It’ll Wash Away Your Heart (ms)

Well, the flood of 2011 came, the crest moved down river taking much of the water it spilled with it. Now comes the awful, terrible, heart-wrenching task of cleaning up, if you are able.

I was a leaf green reporter back in 1972 when Agnes swept in and overstayed her visit. The evacuation order came at night when I was working radio and doing television part-time. The word “terror” takes on new meaning when you are ordered to snatch up whatever you can carry, leave in the darkness of night carrying your sometimes sleepy, sometimes screaming kids and head out to who knows what for who knows how long. They do their very best at shelters but one is still surrounded by a few hundred total strangers all equally distraught, confused, tired and scared. Still, that’s Paradise compared to what you face when you go home.

I went into the Agnes flood area as a television/radio reporter right after the water went down. War zone is a term often used to describe a post-flood area. That’s accurate but doesn’t quite grasp what it’s really like.

The storm cleared and the sun had been out for a few days when  I went in with everyone else. Dust rolled in our wake as we drove up a main road that, until the flood, had been a four to six lane thoroughfare. Here and there were puddles of dirty water but they weren’t just puddles; these were miniature ponds of dirty brown water held in place by sunken yards with homes in them. Over everything was a stench that is still hard to define. The closest I can come is a mix of diesel fuel and raw sewage and that was in places where the air moved a little.

Where it was stagnant, say in the basement of a home or the lube bay of a gas station, the stench was nearly overpowering. Everything the filthy water touched was permanently stained and therefore ruined and even had it not been discolored I doubt you could get the smell out. That smell became a permanent part of everything it touched and it touched a lot. Some of what it touched could not be readily seen.

The flood area of 1972 I’m most familiar with is the Wyoming Valley for I grew up there and lived there or around it for thirty-some years. It was then and still is to some degree today a closely knit area. Folks bought houses close to childhood homes, bought gasoline at the same station their father did, had prescriptions filled by the pharmacist you went through grade school with. I think that’s what made doing stories there very difficult.

My dad still lived in the family homestead but he made it to our house high up on a hill so I wasn’t worried about him. I thought I would run across aunts and cousins in due time and I heard from one they were all safe so I went about the job of reporting.

If you owned a business or home the best you could hope for after caring for family was having a home or business still standing. Then all you had to do was throw out your furniture and appliances, gut the interior, put in a new furnace, rewire, sheetrock, paint, get some new stuff and you were good to go. There was a problem if you also had to work your regular job and do all this at night or if you had to do it plus take care of your elderly parents home as well. There were many whose luck was not even that good.

I went with a few of them, back to the pile of junk that had been their homes. Some had sunk their lives into the twisted mess we were looking at and in those few days of June, 1972, their bank had been robbed.

There is no adequate way to describe the reactions of people when they first see their life’s work in shambles. If I was writing a book then and sat down long enough to think it through I might have come up with something but as it was I couldn’t. Tell the truth, I still can’t.

One house in particular was popped off its foundation and it floated away maybe a half block before coming down partially on the street and on a neighbors lawn. We interviewed the man and woman who owned the home; they cried and I think I did too. They were dirty from cleaning what little they were able to salvage, her hair tied back with a bandana, he wearing a sweaty ball cap. They now had no place to live and nothing to live with even if they did. They had a couple kids, were in their mid-thirties I would guess and were leading a good life and then came Agnes and there went that.

I cannot tell you how many similar interviews I did during my assignment. I became numb for like the flood victims I could take only so much. The mind shuts down when it nears circuit overload making its owner operate on remote control like a living breathing wind up doll that does what needs doing by pure instinct. At least I had a home to go to each night. My father stayed with us so work on his place could be done a bit more leisurely. We knew we would finish it eventually but there was no hurry and since he lived simply things wouldn’t be greatly complicated.

I watched the politicians come in to visit the Flood of 2011 just like they did in ’72 and have for everything in between. They promise to work hard to help us then meet with someone in the flood area, look first hand at some damage, have a news conference maybe then leave. As I did in 2011, 1972 and every disaster in between, they will have a shower at night, fresh clothes, a good meal and clean bedding to sleep in. They will not have lived the flood. I didn’t either but at least I came close.

There was, to the best of my recollection, only one Agnes related death in the Wyoming Valley and we must be thankful for that. I do wonder though how many folks had their lives shortened, fell into the gloom of depression, maybe decided to cash it in. I’ll never know, of course, but I wonder. It’s hard to pick up your life and carry on when your heart has been broken.

–Mike Stevens

~ by admin on September 11, 2011.

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