The end of one story and the beginning of the next
Note: This text belongs at the end of November 2, Part C
It was a strange kind of fear. I knew my parents would protect me as well as they could and I knew I could contribute to my own safety. I knew the radio station would do its best to help us know where the safe places were.
What I didn’t know was what a flood was like. Other than drowning, were there other dangers? What really happened when a levee broke? Would the water spread out or rage straight out like a river? If the river caught up with us, could we still do things to help ourselves? Would the water level rise slowly or quickly?
Not knowing what would happen made it all the more difficult. We’d left the safety of the borrowed house in the dark of night. It was pitch black and raining, still raining. We were just following the car in front of us now. Once in a while we’d see a police or fire car going the other way, but they didn’t stop to talk to us.
We felt snug in the car. My smallest brother was sound asleep, unaware of the drama. We’d ask questions, but my Dad was getting irritable and my mother just told us to shush - be quiet. What little I could see from the light of the headlights spilling away from the road, told me that the land was most probably flat. How far did we need to drive to be safe? Would we stay safe there or need to flee again?
It took hours of creeping in the dark before we crossed a bridge and drove into a small town. All of a sudden there were lights and people directing traffic. Housing had been arranged for the flood refugees (was that us?) in the various schools and halls in the town. We went to our assigned building where people were putting up wood and canvas cots in rows and others were assigning each person a cot. We were told that a school bus would take us to the high school for meals. They were free. All of this was organized by the Red Cross.
So, we had a row of six cots covered with six blankets in the midst of a crowd of people sitting or milling about their assigned cots. No one seemed to know what to do now. We’d never been evacuated before. We didn’t know if we had a home to go back to or whether our things were wet with water. As a teen, I was appalled with the lack of privacy. We were going to sleep in the open with all these people?
We did and in the morning of Christmas Eve day, we boarded the bus to go and have breakfast. We had to eat what we were served or go hungry. We ate.
The day drug on. In the afternoon my Dad confided that while they had brought a few gifts for us kids, particularly for my little brother, he had left Mom’s gift behind in our house. “She’s been through so much,” he said. “come help me find a gift for her.” So Dad and I went out to find a store that was open that might possibly have something we could give Mom. We ended up in a small hardware store that also sold household goods where Dad bought her a new iron. Apparently she’d been complaining about her old one. Okay. If it makes Dad happy, I don’t care.
Throughout the day people would come by to sing Christmas Carols or to bring diapers and clothing for people who needed them. We definitely turned those down. We had too much dignity to take that kind of charity. That was true of a lot of people. It just seemed important to hold on to a little bit of self respect.
After supper they brought in a Christmas tree and played Christmas music on the radio. Later on, before we went to bed, Santa Claus came and talked to the little ones and handed out wrapped presents for the little children. Someone from the town had gone house to house and asked people to donate a gift or two for children from under their own tree. So the little ones all got a gift. I think my little brother got a metal truck, maybe a dump truck. The rest of us felt very superior and grown up to forgo the gifts. (Well, they were for the little ones anyway.) No one was turned away though. If they came up for a gift, they got one.
Dad gave Mom her gift and she finally cried. We sat on our cots watching the Christmas entertainment, while Mom cried on Dad’s shoulder.
Being there we found out more about the flood. The level broke outside of town, but the water flowed toward town, not into the fields. It had broken where people (volunteers) were trying to sandbag it on the top. People later said that once it began to break down, a huge chunk of it broke and the people sand bagging the level ran for their lives. It was pretty clear that some of them didn’t make it.
This was real, not a story of somewhere else. People had died that night. We also heard that in our town, where they had also sand bagged the levees, the levee broke in the place where the road went up the levee and on to the old bridge that led out of town. When it started to break, they could see a huge bulge in the levee. Someone had the presence of mind to drive the truck full of sand bags into the bulge and that was enough to make it hold. Our town was “dry”, but still surrounded for the levee to levee water. However, we learned that because the break happened across the river from our town, it released a lot of water and lowered the river level making the other towns more safe.
