June 26, 2008
Natural Disaster Drives Local Family to Riverside Communities
by Toby Champion
Well, I’d just finished a chunk of work for a client and needed a break, and to be honest, it all sounded pretty exciting and might just be a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see a real-life natural disaster in action. So I suggested we throw some stuff into our campervan and drive down the next day. Michelle was up for it, and the plan immediately evolved into an attempt, however small, to help folks out down there with sandbagging or whatever they needed. So later that afternoon I collected a bright-red, fiberglass shovel the Memphis Democrat bought for the trip, and grabbed some gardening gloves and boots to throw in with our usual trip kit.
When we arrived in Hannibal, we learnt from the Hannibal Courier-Post that work on reinforcing the levee had pretty much finished, and that our help was more likely to be appreciated in either of the much smaller towns of Canton, 12 miles north of Quincy - with an aging levee many doubted would hold - and Clarksville, 25 miles south of Hannibal, with only the makeshift levee being built right now. We were tired though, so decided to spend the night in Hannibal for now.
We walked down to the riverside to see how high the river was. There were signs all along, hanging from orange and white tape, demanding we “STAY OFF LEVEE”, but we thought that just meant stay off the very top, so we pushed the stroller up and peered over the side anyway. Wow. The other side of the river certainly seemed a long way away. Pretty much everything on the other side of the levee was underwater, including most of the “Welcome to Hannibal” sign. Dramatic, exciting, awe-inspiring, curious and downright depressing all at once.
Pretty soon a cop on a mountain bike approached us and told us we weren’t supposed to be there, in a firm-but-fair sort of a way. Oops. Down we came, feeling lucky that we were neither ticketed nor arrested. We couldn’t figure out what the big deal was about staying away, and were only to discover just why towns are policing their levees so heavily on the last day of our trip.
Michelle took our eight-month-old son Adam back to the motel to get him to sleep, and I continued wandering. It turned out the best place to be in Hannibal to see things close up was on the road-bridge that takes route 79 over Bear Creek to the south of the town. From the top of the bridge I could see the sort of thing you always see on TV during floods: the tops of road-signs and roofs above the water. Eerie, but also, it being just after sunset and with a whopping-great moon appearing above the trees on the south side of town, quite beautiful. When a launch carrying a couple of National Guard guys motored quietly around the walls of the very-much-underwater Clemens Field ballpark, its searchlight bouncing cleanly off the mucky, murky water, it all looked very pretty indeed. It got me thinking about how there’s beauty to be found in a lot of otherwise nasty situations. And this is nasty: as I write, 24 people have died in the floods.
On the bridge I met Carol, who’d “worked the flood” with the Salvation Army back in 1993. Despite the levee protecting most of the town that year, it was still a lot of work, handing out mops, disinfectant and food to those whose homes had flooded. She seemed exhausted even by the memory of it all.
Seeing road signs underwater is always an odd sight. Even odder, though, was how Michelle and I both kept noticing road and other signs looking strange throughout our brief trip.
The next morning, after breakfast at the Mark Twain Dinette, we packed up and made a break for Clarksville the long way round, as route 79 was underwater just past the Mark Twain Caves. On the way, discovering that the Champ Clark Bridge taking the 54 across just north of the town was closed, we headed into Louisiana to find out why. We parked just this side of the bridge, and I walked onto the bridge to take a look. I ended up walking the 300-yard round-trip to the other side, and it was a pretty intense experience. I’d not walked over the Mississippi before, and to do it when it was this wide, this quiet, and this threatening, was something special. The only company I had on the bridge was a biker who passed me there and back. The bridge, I’ve since learnt, has become quite the tourist attraction. I’m glad others will be able to have this unusual experience.
