM

Where were you July 4, 1969?

Fifty years ago today, a storm that included 13 inches of rain broke through Norwalk’s lower reservoir, sending millions of gallons of water down Norwalk Creek.

My holiday was about to end like thousands of others in the Maple City with a cookout at my father-in-law’s residence on East Main Street. It was my day off as a Norwalk police officer, but when a storm rolls in like that one, it is a given that you are going to be called in for emergency duty.

On the way to the station, I still remember witnessing the lightning that lit up the sky. It was constant with strikes straight down. I thought to myself, the boys at the fire department better have their gear ready.

As I remember, the storm hit right about 7:45 p.m. The off-duty personnel went in around 8 and stayed until midnight even though the rain was still coming down in torrents and the lightning seemed to get even sharper.

I remember taking up shop in our Richard Avenue basement, watching to make sure the sump pump was handling the water that was pouring in from the footer tile. I felt certain the basement would stay dry if the power stayed on and although power was being lost around our home, our power stayed on.

After a sleepless night, I reported for duty the next morning. Many folks needed help and we did the best we could in aiding as many as possible with generators.

A number of us eventually ended up on the bottom of the Benedict hill just north of the tracks. Norwalk Creek had spilled over its banks, turning West Water Street into a miniature Niagara Falls. There were a number of folks (I would say eight people total and at least one dog) stranded on the porch of an apartment house and were screaming for help. The only way we could get them out was letting a small boat string out down the torrent of water with the hope it would come close to the apartment house and they could grab it, jump on and we could pull them back up to Benedict Avenue and safety.

All was working fine until all of a sudden the water started to rise and I mean quickly. Some of the rescuers, one of them Norwalk Mayor Harold Finch, managed to run for higher ground. Others, such as myself and fellow officer Fred Lau, had just one option — get on a city dump truck that was being used to lash the boat-rescue line to it.

I remember the boat was parked on the east side of Benedict Avenue in the northbound lane when the water started to rise.

Then we heard someone scream, “the reservoir has broke.” As I looked back, I was astonished some of the rescuers didn’t get washed down West Water Street. Somehow, they all scrambled and with everyone lending a hand; at least five people and a dog got into the bed of the truck.

We were anything but safe, however. The water was now as high as the windows in the Sohio gas station. We felt sure the truck would start to float even with its weight and the weight of the passengers. It stayed in place for at least five minutes, but suddenly an impact somewhere below the waterline was felt. It was an Ohio Edison pole that floated out of the sub-station. It was just enough of a bump to start the truck edging across Benedict Avenue.

I guess everything possible was being done in an effort to get us out of the predicament we were in. I remember another Norwalk policeman, Dick Striker, trying to shoot a line to us with a bow and arrow. That didn’t work.

I was told later that the fire department ladder truck would have been in jeopardy if it would have backed into the torrent and got swept away, following the cars that were parked at the meters on the west side of Benedict Avenue. One of them I learned later was found near Pleasant Street park.

Finally, a Smith Hi-Ranger “cherry picker” backed into the water with little regard and started hoisting us off. But, by this time, the water had significantly fallen.

When we got off, I sized up the situation, wondering why we just didn’t keep on sliding and end up down in Pleasant Street park with those cars. We were saved by a 12-inch curb just two feet north of the railroad tracks.

During our perils on the truck, I thought about jumping and trying to land on the railroad tracks and somehow get a rope lashed around a railroad signal pole in an effort to stabilize the truck. I am glad I didn’t. That’s all there was in that area — just the rails, nothing else. Railroad ties and the stone bed that supports the tracks were gone.

There was one assignment given me by Chief Lawrence Hilson I will never forget.

A few days after the reservoir break, it was learned that Gov. Jim Rhodes was going to fly in and have a look at the disaster, including the gaping hole on the west bank of the lower reservoir. He had a close personal friend in Norwalk road-builder John Baltes. And it was the Baltes firm that was given the job of fixing that hole.

Hilson told me I was going to take the governor wherever he wanted to go. No problem. Naturally, I figured the reservoir would be the first stop. I asked the governor if that was the case. I will never forget his answer.

“Officer Hohler, what I want you to do is take me to where there are people.”

Cause of the break

It was a given that too much water sent the lower over its banks, but it was two days after the break-out that Light Plant officials, Superintendent Don Davis, and chief engineer Don Ware, concluded that the overflow from Bauer’s Pond, a relatively small body of water adjacent to the bridge on the new bypass east of the city limits, was the factor.

