VIOLA - Driving up and down hills with my windows open on a storybook late-summer day—wind blowing, maple leaves starting to yellow, and the air beginning to cool—I’m suddenly forced to brake as my tires start spinning on the thick river sludge covering the road that leads into town.
I know this town well. For over a decade I’ve lived on its outskirts, in a deep valley next to a lazy, trickle of a creek. But today the town looks different—ghostly, yet with more activity than during its annual Horse and Colt Show parade.
The sidewalks and yards are overflowing with filth and piled high with water-damaged sofas, dressers, appliances both large and small, and personal belongings. Rusty trucks that look too ancient to run are loaded with the goods of entire households. Two people in tall rubber boots, their hands gloved and masks over their mouth and nose, are carrying a huge trunk down their driveway to the curb as if it were a coffin. Other folks, slouching and bone tired, their pants and shirts full of dried mud, stand with plates held like a prayer, in a hot-food line in front of the newly hosed-out firehouse. Bulldozers, front-end loaders, and fire trucks swarm the streets, while cars are parked haphazardly, many with their trunks and doors wide open as if the occupants were hurrying out and simply forgot to close them.
It’s a scene that the people of Vernon and Crawford Counties have known all too intimately in recent years: the day after yet another 100-year flood.
A longhaired, gray-bearded man in well-worn colorless clothes sits in front of his tattered home, his eyes windows of pain. He refuses my help, but seems to want to talk. I can almost smell his despair, mingled with the stench of the gunk left by receding floodwaters, as he tells me that this is the tenth time his home has been flooded.
The tenth time he has taken pictures for the insurance company before even thinking of cleaning up. The tenth time he has mucked out his house like you would a barn after a hard, cold winter. The tenth time he’s spent a sleepless night on the second floor, listening to the raging river tearing through his home as the rain pounded his roof, with lightning and thunder crashing and booming around him.
Now he sits waiting for his home to be condemned, like a man in a courtroom waiting to be sentenced. Will they buy it out for its appraised value so he can start from scratch, at well past 70 years of age? Or will they say it merely needs to be hosed down, sanitized and bleached, and put back together again to await the eleventh flood?
During the flooding, he stood at the second-story window and watched a boat making its way along his road—by then a lake—to rescue people who lived outside of town. I can barely imagine watching a boat power down my street as I look out a window that's being pounded by torrential rains and winds. And I can't imagine the hopelessness I'd feel in hauling out my waterlogged treasures and cleaning up the slime left behind after torrents of murky water had raged through my home.
I listen quietly until the front-end loader arrives across the street to start removing the sandbags in front of the library. Telling him I’ll be back to check in, I excuse myself to begin the arduous task there of cleaning up, starting with emptying the bathrooms and entryway, squeegeeing out the mud, and mopping the floors. Later, I make a point of saying good-bye to this man. When I return the next day, he finally accepts my offer of help.
Getting back in my car, I keep wondering, what next? Where do these displaced people go? How many houses will be condemned? How many times can people have their lives torn out from under them and be able to bounce back? How many people are still unaware firsthand of the destructive power of water?
By the time I crest the hill leading to my road, which has just today been reopened to traffic, I feel amazed at what I’ve witnessed, all the people coming together to help each other. How lucky we are to live in a place where community and caring matter.
I pull into my driveway, looking at the gouged-out gully in my yard that days ago was only a lazy creek, and I’m grateful to be home. But I know all the good work is nowhere near done yet. Many people still need our help—and more rain is coming.