National Weather Service United States Department of Commerce

The Flood of March 1997

Copious amounts of rain fell on central Kentucky and extreme southern Indiana as the calendar turned from February to March back in 1997.  As thunderstorms and large areas of heavy rain repeatedly moved over the same areas, impressive amounts of rainfall were recorded.  The deluge resulted in record flooding along smaller streams and some of the worst flooding along the Ohio River since at least 1964, and in some places since the Great Flood of 1937.  A few smaller streams set their all-time records.

synoptic set-up
     A large, powerful storm system over the Great Plains drew warm, moist air northward out of the Gulf of Mexico (the air had 200% of the normal amount of moisture for that time of year).  When this juicy air interacted with a subtle stationary front over Kentucky heavy showers and thunderstorms broke out.  Because the front in Kentucky was nearly stationary, the showers and storms continued to re-generate until the larger cold front, seen here stretching from Minnesota to Texas, pushed the wet weather off to our east.
It is worth noting that in addition to incredible flooding, severe weather also broke out, with damaging tornadoes being reported from Arkansas to southern Kentucky. 
     The flood occurred without the benefit of any melting snow, and with normal soil moisture conditions before the event began.  Run-off was maximized since vegetation had not yet begun to green up.

Click on the image for a larger version:

Total Rainfall Click on the picture to see a map of rainfall totals from the event (82 K).  A 24-hour precipitation record for the state of Kentucky was established when 10.48" of rain fell at the National Weather Service office in Louisville.
Satellite image Infrared satellite image taken during the afternoon hours of March 1st. (Courtesy of NCDC)

Water reached the rooftops in Boston (Nelson County).

Barge traffic was halted on the Ohio River when the locks flooded.

In the Louisville metro area about $200,000,000 in damage was attributed to the flooding, with 50,000 dwellings affected.  Interstates 64 and 65 were closed.

92 counties in Kentucky and 14 counties in southern Indiana were declared disaster areas.  Tens of thousands of people were evacuated from their homes, with total damage across the region around $400,000,000.

The Ohio River rose to the highest levels since March of 1964, with navigation on the river stopped completely due to the locks being flooded.  Disaster declarations were made for 92 counties in Kentucky and 14 in southern Indiana due to flooding.  19 deaths occurred in Kentucky; 9 were people who attempted to cross flooded roadways.
Due to backwater from the Ohio River the flooding was very prolonged.  In the Licking River basin, flooding continued until the 7th, Kentucky River basin the 8th, Salt River basin until the 11th, and the Green River basin until the 18th.  The middle of the Ohio River stayed above flood stage until the 16th.

River Stages
records are highlighted in green


 Site Flood Stage (feet)   Above Flood Stage    Crest
     From  To  Stage (feet) Date Time (EST)
 Muscatatuck River at Deputy IN 15 March 1 March 2 23.4 March 2 8am
Blue River at FredericksburgIN 20 March 2 March 2 21.5 March 2 1pm
Stoner Creek at Paris KY 18 March 1 March 3 30.0 March 2 5am
South Fork Licking River at Cynthiana KY 20 March 1 March 4 28.0 March 2 6pm
Licking River at Blue Licks Spring KY 25 March 1 March 7 47.6 March 2 7pm
Kentucky River at Ford KY 26 March 4 March 6 27.1 March 5 8pm
Kentucky River at High Bridge KY 30 March 2 March 7 37.4 March 2 7pm
Kentucky River at Frankfort KY 31 March 2 March 8 45.2 March 3 1pm
Rolling Fork Salt River at Boston KY 35 March 1 March 11 53.2 March 3 1pm
Salt River at Shepherdsville KY 32 March 2 March 9 40.9 March 3 1pm
Russell Creek at Columbia KY 16 March 1 March 2 18.8 March 2 Midnight
Drakes Creek at Alvaton KY 22 March 2 March 4 29.9 March 2 6pm
Barren River at Bowling Green KY 28 March 2 March 4 34.9 March 3 6am
Rough River at Dundee 25 March 2 March 6 30.2 March 2 7pm
 Green River at Munfordville KY 28 March 2 March 7 43.9 March 3 10pm
Green River at Brownsville KY 18 March 2 March 8 33.8 March 5 4pm
Green River at Woodbury KY 33 March 1 March 10 48.9 March 5 11am
Green River at Rochester KY 17 March 2 March 18 30.7 March 7 10am
Ohio River at Clifty Creek IN 451 March 3 March 11  460.9 March 7 6am
Ohio River at Upper McAlpine Lock KY 23 March 2 March 13 38.8 March 7 5am
 Ohio River at Lower McAlpine Lock KY 55 March 3 March 13 70.6 March 7 6pm
Ohio River at Cannelton Lock IN 42 March 3 March 15 52.3 March 8 2am
Ohio River at Tell City IN 38 March 2 March 16 50.4 March 8 5am


Local Fatalities


It was central Kentucky's deadliest weather event since the Super Tornado Outbreak of April 3, 1974.


