Sunday, July 27, 2008

Ain't No Fighting It

I grew up in a small town in Iowa called "Wapello." (Named after Chief Wapello of the Sac and Fox tribes.) It is on the Iowa River, which you may have seen in news reports last month (June 2008) as it destroyed large areas of several cities, including Iowa City, home of the University of Iowa, and Oakville, a small town ten miles from Wapello which was totally wiped out. More than a month later, the town of Oakville is still under de-facto martial law. How do I know this?

I went home this weekend to visit my grandparents (one of them had been in a fall.) While I was there, I drove along the road from Wapello to Oakville to see the aftermath of the floods. It was horrific. The Iowa is normally a small, sleepy tributary of the Mississippi. (There's a reason you've never heard of it.) Most years, if my father takes us for a ride in his motorboat, he has to be very careful not to run aground in the shallower parts of the river channel. But this year it broke all flood records and laid waste to hundreds of square miles. Some are calling it "Iowa's Katrina." Have a look:

The water got under the road, washed it out, and tossed the concrete road sections like a child's railroad track. They are broken with almost geometric precision along the expansion joints which are typically placed in thin-bed concrete roads in the country.

Fortunately, Wapello is on higher ground, and because the levee broke in Oakville, the pressure was relieved before Wapello (which is much larger than Oakville) could be flooded. While it's cold comfort to the good citizens of Oakville, I'm sure, that failure probably saved hundreds of homes by destroying dozens elsewhere. I did drive to Oakville, but there was a woman sitting at the only road into town with a large sign that said, "ALL VISITORS MUST CHECK IN." I didn't feel like checking in, so I turned around and went back. My mother told me later that you had to have a permit to enter the town because there were problems with scavengers stealing things.

I have family who live outside Oakville, but they are not in the riverbottom and had no trouble. My parents, who live outside Wapello, couldn't drive into town for weeks as the road crosses the Iowa River bottom, and at its lowest point the water was over five feet deep. While the absolute number of people affected is small, the scale of this is hard to imagine. I guess the occasional severe thunderstorm isn't so bad when you think about living in flood plains or Hurricane Alley.

My grandfather told me about a fellow that my grandparents have coffee with most mornings (they still do that in Iowa.) The day before the levee broke, he came to breakfast and derisively snorted, "I went and looked at the water. The Corps of Engineers is way off - it won't get to within four feet of where they say it will."

The next day his house was gone. Not flooded, gone. The levee broke, the water picked up his house and floated it away. I'm guessing he didn't bother to get anything out since he was so sure the water wouldn't reach him. Let that be a lesson to you: there ain't no fighting a flood, there ain't no second-guessing it. If it looks like the water is coming, you have one choice: get out of the way or suffer the consequences. You can always come back and laugh at yourself if it doesn't happen.

Oakville - where I attended first and second grade, in an old schoolhouse Wapello used for a few years when their districts were consolidated - may never recover. Every building in the town limits was heavily damaged or destroyed. The entire infrastructure (roads, power, sewer, water, gas) will have to be completely rebuilt - and now that it's known the whole town is on a flood plain, there'll be no insurance available and very little government money for anything but buyouts. Only perhaps a dozen people in the town had flood insurance - not only is it very expensive (and Oakville is not a rich place) but except for those living right on the river, nobody ever thought that the whole place could literally be submerged for days. A little water in the basement, sure, but six feet of water on Main Street? Unimaginable - until now.

On a photography note, this is one of the reasons why backups, and by that I mean either portable or off-site backups, are required. Every time I leave the house for more than a day, I take a portable hard drive which has all my backlog on it. I also have a hard drive which lives at my office more than fifty miles away with a recent backup on it as well. That's not just my "art" pictures, it's all the family pictures (including our wedding photos which have been digitized,) our financial records, my wife's genealogy research, you name it. It would be awful to lose our house, but at least we wouldn't have to worry about reconstructing our records from nothing.


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