So we lay on our cots that night thinking of all that happened. Maybe we slept a little. I don’t remember, but I do remember it was cold in the building and I slept with my coat over me.
After breakfast (by school bus) the next morning, Dad said he’d heard that our town was open to us going back and we were going to go there. We have work to do, he told us.
I’d forgotten to tell you that he was a Pastor. It was Christmas Day and a service was scheduled. We have to be there to open the church in case anyone else came, he told us. And so, on a strange wet Christmas Day we drove back over the bridge and went home. Christmas decorations were still up, but the lights were off. It felt like we were the only ones left. We saw no one driving down the street.
Home looked just like we’d left it. We quickly went back to our routine. We opened the Church and held a Christmas service. I played the Christmas Carols on the piano. Our family and maybe two other people were the only ones there, but it was important to Dad that we be there in church that day.
Since the phones weren’t working (they crossed the river on the underside of the bridges) Dad began driving around, checking to find out who was back and who got flooded and get all of the news from everyone else. Dad was also a Ham - a licensed radio amateur and he fired up his long distance two-way radio and began to tell the world that we were OK. As the days went on and we began to understand the depth of the devastation, Dad used his two-way radio to help people tell their relatives they were OK, and what they needed, etc. They’d come sit by dad while he contacted another radio amateur. If they were lucky, the other Ham would call the relatives and relay information, maybe invite the relatives over at a certain time so they could talk together or even “patch” the radio through to the telephone to their relatives.
The radio amateur thing went on for several weeks with Dad calling “CQ, CQ, CQ . . . . CQ for Chicago (or whatever town).” He was always excited when he made the connections. I guess we kids were too.
Dad took me out with him several days after the flood to visit the homes of parishioners whose homes had been flooded. Let me tell you a secret. After a flood, everything stinks. That means that if your house flooded it stunk. If your car flooded, it stunk.
By the time we made our trip to the flooded areas people were back, taking things out of their flooded homes so they could dry. They’d was them off with a hose and sit them in the sun to see if they’d be usable after they were dry.
If your house flooded over the floor, you had to take off the base boards and make an air space so it could dry underneath. If you had hard wood floors, you had to take out random boards making space for the remaining boards to swell with the water, then shrink again when they were dry. If you didn’t do this, the boards would push up ever so often and they were much harder to fix.
I saw cars and houses on railroad tracks, on streets, cockeyed and fallen over. I saw people grinning as they went to work cleaning up the mess and I saw people crying because the work overwhelmed them, or their home was too broken to fix.
A funny thing happened. When the mother church heard about the flood, the diverted a shipment of clothing collected to be shipped to another country and sent it to us. Our church set up huge tables full of goods and people were free to take what they needed.
It was also an eye opener for the members of our church. We had these clothing drives once or twice a year after which we packed the donations up and sent them off to be shipped to missions in other nations.
When we received one of those shipments (from another congregation) we got to see what the recipients received. In those big boxes there were hats and hand bags, evening gowns, squished shoes, all sorts of silly things. People coming in needed coats and sweaters, underwear and pajamas, and most of all baby diapers. This was in a time when you gave an expectant mother packages of cloth diapers which she washed and folded and pinned on to the baby before continuing on with the cycle. People really needed baby diapers.
It was quite reasonable for someone whose children had outgrown the need for diapers to donate the clean, worn ones. Apparently it hadn’t occurred to many families to do so. So we gave out dish towels and bath towels and even flannel sheets - anything that could be cut up for diapers. We were pretty much stuck in town by flooded and broken roads and bridges. Only one of the bridges worked and it went over the river to the flooded side.
Interesting to me was the fact that my future husband was also in that flood. His family lived on the side of the river covered by the old bridge, which was unusable because the flood waters had gone over the time and they weren’t sure it was safe.
His family had been through an earlier flood and knew what to do. They were evacuated, but their home, like ours, was fine when they returned.