This is Marideth Sisco for These Ozark Hills. Well, we just had our Blackberry Winter, so summer is on its way. The term, for those who don’t know, refers to that last little cold snap that always occurs toward the end of May, while the blackberries are in bloom. After a season where April arrived in February, then January returned in March, it was a comfort to me that Blackberry Winter arrived this time, as always, right on time.
I remember it clearly, on a weekend night as I let the dog out for a last late-night attempt to catch the local possum. Because I also am blessed, ahem, by local coyotes, I stepped out onto the porch to wait for her without donning jacket or slippers and was met by a sharp, chilly wind instead of the gentle night breeze I was expecting. Instead of jumping back in the house shouting “Brrr”, I simply smiled and said, “well, hello there. I’ve been expecting you.”
Given the events of this past month, it was comforting to have something expected show up in our weather. This was, as you know, the month of the “Five hundred Year Flood.” I don’t know the rain totals in your area, but in West Plains where I’m from, there were places where we got 17 inches of rain in two days. And the rivers here didn’t flood. They raged, taking out 100 foot concrete spans across our rivers like they were matchsticks. slapping homes from their foundations and sending piles of the kindling they made downstream, tangled with clothes, keepsakes, appliances and photo albums, or they left the housed but filled full to the top with water carrying everything from chemical potions to human waste to uncounted tons of topsoil, destroying even the dreams of gardens and homes and shelter. It was worse than bad.
I was one of the lucky ones, as my home is located on a little knoll, a bench, above a valley and below a hilltop – a sheltered spot. But my driveway was under water, and the county road was closed, and the four-lane that would have gotten me to town was underneath six feet of standing water that took nearly two weeks to drain. And we’re talking the main road from Springfield to Memphis. Closed. The detour added 40 miles to the trip, over country roads that had to be remade daily, roads that had been first mapped by wagons, and by horseback.
Events like that aren’t over even when they’re over. Certainly, there is the rare circumstance that is so far out of the ordinary that it cannot be prepared for.
Nobody expects the untimely blizzard, the wildfire, the Spanish Inquisition. And that includes those who were in charge of the preparations and the response, because they simply just couldn’t grasp how completely beyond their experience, their training and their very good intentions this event would take them.
The FEMA buildings on either side of the creek that runs through town were there to provide shelter to those in need. We have been very proud of them. But in order to protect them against vandalism, their doors were kept locked, and the rule was that the person with the key would unlock them “Whenever the tornado sirens sounded.” It was a good plan, or it would have been, except the sirens are not designed to sound in the event of water.
The situation was as dire as it was beyond imagination and it was outside business hours so businesses that might have been protected or merchandise salvaged, were unattended while parking lots filled. And people calling city offices for help either got no answer or answers that were not helpful.
Nobody could tell them where to take shelter because the shelters were closed. So, they called the radio station, where an announcer with no emergency planning experience and who also had no one to call, told them to just go to the civic center. It was accessible, had huge parking lots, and was bound to be still open. It was, barely. Except all but two employees had been sent home due to the worsening weather. Those two were waiting for an event to end so they could lock up. At that event, there were 300 people who would still have to find a way to wherever they planned to spend the night.
And then there began to come whole families, families with children and pets and whatever they could carry. People in wheelchairs, people who had already sustained injuries from the flood. Soon it was whole neighborhoods. And then the power went out, and in a situation eerily like the New Orleans Superbowl, there were suddenly too many people in a building with no power, no ventilation, no facilities, no food – and no one coming to the rescue, because emergency workers were out on the job, directing traffic away from the flooding, closing roads, doing all sorts of helpful things, but not listening to the radio and unaware of the growing population at the civic center. Talk about a recipe for a disaster.
And then we did what we always do in the Ozarks. When no help is coming, then we help ourselves and each other. Someone who knew the people who worked at the church up the hill made a cell phone call and said open the church. Someone at the event who was in charge of getting the event-goers home commandeered a nearby University bus. The worker waiting to lock the doors behind everyone called the local Red Cross and said “We need a shelter and we need it now and it needs to be uphill from here. How about the church? And it all fell together. Those who could walk held hands with those who were less able. Those who needed to ride got in the bus and the Red Cross workers met them at the open door of the church with food, blankets and cots. And they were safe. All over the rural Ozarks, similar stories were being created. Neighbor helping neighbor through a terrible circumstance. The damage was horrible, the financial hardship was dreadful, and there was a miles wide mess to clean up, repair, restore and rehab. But nobody died. Some had to be rescued from rooftops. Some lost everything. But we didn’t lose anybody. We’re all going to be ok.
There’s no one to blame for a 500-year flood. Everyone did what they could, and it was enough. So as a turbulent spring turns to a summer of restoration, I’m sending a heartfelt thanks and a “Well Done” to all the ornery, tough, resilient, beautiful people I am blessed to live among, here in these Ozark Hills.