Monday, August 27
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.