The Vault: How severe flooding affected Louisville, southern Indiana in 1997

The historic rain event on March 1 and March 2 of that year led to massive flooding and damages to 50,000 homes and infrastructure costing the city millions.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — It started on a quiet Friday night.

Within hours, inches of rain covered Louisville roads, the Ohio River swelled over and much of Kentucky and southern Indiana were declared disaster zones.

“It was by far the most rain to ever fall in this area in 24 hours. Storm sewers and streams were overwhelmed,” former WHAS11 News reporter Gary Roedemeier said in archival footage. ‘

More than 50,000 homes reported some sort of flooding. 

High water closed Interstates 64 and 65 – South Louisville neighborhoods like Okolona and Fairdale were not used to flooding and were experiencing waist-deep water.

By Sunday, hundreds were forced out of their homes and into hotels, but the water followed them in.

New Explorers at the Ford plant stood up to their door handles in floodwater and were ruined forever. At Captain’s Quarters, the captain was covered while an antique boat floated into the lobby and wine bottled bobbed in the dining room.

People were accessing their used boats to get around town and even into their homes while water rescues were an around the clock job.

When the rain finally stopped, WHAS11 surveyed the damage and Doug Proffitt took a tour of the Ohio River.

“We’re on the top deck of this tug heading towards New Albany. That is the Sherman Minton Bridge. Watch as we go under. The river level is so high now that the antennas of this boat just may very well scrape it. We’re going under right now – under I-64 and we’ve cleared it. We had no idea what would happen until we got right up here,” he described.

MSD reports receiving more 7,000 calls daily and estimates the damage rang in at about $65 million city wide.

The clean-up would take months and the aftermath was heartbreaking. Multiple people lost their lives including a 16-year-old boy from Jeffersontown whose van was swept off the road by the swollen Chenoweth Creek.

WHAS held a telethon to help families in need.

The flood of 1997 would be one for the record books. It was the worst flooding event since 1964 and in some places it rivaled amounts seen during the great flood of 1937.

“The water will go down and towns and lives will be rebuilt but the people and places who lived through this week will always remember that rainy weekend and the flood of 97.”

►Contact reporter Shay McAlister at smcalister@whas11.com. Follow her on Twitter (@WHAS11Shay) and Facebook.

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