Surviving the Deluge

It rained hard most of last week, saturating the ground and turning our backyard into a swamp. Every day, the stifling heat and humidity would cause the buildup of cumulonimbus clouds, stretching from our home in northern Illinois all the way back to Iowa, their towering anvils reaching past 50,000 feet by mid afternoon.

And then, the deluge. One after another the thunderstorm cells rolled through the area, sometimes two at a time, dumping copious amounts of rain on northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin causing the Fox River to begin rising toward flood stage.

Living in a river town is a dream come true for me. Fishing, boating and other water sports are just out the front door a few steps away. And then there are the sunrises and sunsets when you can imagine yourself standing where some Native American stood 500 years ago looking at the same bluffs that rise precipitously above the river and wondering what it must have been like to live amongst such natural, unspoiled beauty. The river can be a goddess, bestowing her bounty on those fortunate enough to embrace her while allowing her worshippers to bask in the sunlight reflecting off of her cool, unhurried waters.

But the river can also be a tyrant; a cruel, unfeeling force of destruction that turns people's lives upside down and threatens disaster. So it came to Sue and I last Friday afternoon as the waters of the Fox river passed the flood stage of 3 feet and began to rocket toward a predicted crest near 4 1/2 feet above flood stage within 24 hours.

Crystal Creek, a normally quiet little burn that meanders through our property just before emptying into the Fox River less than a hundred yards from our front door, was looking more like the Colorado River rapids than the lazy stream Sue and I would fish on during relaxed summer weekends. And as the river downstream from our creek rose, the water began to back up. First, it flooded the brand new Cornish Park across the street from our little house. And then slowly, ominously, the brown torrent began to slide over the brand new retaining wall put in by the Army Corps of Engineers just last fall and inch its way up our newly sculpted back yard. The Corps had landscaped the yard so that there was a much more pronounced hill in front of the house which was supposed to protect us from all but the worst case flooding scenarios.

By 5:00 PM on Friday, the worst case was upon us. Nearly 14 inches of rain had fallen in August with almost 4 inches in just the last 48 hours. Now, with another conga line of thunderstorms forming to the west with even more soaking rain behind that, Sue and I feared the worst. Glued to The Weather Channel, watching helplessly as the storms raced toward us, we knew that it was only a matter of time before we had to leave.

Sure enough, at 5:45, a knock at the door. It was the police telling us it was time to go. We had until 2:00 AM to pack up whatever we could and leave.

I suppose it was at that moment that I realized we hadn't done anything to prepare. We were caught flat footed with everything we owned vulnerable to what the police patiently explained would be 4 feet of water coursing through our living room in a matter of hours. We had no idea where we were going to stay. No thought as to what we should save and what we should leave behind. In short, we were forced into a panic mode.

A frantic call to Sue's son in Ohio brought a promise of help and the use of a borrowed truck. In the meantime, we went to the garage and brought out broken down boxes, plastic totes, baskets, and anything else that we could cram our stuff in.

It is amazing what you think of packing when 53 years of your life has to be moved in 7 hours. Sue spent an hour lovingly packing some knick knacks her mother had given her when she was a young woman. I spent 45 minutes going through my album collection wondering why I never transferred most of them to CD's. Looking back on it, I know there were more valuable or useful items we should have been packing. But with no plan, no clue about what we would want or need in a new house (we assumed that our one story home would be a total loss), it became an impossible job to place any priorities on what to take with us.

At least the Village had a disaster plan. But even here, there were gaps, there was confusion, and the frustration level from not getting accurate, up to date information was rising by the hour. Even though the Village has a website, they had not updated information for 24 hours.

The Village of Algonquin has an entire agency devoted to dealing with catastrophe. Called the Emergency Services and Disaster Agency (ESDA), it is supposed to work in concert with the McHenry County Emergency Management Agency (EMA) and the Illinois Emergency Management Agency.

In my experience, things didn't work out too well. In the "Public Notice" we got about the evacuation, they listed the McHenry County EMA as the place to call for shelter. The EMA would put us in touch with the right people at the Red Cross. Along about 8:00 PM, I thought I should make sleeping arrangements for the night and called the number that the Algonquin Police Department gave me. Imagine my surprise and irritation when I got a recording telling me to call back on Monday!

After calling the police to inform them of this little snafu, I got a call about 3 hours later from the Red Cross telling me that there were no shelters available yet in Algonquin because they hadn't gotten enough calls to justify opening one. The RC said we should find a hotel for the night. By this time, we were dead tired having moved as much as we could out of danger and packed as much as possible. Needless to say, we didn't need the hassle.

Clearly, there was something wrong with the lines of communication between the Village and the County. It could be one of those things that just falls through the cracks. But it seems a pretty important detail to be ready to give shelter to those who need it in the event of a disaster. Neither the county nor the Village appeared ready to take responsibility for coordinating with the Red Cross.

But talking with several people early this week who were also evacuated, I discovered that they had no problems because they had planned ahead. They had a place to stay - even for an extended period of time - until their houses were habitable again. They may yet use the services of the Red Cross for other reasons such as help in getting other forms of disaster relief. But the immediate emergency did not impact them the way it did me because they were prepared for it.

By midnight, we were getting upset that no additional information had been forthcoming from the Village about the rising water. I walked across the street and talked to a policeman who told me that he had been informed that the weather service was lowering its predictions for the crest by 7 inches. By that time, we had gotten extremely lucky when the line of thunderstorms drifted to the south of us thus not adding to our water woes. But there was still a large rain storm heading our way and the river continued its rise past flood stage. At a loss as to what we should do, we went to a hotel and collapsed, secure in the knowledge that the dawn would bring catastrophe.

During the night, the rain clouds dissipated before reaching the Fox River Valley. Instead of a couple of inches, all we got was a desultory drizzle. Hoping against hope, we drove back home to find the crawl space under the house with a foot of water but the living area high and dry. All that morning, we were starved for information. We heard different things from different sources. The police were helpful but equally ignorant for the most part of what exactly was happening. I fell back on monitoring the river myself thanks to the National Weather Service Advanced Hyrdrologic Prediction Service. Amazingly, the river was going to crest even lower than they were predicting just the night before. It was at that point that I knew we were saved. By the grace of God and the fickle nature of the weather, we had avoided the worst.

But we would have been in terrible shape otherwise all because we hadn't done even the minimum of planning necessary to avoid the panic. We were ignorant, complacent, and much too trusting of the authorities. I have brought some of these shortcomings to the attention of the Village in hopes that the next time an emergency occurs, they can improve their performance. But first and foremost, it behooves all of us to examine our surroundings and imagine the absolute worst that Mother Nature (or Osama Bin Laden) can throw at us and then develop a plan for you and your family to not only survive the catastrophe but be prepared for the aftermath.

And it probably wouldn't hurt to make some inquiries if you live in a small town and find out just how prepared the authorities are for emergencies. Chances are, the local police are most familiar with the disaster plans for your municipality. I would highly recommend you find out if they have specific plans for your neighborhood if disaster falls.

Any life lessons to be drawn from my ordeal besides the need to plan for emergencies? If you haven't learned by the time you're 50 years old that life can be cruel, capricious, randomly sadistic, and grossly unfair as well as being a joyous celebration of the ability of the human animal to adapt and endure, then there is little hope you will ever begin to understand yourself. As far as being tested, this incident hardly even rates as a pop quiz. But that doesn't lessen the feeling I get of being a poster boy for that Chinese proverb:

"May you live in interesting times."

Rick Moran blogs at Right Wing Nut House