Monday, August 27

Messy Thoughts


On my way to work one morning last week, I heard a news story about flooding on the Blanchard River in Northwestern Ohio. The house I grew up in is less than half a mile from a bend in the Blanchard, and we'd never had a problem before... but the news crews made it sound like this was a flood of epic proportions so I felt compelled to call home. "We're okay here," Mom said, just as I had expected. "Ottawa is just a mess, though," she continued, and proceeded to tell me how water was collecting in places that I never remember seeing floodwaters before--not even during the horrible flood of 1981. The waters had apparently risen very quickly in the wee hours of Tuesday morning, catching most people completely unaware.

The people we knew who seemed to be the worst hit were my brother Jeff's brother-in-law Troy and his family. They lost eight 4-week-old puppies to the floodwaters, and water was so high in their house that it will probably be months until they finish reconstruction and can move back in. My brother picked up a john boat from a friend's house early Tuesday morning and helped them evacuate their kids and Lynette's mother out of the house. They moved into Troy's parents' place, which is in town but on higher ground... and when word got around that Jeff had a boat he ended up helping evacuate a few other kids out of a house nearby, too, through chest-deep water.

For the rest of the week, watching news clips and talking to people back home seemed like a bad dream. One streaming video showed the same view of Main Street that I normally enjoy as I drive into town from Cleveland. But you couldn't actually see the street or the green lawns that line the road... just a sea of muddy brown water edged with houses, broken only by a line of trees that showed where the pavement should be.

The most surreal moment of all came when I got a call from Mom early Thursday evening. "Make sure you watch ABC World News Tonight," she told me. "Jeff, Troy and Jenny's parents might be on--a crew taped them going back into Jenny's house to retrieve her wedding dress." (My other brother, Craig, was scheduled to get married on Saturday to his longtime girlfriend Jenny. In spite of the flooding and the fact that his future in-laws had to evacuate from their house we were all pretty sure that the wedding would still happen in some fashion.) The part of the conversation that really threw me, though, was my mom's response when I asked her what she and Dad were doing. "Well," she responded matter-of-factly, "They still don't have power in town so your grandma and a few of us cooked up supper for your uncles and whoever else nearby wants to eat a hot meal. We're just waiting for the kids to arrive with the canoes so we can hop in and deliver it." Supper delivered by boat through the streets of Ottawa... I couldn't even imagine!

The water finally crested late in the week, but I had no idea what we would find when we arrived back home on Friday night for the wedding rehearsal. The amount of water was mind-boggling, and it took me an extra hour or so to navigate my way around all of the flooded roads.

The wedding itself went off just fine, with a few little flood-induced glitches here and there like missing thank-you gifts that would have to be passed out later once the bride's parents were able to get back into their house. All of that paled in comparison to the what had been accomplished, though. Our neighbors stepped in and let us use the party room in their huge garage/workshop for the rehearsal dinner because the intended location was still underwater. Workers went into flooded stores to retrieve tuxes and salvage linens. One very generous local family put up the bride, her parents, her sister, and several members of the wedding party who were supposed to be staying at the bride's flooded house. Many people drove the long detours to come out and show their support for the happy couple as well.

It was the first--and hopefully last--wedding that I have attended where an ABC news crew was present. If any of you saw the interview of the bride's parents on Thursday, or the follow-up footage of the wedding on Saturday, consider yourself introduced to my brother Craig and my newest sister-in-law Jenny! (I was in the wedding, but happily managed to escape the TV camera.) We later found out that a picture of my other brother, Jeff, was on the cover of Saturday's New York Times. He was standing in the water with a boat, waiting for Troy to finish talking to the Coast Guard so they could row to Troy's house and pick up a few more things to entertain the kids at grandma's. Unreal.

The Sunday after a wedding is usually a leisurely day of resting and recovering... but not this week. After tying up a few loose ends we threw on old clothes and work boots, then headed over to my uncle Al's house to help him with cleanup. If you click on the picture of the pile of debris outside his house, you can see the water mark on the foundation shrubs. Notice also how the blades of grass are still coated with fine brown mud. (What you can't see is the stench of decay that permeated the air... I kept feeling like the old Black Swamp must be rising again!)