The pond overflowed during the heavy rain with the water going down the N&W tracks into the lower reservoir.

Davis explained the level of the lower was closely watched during the storm and the level was well under control, but when the pond broke out and chose the path of least resistance (the railroad bed) to follow rather than the usual flow into the upper reservoir which could have handled the deluge because of the spillway, within an hour the lower reservoir had gone from below normal to above flood stage and there was nothing Davis and Ware could do but watch the inevitable.

The need for power

With the water supply gone due to the reservoir break, Norwalk was out of power. The rush was on by Finch and service director William Mount to find at least partial electric power.

The fix was bringing in an 8,000-kilowatt substation in from Lancaster. The city would then tie in with Ohio Edison power lines at the Superior Coach Co. for a bit more of a boost. It would be a fix that at least got the lights back on and sump pumps running.

The mayor’s office issued an order that this power fix could only be used for residential purposes. No businesses with the exception of food stores would be allowed to use this power.

The power — although anything but strong — lit Norwalk homes at 6:22 a.m. July 6, 1969.

National Guard called in

More than hundred National Guardsmen were called in under the command of Col. Kermit Patchen and Capt. Al Caprara. They enforced a 9 p.m. curfew throughout the city and manned 11 barricades at entrances to the city in an effort to control the influx of sightseers.

Water taps dry up

Water taps in the city began to dry up at 3 p.m. on July 5, 1969. Immediately city officials made arrangements to haul in water from other communities.

Many resident saw the lack of water coming and filled bathtubs and portable containers. Grocery store lines were long and slow as clerks, with no power, had to crank up sales by hand. For the most part, all vendors kept prices at or below minimums.

Valley Beach hit hard

The loss estimate at Valley Beach Park by its owner, Don Bauer, was $250,000. More than 50 campers were destroyed, 44 of the trailers floating downstream Cole Creek distances between 50 yards to a mile and a half.

The Bauers put up 35 of the occupants while others bunked with campers on the east side of the park, above the flooded area. Some 200 picnic tables as well as other campground equipment was swept downstream, most it along with four cars packed into an area around a bridge abutment.

Jail prisoners freed

Huron County Sheriff John Borgia released 14 prisoners from the jail, mainly because of the lack of water. He got the approval of common pleas Judge Robert Vetter. Bellevue and Willard officials were notified they would have to take charge of their prisoners.

Other prisoners, none with felony counts, were released on their own recognizance.

Ironic movie title

When the storm hit, some 350 Norwalk Theatre moviegoers were watching a revival of the movie “Gone With the Wind.” When the power went out, the place was dark. All were asked to remain calm and seated until ushers found flashlights to assist in ushering people to the lobby.

While on the subject of entertainment, LeMar Park on Whittlesey also was jammed with campers that weekend. The reason was Hank Williams, Jr. was on site, singing to more than 1,000 country western lovers. His No. 1 hit was “Your Cheating Heart.”

Area farmers hit hard

It would be more than a week after the 1969 flood before farmers could even get into the fields to assess the damage. City folks were praying for sunshine.

Farmers, including Ralph Walcher, the Huron County Farm Bureau president from North Fairfield, hoped for just the opposite. He said the sun would only bake the mud on what crops were left. A light, rinsing rain, would have been far better.

Walcher lost 20,000 bushel of potatoes in the storm, most of the loss coming when he didn’t get his wish. The sun came out.

The cost

Norwalk had a balance of $1,058,000 at the end of June, according to city auditor Charles Hipp. The financial burden from the storm, estimated at $1.85 million, would eat that up, forcing the city to try and pass a municipal income tax, which it eventually did.

The following were the damage estimates:

Rebuilding the opening in the lower reservoir — $520,000

Damage to public properties — $857,000

Cost of clearing debris — $43,000

Additional damage to city water system — $87,000

Damage to city roads, bridges – $72,000

Damage to public utilities — $70,000

Buildings destroyed

The building on the west side of Benedict Avenue that suffered the worst damage were Carl’s Appliance, Lieber’s Grocery and White Roofing & Lumber. Several others wouldn’t open for weeks.

County bridges take hit

All told, 32 bridges in the county were either destroyed or washed out to the point that they had to be rebuilt.

Norwalk Township took the biggest hit with damage to bridges on Lais Road, Gallup Avenue and Ridge, South Norwalk and Old State roads.

Bronson Township was hit just as bad with bridges either gone or damaged on Ridge, Hasbrock, New State, Old State and Peru Olena roads.

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