  • A 16 month old boy drowned as the car he was in filled with water as it stalled under a viaduct in Clark County, Indiana.
  • A 13 year old boy was killed as he drowned while trying to clean out a culvert in Shelby County.
  • A 16 year old boy died near Jeffersontown in Jefferson County, Kentucky as his van was swept off the road by swollen Chenoweth Creek.
  • A 33 year old woman drowned as her minivan was swept into the Barren River in Warren County.
  • A 39 year old man was found floating down the Ohio River near West Point in Hardin County.
  • A 50 year old man was killed as he attempted to cross a flooded road.  His car was swept into Elkhorn Creek, a tributary of the Kentucky River in Franklin County, and he drowned as he attempted to swim to safety.  Many two-story houses along Elkhorn Creek had water up to the second floor and at least 75 rescues were made.
  • A 66 year old man was found dead in his pickup truck near Hingston Creek in Millersburg in Bourbon County.

In addition to the flooding, there was also severe weather for central Kentuckians to deal with...including tornadoes!  No fewer than five tornadoes occurred in central Kentucky, with the strongest being an F2 twister in southern Monroe County.  Straight-line winds blew trees and power lines down across southern Kentucky, and hail was reported in Green and Metcalfe counties. 

The Louisville National Weather Service office issued 5 Tornado Warnings, 31 Severe Thunderstorm Warnings, and 235 Flash Flood Warnings between 10:58pm EST February 28 and 2:00 am March 2.

NWS Service Assessment

USGS Report


Click on the image for a larger version.

Radar Regional radar picture taken during the height of the pouring rain.
Jefferson Forest

Water damage in Jefferson Memorial Forest. 
Tony Bright, Jefferson Memorial Forest employee

Tony remembers that day:  I woke up early to several knockouts from Fairdale Fire Department on my scanner. After listening to the runs I realized that something was not right in Fairdale with all the rescues going on. I got up about 6:45 am and proceeded to Fairdale. After I got on I-265 and crossed over the bridge at Pond Creek I knew what I was in for.
I was not able to exit the freeway in Fairdale due to high water. So I decided to take back roads to the Welcome Center (Blevins Gap/Penile/Keys Ferry Road, etc.). As I came up to Keys Ferry & Mitchell Hill roads I saw a car that had been swept off into the ditch on Keys Ferry. I helped the man get out of his submerged car and realized it was one of the forest employees. He was shaken up a bit that this had happened to him. So I transported him on to the Welcome Center to warm up and calm down.
   The forest staff set up a command post at the Welcome Center to assess damages throughout the forest. We spent most of the day checking the park for damage and giving assessments of what occurred. The last half of the day some of us were placed on Dam Watch. With two large bodies of water within the park; we monitored the dams for any signs of a breach. We were placed on standby to forward any information on to the Fairdale Fire Department in case of a dam breach. One dam did show signs of a small breach or leak but we stayed with it until we were released around 11:30 pm that night. Many foot trails were made impassable as well as Holsclaw Hill Road & Mitchell Hill Road due to mudslides.
 flood This picture was taken at Pinckard Baptist Church just south of Versailles, Kentucky along KY 169 at Clear Creek.  The flooded creek in the picture is normally just a few feet wide and less than a foot deep.  Shawn Crowe.
 The K & I Bridge from New Albany  The K & I Bridge in Louisville, as seen from New Albany, Indiana.  Greg Rosenberger
 Sherman Minton  The Sherman Minton Bridge between Louisville and New Albany.  Greg Rosenberger
 Louisville flooding  This and the following twelve photographs were taken in Louisville and sent to us by Judy Webber.  This first photo shows the intersection of Fourth Street and River Road.
 Louisville flooding  Fourth Street at River Road at the Galt House.
 Louisville flooding  Fourth Street at River Road.
 Louisville flooding  Interstate 64 over River Road at Fourth Street.
 Louisville flooding  Flood gate at the Belvedere.
 Louisville flooding  At the Kentucky Center for the Arts garage.
 Louisville flooding  From the Waterfront Development Office building.
 Louisville flooding  From the Clark Memorial Bridge.
 Louisville flooding  From the Clark Memorial Bridge.
 Louisville flooding  The Colgate Plant in Clarksville from the Clark Memorial Bridge.
 Louisville flooding  Downtown Louisville from the Clark Memorial Bridge.
 Louisville flooding  Louisville waterfront from the Clark Memorial Bridge.