Al is the kind of person who will come over, rounding up people to take with him along the way, if something happens to an acquaintance or if a DIY project means that there is work that needs to be done. You don't need to call him, he just comes. So you can imagine that he had plenty of help himself this weekend in return, and it didn't take too long to get the flooded basement and garage emptied and scrubbed out with bleach. On Saturday, an electrician had replaced two breakers in his downstairs electrical box, which had been submerged for at least a day, and my Dad helped Al fix the rest of the electrical issues yesterday.

All that remained by late in the afternoon was to let the basement dry out completely, tear out and rebuild a wall of simple wooden shelves in the "tool room" down there, replace some low paneling on the walls around the back door landing, and put back all of the stuff he had been able to salvage as the water rose. Luckily, Al has two teenage boys and a daughter in her 20s so they were able to pull lots of things out of the basement to begin with (including the washer and dryer) and he'll have a lot of help putting things back when the time comes.

Several of us then walked the short block to my other uncle's house to see what we could do to help there--they sit a bit lower and so they had water in their first floor. They also lost several cars that they hadn't moved to higher ground. My aunt's family were there working, and only so many people can remove waterlogged stair treads, drywall, carpeting and subflooring in a small area. So after scrubbing out their garage with bleach and brushes, and powerwashing the floor, we soon discovered that we had outlived our usefulness there. We headed back to Al's, where leftover wedding food awaited us for supper.

As we walked back to my uncle's I was struck by the piles of stuff that lined the street. Some of the biggest piles were in front of the smallest houses, leading me to wonder whether anything was left inside. Dumpsters had started to be dropped off in the streets, and extra people could be seen at almost every house. And I knew that these scenes were being repeated throughout the city, and I tried to imagine what it would be like to have to deal with such mess. Such loss.

We had to head back to Cleveland last night so my boyfriend could make it to work today, but I was very happy to have taken today off. As I worked in my messy garden, picking up spent canna leaves from a cushion of germander and cutting back little bluestem grasses that had fallen into the sedum due to heavy rains last week, I relaxed and thought about the past week. And as I puttered around my urban garden... I realized that this strong sense of community, of helping each other, was one thing I really missed about living in a small town.

23 comments:

Ilona said...

"Unreal" for sure. Ohio got hit fairly hard this past ocuple weeks, and your account was really interesting. the community support you describe is just incredible, although the typical smalltown Ohioan will consider it no more than you expect from good neighbors. You have such a wonderful heritage with your family and the way they work together... and take this kind of crisis on the chin! I think that is one wedding everyone will remember fondly, don't you?

Great story- so encouraging to see people work together like that.

Pam/Digging said...

What a horrible flood that was. I'm glad your family came through OK. Sounds like a close-knit community.

Blackswamp_Girl said...

Ilona, you are so right... someone up here who heard the story today referred to my brother as a "hero" for helping people get their kids out of their flooding houses. That kind of cracked me up, the thought of my brother as hero--it was just what most people back home would do if they happened to have a boat and came upon someone in need. Definitely a memorable wedding for sure.

pam/digging, thank you. It is a pretty close-knit community, although there is always a downside as well, of course. (Hence me living here.) I was particularly struck by the 6 or 7 people who turned up to help Andy, my uncle's elderly neighbor who lives in a big house all by himself. Someone recognized his son who is an attorney in Columbus, but the other people were mostly his first wife's family. Good people they must be, to think of him and come out to help.

Carolyn gail said...

To someone from the city reading about all the kind acts performed by members of the community would seem perhaps unusual, but it's very typical in a small town.

I'm so happy to hear that it still exists because living in Chicago, even though it's a nice big city, it's still not the same. Some neighbors are even suspicious if you try to do a good deed.

It was a heartwarming story, Kim and I'm happy that the wedding went well despite all the problems.

Kylee said...

Kim, I know that Ottawa was one of the hardest hit, but until I read your story about your family, I had no idea they were affected. Our little nearby town (Haviland) was pretty hard hit, too. Lots of people lost lots of things and many can't afford to replace them.

I know exactly that smell you're talking about, because our basement, with only three inches of water in it smelled HORRID. I'd wake up in the morning and it would hit you right in the nose and almost make you gag. We've been scrubbing and spraying and cleaning pretty much since Tuesday.