Once back on the east side, we drove downtown. This was where it starts getting real. The stuff you normally only see on TV, right in front of you. 3rd Street—the 79—was flooded as far as we could see. A trailer just up from the water, piled with a family’s possessions, a king-size mattress plonked on top. Family and friends completing a wall covered in black plastic sheeting round the front of their house: those that aren’t standing in a green Jon boat are wearing waders. A guy in a pale-blue pick-up with mud stuck on the bottom is handing out white aluminum cans of drinking water to their tired-looking neighbours. And another bunch of family and friends are building a wall around their house, which looks like it’s on its very own island. To add the feeling that things are a bit rushed, there’s a four-foot pile of sand ready to go in bags... the pile is in a foot of water.
When you’re watching this kind of stuff on TV, sometimes you wonder how you can help. Maybe make a call, send some money. When I was down there though, I felt like a useless idiot. I wanted to offer to help, but the embarrassing truth is that I did my back in on Monday mowing the yard. I could barely lift my 13-pound baby, let alone a 75-pound sandbag. Michelle was going to have to do the actual helping, and she was hanging out with Adam back on Main Street. Rigid with worries that someone was going to ask me who I was and what I was doing here, I sloped off, past the first of many pipes I saw chucking flood-water out of basements. The arc was about eight-foot long.
At the front of a red-brick building that used to be “Louisiana Plastic Inc. Warehouse No. 1”, with cute fake windows painted on the sides, there was the whole flood-defence set-up: three feet of sandbags with white 4mm plastic sheet thrown over; two or three bags on top of that; a step-ladder over the whole thing; and a couple of green plastic pipes taking water pumped out. And a mug of coffee sat on top.
By this time I was glad our next and final stop would be somewhere where we knew we could actually help. Just before we left we met Kirsty, a nurse whose daily commute is south along the 79. “We’re just idiot flood tourists”, I explained. “Oh, me too. But I’m going down to Clarksville next to help with sandbagging”. “Ooh, so are we!” I explained, relieved that she could relate to my feeling a bit silly and excited that suddenly, we were all in it together, teaming up and helping out.
Back in the van, we took the 54 back to Bowling Green, the 61, then WW and W winding through Pike County into picturesque Clarksville.
No chance of being an idiot flood tourist here. Flashing red and blue lights everywhere. A cop stopped us at a roadblock. “You here to help?” he asked, and suggested we park up the road and wait for a shuttle bus to take us into town. Declining the bus, we walked the few blocks instead, Michelle carrying Adam and me pushing the stroller with the shovel wedged behind our daypack. We were guided by a local through alleys, and the intensity racked up as we approached downtown. National Guard trucks passed loaded with sand, one with “I love the army!” chalked on the driver’s door. Pick-ups carrying filled sandbags and equipment edged by as we detoured onto muddy lawns, our borrowed off-road stroller proving its worth.
Once we hit Howard Street we realized this artists’ town of 490 residents had become the centre of attention for hundreds of volunteers, scores of National Guard personnel, and the national media. Four satellite trucks, TV cables everywhere, and the roar of three enormous pumps helping prevent the storm drain system from backing up behind the levee. We navigated the stroller through a group of twenty or so young people wearing white tees and yellow headbands, hard at work sandbagging; I later learnt they were inmates brought in to help. We signed in with the AmeriCorps team at City Hall, signed waivers, and tied orange plastic tape around our wrists. Collected some bottles of water, bought some snacks, and headed the long way round to Main Cross Street, where we were to help protect the lumberyard.
Shielded from the river on the east by a makeshift levee eight-feet high, with the water already a few feet up, around twenty folk were hard at work filling and placing bags. When we arrived, they were racking their brains for an Irish drinking song to sing. The only one I know escaped my mind in the heat of the moment, so my first real opportunity to help was dashed already. This lot had clearly been at it for hours, and had formed quite the team. Four bag-filling stations formed a square around a pile of sand, each consisting of a couple 2x4s resting on a pair of sawhorses supporting two upside-down traffic cones with their tops sawed off, acting as funnels into which people shoveled sand into bags held up by a colleague on the far side.
