I’ve been reading the news from the Mississippi basin.
(That sounds like the first line of a bad blues song, doesn’t it? Been readin’ the news from the Mississipp’ / Say the levees there done los’ they grip. Maybe we need some other music.)
Anyway, I’ve been paying attention to the situation along America’s mightiest river, and I’ve come away with an overwhelming impression:
I’ve read all this before.
As most of you know, I used to live in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Fort Wayne is laughingly called the Summit City — it’s near the continental divide no one takes pictures from, and it really was the highest point in the Wabash-Erie canal system. Now that’s sort of a joke name, because this is a summit that floods. A lot:
That’s from the summer 2003 flood. Fort Wayne had a big flood in 1982. The president stopped by to pretend to throw sandbags, and my newspaper won a Pulitzer Prize. (This was before I got there, I am required to mention.) That was the Flood of the Century, Until the Next One. There was flooding in 1985 and, it seemed, every year or three afterward. Every year, when the waters receded, something would be done to make sure it never happened again. The Army Corps of Engineers was permitted to denude a pretty urban riverbank and replace the sycamores and cottonwoods with riprap. Houses in the flood plain were bought and razed. Chins were stroked, opinions aired. And every few years: Another flood.
I will say this: Fort Wayne city officials really knew their floods. They had it down pat — what streets would flood at what river level, how to scramble a sandbag crew, where to deploy them. But floods can be tricksy things. That one in 2003 — that was a summer flood, a single-river flood (the city has three), in neighborhoods that never flooded before, due to a weather system much like the one plaguing the Midwest this month. Sixteen inches of rain fell in the St. Marys River watershed in about a week, and the next thing you knew? You guessed it.
Here’s what I learned about floods: They are nature’s most boring natural disaster. No TV-reporter standups in the howling wind, no piles of wreckage to pose next to — it’s approximately like watching a toilet overflow. It’s coming up it’s coming up it’s coming up oh man there it goes. Worst is when it recedes. The smell, oy you can’t believe. And while a hurricane or tornado takes your wedding album and scatters it to the winds, a flood covers it with raw sewage, along with your carpet, your drywall and everything else. Nothing like a wedding album that smells like poop. Now there’s a metaphor.
The same stories get written every time. The NYT’s Dan Barry discovered the sandbag crews, a story that’s been done approximately 12 million times in Fort Wayne. I could write one now from my own mental boilerplate:
They came from neighborhoods that still stand high above the rising waters, to help those that face inundation. They park their cars outside the city’s garage on Lafayette Street and go inside, where they are assigned to crews to fill, close and stack 25-pound sandbags on dump trucks. Some will follow the trucks to Lakeside, where the bags will be used to strengthen dikes along the…
See? It’s like I can do it in my sleep now.
Another story we wrote over and over was the “Fort Wayne responds to flooding elsewhere” story, almost always pitched as a “our hearts are so big, and we’ve been there ourselves, and so we help others.” Carnack-like, I predict I can find one in one of the dailies in the last week, and…
…whaddaya know, I was right:
The Fort Wayne area, one known for its giving spirit, has now sent 20 Red Cross volunteers to flood-stricken areas in southern and central Indiana, Iowa and, by today, perhaps Illinois, said Amanda Banks, spokeswoman for the local chapter.
I covered the Iowa flooding of 1993, a trip the photographer and I called the Day Late and Dollar Short Tour, easily one of the most misbegotten reporting trips I’ve been on, but I’ll spare you the details. We arrived in Iowa several days after the water had receded, and wrote about the cleanup, which was awful. Some houses had been inundated to their third row of shingles. One guy showed me his washing machine, which had stood in an alcove off the kitchen. It was full to the lid with filthy water. We interviewed a parachuted-in salesman selling cleanup systems — a variation on bleach, basically. We were the last reporters to arrive, and we got the last stories, along with a six-pack of canned drinking water, donated by the closest Anheuser-Busch brewery. Apparently they can convert the line to water-only for just these occasions.
Good times, good times.
Anyway, sorry about all those people in their own personal watery hell. If you really want to help, donate a dumpster. They’re going to need about a million of them. Also: Slate explains the sandbag. Because, you know, it needed doing.
Sorry I Missed Your Party, a blog that rounds up other people’s party pictures from Flickr. You will fear for your country.
It’s the summer solstice! And I’m about to spend the next 48 hours on this insane movie challenge. < last minute cold feet > What have I done? What have I gotten myself into? < / last minute cold feet> Play amongst yourselves, and I’ll see you if and when I return.