But we were fortunate not to have lost more than we did, and we too had great family to help us when we needed it.

Your brother and his new wife will never forget what was going on when they got married, will they?

Unless Ottawa got flooded in 1981 also, I think you might mean 1982. That was when the president visited Ft. Wayne, which was badly flooded due to rain and all the snow melt from heavy snows we'd had. I remember, because my five-year class reunion for college was during that time, I was pregnant with Jenna, and I had to wade through thigh-high water to get to a car that took me to my mom's so I could use her car to get to the reunion (in Ft. Wayne) and then I never made it more than three miles from home because all the roads were flooded.

LostRoses said...

Wow, from the impersonal headline news to the "real story". Just amazing. I'm glad everyone came through alright, and how wonderful that everyone rallied around to make the wedding happen. Unforgettable!

chuck b. said...

That was a riveting post! I rarely make it all the way through posts with a such high text-to-image ratio. Sounds like an amazing amount of stuff to be...landfilled? Bummer!

I haven't been following the news closely of late, but I knew about the floods, and I figured if it was really bad, I'd read about it on a garden blog--which would be my preference. Your account was much more compelling and informative than the NYT version, I'm sure.

(At first, I was like, 'what are all these pretty garden pictures doing next to this terrible story?' but then I got to the end and I got it.)

chuck b. said...

Oh, and I'm sorry about the puppies! That's a bummer.

Pam said...

Oh, I'm sorry about the puppies too. Events like that - 100 yr floods or crazy hurricanes - are so surreal when you hear about them from afar. We're in a horrible drought, so hearing about such flooding is hard to imagine. Reading about it here makes it much more real. And I agree with you about the whole sense of community thing - I feel that when I go back to my parents home, and that's something I haven't found here in Charleston.

Carol said...

Your post makes these floods more personal, and less like just more bad weather news on TV. What a wonderful family you have!

Blackswamp_Girl said...

Carolyn Gail, I hear you. I have a few good neighbors here, and some good friends who will happily come and pitch in for things like moves and erecting a fence... but it still just isn't the same in the city, is it?

Kylee, you're so right about the smell hitting you in the nose. We were in and out of town so much on Sunday that I kept being surprised that every new visit meant adjusting to the smell yet again! Did you finally get everything hosed down with bleach water? We were using a pump sprayer to leave a thin coating on the cement floors after scrubbing and letting it air dry then... just a thought, as that pump sprayer came in really handy.

I thought for sure it was 1981, but you probably have a better memory than me--I would have been 5 or 6 when it happened. I can't even imagine wading through that stuff pregnant... egads. You're much tougher than I. :)

LostRoses, you're so right. Considering the lateness/earliness of the hours when the water was rising most--and the idiocy of certain people who did things like capsize their boats as they rowed down Main Street later in the flood week--I'm really surprised that everyone in town was okay.

Chuck, it was a messy post... like my messy thoughts. A high text-to-pictures ratio even for me, I know, but I couldn't edit it any further. Just had to get it all out, I guess--one of those times when the blog serves as my personal journal.

Pam, do you ever feel the urge to move back? I fight that urge at times like these... and then thoughts like, "But where would I work?" and "How could I really be off doing my own thing of I was surrounded by all of my family and people who still think of me as I was in high school?" take over...

Carol, I really do. And Craig and Jenny are such good kids that I'm glad the wedding happened after all. :)

By the way, I got to snuggle the one puppy who miraculously survived on Sunday... such a balm for the soul that is. The same guy who lost the puppies also lost his father (my brother's father-in-law) on Friday after a long bout with terminal cancer... not much you can say to a guy to make him feel better after all of that happening in a week. Luckily they have a wonderful, strong family as well to help see them through.

bs said...

what an amazing story! i'm so sorry that you and your family had to deal with all that, but it's heartening to hear about how much the community came together. congratulations to your brother and sister-in-law!

Tina said...

Kim,
first, so very, very sorry your fam...or anyone for that matter...has had to deal with such a terrible situation. Mother nature can be rather nasty when you least expect it.