I handed Adam to one of the volunteers, and Michelle got on with some sandbag-holding while I joined Bob Reid on a nearby seat. He clearly deserved the break. Bob helps run the Clarksville Museum, and had been working the last five days to get “all of our treasures” up above the ’93 level. “We got five feet of concrete blocks, made a frame from 2x4s on top of them, then turned our display cases sideways and put them on top of that frame. In our office, there’s a stairway to a little storage room, over the entryway. You can’t walk in their sideways: we’ve just got it stacked clean to the ceiling... So I have a feeling that everything will… I’m gonna think positive. I’m optimistic that everything will be alright.”
Bob boasted that the plantings round the outside of the museum had been planned with the flood in mind: arborist Monica Barker chose species that would survive a flood. “Yellowtwig dogwood, stuff like that. So she thought ahead of time. Those plants can resist being drowned for a while.”
Charlie Meyers, an employee at the lumberyard and long-time Clarksville resident, explained that quite a few of the helpers were builders who needed the yard to stay in business. The group, I was surprised to learn, had no one in charge, and had previously been helped by some Amish, a Boy Scout group, prisoners, the National Guard and a couple of folks from St. Louis.
So, we did end up helping for an hour or so. Michelle held sandbags, and I even managed to get some action out of that shovel, as you can see in the photo. People seemed to really enjoy Adam’s presence, which is always nice to see.
When we’d had enough, we walked back to the van along the roads wherever possible. We noticed more signs, including one under a foot of water that read “ROAD CLOSED 1 MILE AHEAD”. The drive on the W back to the 61 was pretty hairy. We were passed by a lot of big trucks carrying sand, and none of them were holding back.
We spent another couple of nights in Hannibal—where the water had gone down a foot since we were first there, because of breaches upstream—and I watched World’s Most Amazing Videos and rested my back.
On Friday, with me finally off the Tylenol, we left for home, stopping at Quincy and Canton on the way. The Memorial Bridge is closed as the west end is underwater, and the riverfront park on the Quincy side is under too. I mooched down to the riverfront. I met a tall, black pony-tailed guy with a camera round his neck hanging around a couple of boats getting ready to leave. I asked if he knew where the boats were going. “Well, I don’t know about that one, but this one is taking me to see my house and farmland, which is all underwater.” I gulped. “I’m sorry.” I offered. “I appreciate that.” “Hope it works out in the end”, I said. “Yeh, in the end, it’ll be okay.” We let him get on with his life and got back on the road.
Our final visit was with Canton, which over the previous week had National Guard and volunteers reinforcing its aging levee. We only spent five minutes or so there, and were struck that the town seemed deserted and that the town is very, very flat indeed. We tried to take a shortcut back onto the 61, but had to stop as the road goes through a break in the levee, and was closed by a wall of sandbags, staffed by a couple of National Guard guys.
“That trailer home over there, the owners just upped and left, drove it out with their truck, at three in the morning.” And the guards could explain why the levees are being so heavily policed: “Some guy in Quincy in 1993 had had this big row with his girlfriend, and didn’t want her to come home, so he got up onto a levee and started pulling bags out of it. It gave way in the end, and a lot got flooded. He’s still in jail.” That was James Scott, who was convicted of “intentionally causing a catastrophe”.
As we headed northwest towards Memphis on the 61, we thought we’d seen the last of the Mississippi for a while, but several miles on, we were driving with the river right next to us, above us, a mile or two from where it normally runs.
So the Memphis Democrat shovel is still in Clarksville, hopefully no longer necessary, but in a good home nevertheless. Maybe sometime, once things have dried up we’ll pay the place another visit, see the work of some of those artists and figure out where on earth the river was supposed to be that day.
Toby Champion, originally from London, England, relocated to Scotland County a year ago. He, his wife Michelle Day, and their son Adam now call Memphis home.