A hope of higher ground
My dad doesn't call me on a regular basis. Most of my conversations with him are in person and he only calls when things on the family farm are slow and he has free time to chat.
I didn't think much of it when my phone rang last Wednesday night and I saw his name on the caller ID. This time, his voice sounded urgent and I could tell he was calling me with a specific purpose. He was dropping a bombshell.
The Mississippi River was rising fast and he would need my wife and I to help in the flood relief efforts as soon as possible.
Dad doesn't excite easy. I could tell this flood had him nervous. I knew this would be a weekend I would never forget.
My dad and my uncle are two of the drainage commissioners for Henderson County's No. 2 district. The No. 2 district has a levy in rural Carman behind the Carthage Lake Club that is roughly 3-1/2 miles long. This levy keeps water off of a good portion of southern Henderson County including parts of Highway 34 heading into Burlington, Iowa.
When there is a threat of a flood, the commissioners are responsible for organizing sandbagging crews and protecting the levy as much as possible.
Aside from their responsibilities with the drainage district, my dad and uncle have plenty of other motivation for keeping the water in the river. The No. 2 district river levy also holds water off of roughly 1,500 acres my family farms in Carman and Gulfport. This includes the family farmstead in Carman where my grandparents have lived for the better part of the last half-century.
In order to give the levy the maximum protection in what little time there was, we had to cover up all 3-1/2 miles with long sheets of plastic and place a row of sandbags on either side. Without the plastic and bags, the water would quickly eat away the sand at the top of the levy and invade homes and farms in the areas.
In 1993, the No. 2 district river levy held back 25-feet-1-inch of water. Nobody seemed sure how much the levy could handle, but the predicted river crest for the 2008 flood eventually projected 25-feet-9-inches.
With little time to spare, a community phone tree of sorts progressed to organize the help. Through countless phone calls, word-of-mouth and radio and TV announcements, we gathered a group of between 75 and 100 volunteers to come help fill bags and transport them to the levy. To help matters, a National Guard troop from Galesburg was called in to aid the flood relief efforts.
All told, it would take us two days to cover the river levy and another day to place a heaping row of bags across the nearby Ellison Creek levy, which is about three-fourths a mile long and meets the south end of the river levy.
By the third day of work, the water on the river levy was dangerously close to the top. Three days of backbreaking labor would all be worth it if only we could stop that water.
Whenever dad and the rest of the drainage commissioners realized flooding would be a realistic threat last week, one of the first orders of business was to move my grandparents out of their house.
My dad and brother had already evacuated most of their farm equipment and moved all of the grain they had stored on the farmstead. I hurried home from work on Friday night to start loading up a truck with my grandparents' belongings. They were supposed to stay at my parents' house that night further from the river in Carman until the floodwaters subsided.
Though all of their earthly possessions left the house, grandma and grandpa did not want to leave. They even slept in their recliners on Saturday night after we moved their beds out.
I thought they were just being stubborn, but mom opened my eyes to what was really going on with my grandparents. They wanted to hold on as long as they could because these might be the last nights they would have in that house, which my grandpa built.
I was starting to realize how valuable time was for grandma and grandpa. At their ages, rebuilding and starting over might not be an option.
We might have to kiss the house in which we had spent almost every Christmas and countless other holidays together goodbye.
Taking a beating
I showed up to help on Saturday morning at 7 a.m., energized and eager to start helping build up the levy.
Dad and I began by rolling out plastic on the river levy and shoveling dirt on top of it to hold it down until more sandbaggers showed up. In the cool morning air, I felt like I could go all day. By noon, though, I was ready to die.
My head was swimming in the mid-80 degree temperatures, my shoes and socks were full of sand, I had a quarter-sized blister on the heel of my left foot, I felt the onset of severe sunburn on my shoulders and I was about to start back in after a 10-minute break for lunch.
I went back out to the levy not sure how much longer I would last at the pace I was going. Shortly after lunch, I found out.
While standing in line to get a tetanus shot from the Red Cross at about 1 p.m., I started feeling light headed and short of breath. I stumbled over by a pickup truck and deposited the contents of my stomach in the grass.