I think your brother was on more than just ABC, though. I remember distinctly a report on News10now of the flood and some guy standing waist deep in water next to a boat and them saying the wedding would go on anyway as planned. I remember that because my kids admonished me for talking to the TV when I gasped and burst out with, "Well, good for you!"

Thank goodness for good neighbors and good people.

A wildlife gardener said...

We need to retain that sense of community to keep our towns and villages safe in times of adversity.

Kathy said...

Our locality went through a similar trauma last April when the mighty Susquehanna flooded far beyond its usual floodplain. We were not personally affected, but many of my older children helped people clean up the damage, and the stories they brought back were heart breaking and amazing.

Gotta Garden said...

What a heart warming post to read. In the midst of disaster, the sense of family and community triumphed over it all. It sounds like you were there, right where you needed to be (and right where you were needed).

Keep us posted.

Sandy said...

It is so different to read a personal story about family. Glad they are okay. I was watching the flooding in Oklahoma, where my family lives. They were fine, this time.

Annie in Austin said...

The post wasn't messy, Kim - it just had such an urgent rhythm that you pulled all of us along with you right into the smelly water.
Almost everyone I know in IL has had a flooded basement at one time or another, and my husband's family saw the water destroy the main levels of two houses. Although most people only lost possessions, it seems that what can hurt most is not losing walls or furniture, but the sentimental and personal items - Christmas decorations and photos and wedding dresses. If you lose Christmas cards from deceased friends and family, you may no longer have anything with their handwriting on it.
My sympathies to your family as well as applause for the way they worked together.

Annie at the Transplantable Rose

Blackswamp_Girl said...

bs, thank you--I can't wait to see what my brother and new sister-in-law think about the whole thing once they get back from their honeymoon and have time to process it all.

tina, how funny that you were "talking" to my sister-in-law's family on your television! *grin* I'm sure you're right about the story being picked up elsewhere, as a friend here in Cleveland emailed it from Yahoo today asking if that was the wedding I was in this weekend.

a wildlife gardener, you're so right. Wouldn't every place be better off with that to safeguard and comfort it?

kathy, I think that's the key... that this story just happened to get picked up by the media but there are many, many more just like it in the same situation. Local football teams and people who knew nobody in the town came and filled sandbags, for example... things you don't hear about often enough.

Interestingly, some people blasted the fact that ABC News covered the wedding at all ("That's not news!") in the comment section that accompanied their online clip. Not that we should be Pollyanna about the bad things, but why ignore the good things and shove them under the rug?

gotta garden, I have to admit... Bri and I weren't useful enough for either of our taste. My uncle got most of the hardest work done on Saturday when we were busy with wedding stuff!

sandy, Oklahoma got flooded, too?! I had seen the devastation in Wisconsin (can you imagine if your backyard literally disappeared like that?) but hadn't seen that OK was hit as well. Glad to hear that your family is okay.

Annie, it's the same in NW Ohio with people having water in their basements at some time or another. You're so right about the sentimental things hurting more than the walls or the furniture, though. And the living, breathing things. Losing the puppies hurt... but having to live at his parents' while they tear out all of the drywall on the first floor will be a mere annoyance for Jeff's brother-in-law. And I believe that they saved the sentimental things as well, so that is very good.

lisa said...

Wow....what a mess! So glad to hear that none of your family were injured, too bad about the puppies though :( We finally got a nice rain here, after a full month of nothing. I sure wouldn't trade drought for flooding.

Rosemarie said...

What a story! I'm glad to hear that the wedding went on and that people really came through in times of need. Thoughts go out to everyone there.

Kerri said...

What an amazing story Kim...and you've told it so well. My heart goes out to all those poor people. What an ordeal! You've shown us how life goes on in spite of disastrous events...and ordinary people do extraordinary things...pulling together. That's a wedding that will stand out in your minds forever, and fancy your brother being on the cover of Time Magazine! So sad about the puppies :(
I'm glad you had a day to spend in the garden when you came back home...time to reflect and recover from the past several days. The garden is a great to relax and ponder :)

EAL said...

OMG! I totally missed all this, though knew there had been some flooding in the midwest, or further midwest I should say.

The closest we get to this is our blizzards, though they rarely intrude into the home, as floods do.

I should pay more attention to the news.

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