I had suffered from heat exhaustion and had to spend the next hour lying on a flatbed trailer in the shade with ice packs in my armpits.
After a while, I started feeling better so I went back to work helping to fill sandbags.
Throughout the weekend, I did just about every possible job on the sandbagging operation. I shoveled sand, filled and tied bags, transported bags on four-wheelers and arranged bags on the levy. None of the jobs are fun or forgiving on the human body.
Depending on who fills them, the sandbags weigh anywhere from 25 to 40 pounds and moving them requires a great exertion of force. After a day of lifting and moving the bags, my hands, arms, back, legs and feet all ached from trying to manhandle the punishing bags.
At the end of each day, I went to bed gingerly finding a comfortable way to lay so the sunburns on my shoulders wouldn't sting. It hurt too much to toss and turn.
Falling asleep was no problem. Waking up at 5:30 each day was considerably more challenging.
There is no prerequisite to be a volunteer sandbagger. Any volunteer is a good volunteer.
Men, women and children ranging from age five to 65 and maybe even older came out to the Carthage Lake Club pump house in droves to help.
There were jobs for people of all abilities. If they couldn't lift a lot of weight, they closed and tied sandbags. If they couldn't stand the monotony of working on the sandbag line, they helped prepare food and make runs for water or ice.
Some worked all day, some only for a few hours. I worked three consecutive 12-hour days and still felt like I hadn't helped much compared to my father and many of the others who stayed into the midnight hours day after day.
Frequently, I'd find myself complaining to myself about the way some of the volunteers worked or how many breaks some of them took. When it came down to it, though, every person there was putting for his and her best efforts. The fact they were there to help was the most important thing.
While many of the people helping would be directly or indirectly affected by a flood, several others had no reason to be there other than the fact they wanted to lend a helping hand.
The entire flood was a lesson in humility and humanity for me. I learned that no matter how much bad there is in the world, there are still plenty of good people you can rely on when in need.
Kids I hadn't seen since high school showed up to help. Entire church congregations came to make food and fill bags. Local businesses donated four-wheelers and other equipment.
I spent three years as a sportswriter and I have never seen such an impressive display of teamwork.
My mom called me at roughly 5:15 a.m. on Tuesday to inform me that the No. 2 district river levy had broken.
The water busted through a spot in the levy almost straight west of my grandparents' house.
My father and 15 others had stayed out all night to monitor the condition of the levy. After the break, they were stranded atop the levy near the Carthage Lake Club pump house, water rushing all around them.
Dad's cell phone battery was on its last legs and mom only had short communications with him throughout the morning. Mom told me that dad thought he and the others were on high enough ground that they would be safe.
I spent 20 nervous minutes waiting for an update on the status of my dad, hoping he was right about being on safe ground. Mom called me back to inform me that dad's group had safely driven to a railroad bridge and walked safely across to higher ground before being transported out of the area.
It was just in time too. A woman that lived near the Carthage Lake Club pump house was nearly washed off the road in her truck while driving out. A few men in the area had to be transported out by helicopter.
Dad later told me the river had been somewhere between 25-feet-8-inches and 26-feet when it broke at 4:30 a.m.
A little calmer knowing my dad was safe, I stayed in bed with my wife for the next several minutes reflecting on the past few days. Had all our efforts been in vain?
No, I told myself. Had we not placed the plastic and sandbags on the Mississippi River levy, the area would have been flooded much sooner. We gave a lot of people extra time to evacuate. We gave grandma and grandpa a few extra days in their house.
I thought about all of the volunteers I had encountered between Saturday and Monday and wondered if they were feeling as helpless and disappointed as I was.
No, I thought. Many of these same people will probably be back out alongside me whenever the river goes back down and it is time to pick up the pieces and clean up.
The floodwaters closed down parts of Highway 34 and the Great River Bridge into Burlington. Within a few hours, much of my family's farm ground was turned into wetlands.
Dad was interviewed by a television station out of the Quad Cities and later offered a helicopter ride to survey the damage.
Oddly enough, dad said from the helicopter he could see my grandparents' house was still above water on an island of sorts. Just like grandma and grandpa, it was holding on until the last second.