Like millions of people around the world who were deeply interested in Hurricane Dorian, and the tremendous amounts of water that were dispersed, I find myself reminded of some of the significant floods I have covered as an Associated Press photographer.
After returning from being a war correspondent in the Korean War, I was assigned to the Seattle bureau where I helped handle Korean War pictures, and at the same time serve as the area AP photographer.
I covered one flood there that was a doozy. I went into this little town, which was surrounded by water, and many parts of the town were underwater. I met three men standing on the sidewalk, their feet almost in the water. I overheard one man say, “You know, I am mad as heck at the catfish in there!” “Why,” asked one of them. “Well, I’ll tell you, they are eating my strawberries!”
Looking up, I saw a house submerged up to the second story in flood water. A man, I assumed to be the owner, was in a boat, floating at the water level, and he was painting the side of his house. I’m not kidding.
Also, in that same general area, I started to walk out on a flood levee to get a better view of the debris floating past. It was nighttime. I found a farmer who was walking along the area with a lantern, and I asked him to accompany me out on the levee so that I could see better. As we started to walk on the levee, I saw a tree sapling wiggle around wildly on my right. I stopped, told the farmer to turn around and walk as fast as he could – but not to stomp – back to where we started. We did, and just as we stepped on regular land, that whole levee collapsed and melted away. That was a thank you God moment.
Later, while working out of the Minneapolis, Minnesota bureau, I covered floods on the Sioux River, and the upper Mississippi River. Looking back, they were not very exciting. However, the worst one I covered was where the Tennessee River flows into the Ohio River, which then immediately joins the south flowing mighty Mississippi River. That was an experience and a half.
The roaring flood waters at that junction were a spectacular sight. For one picture, I walked out onto a railroad bridge spanning the Ohio River at Cairo, Illinois. There was no walkway, just the tracks on top of the wooden ties. I could see the flood waters by looking down through the ties, which was a thrill I’d never had. The vista over the railings was awesome. The flood waters were only 1 inch short of going over the flood walls and going down into the city of Cairo.
During that flood, the Corps of Engineers intentionally broke down a federal levee into a flood-rights area of Arkansas, thus relieving a tremendous force of water. I went into the area and visited a refugee camp. People had illegally settled in that area. I found a woman lying on a cot, with seven of her children. I took the picture and sought their names. They all had different last names.
When I first got to the area of the flood, I grabbed a hotel room in Cairo, just a block from the flooded river. After taking pictures from the railroad bridge, I decided that I was very, very tired after going almost three days without sleep. The city was lower than the river, and the flood waters were about 1 inch from going over the levee. I said to heck with it, I was going to bed. In the meantime, my hotel room had been occupied by three other journalists. I kicked one of them out of the bed so that I could get some sleep in my room, which I had never occupied.
I covered many other floods on the Mississippi River near Memphis, Tennessee and in Arkansas.
The last significant water issue was at my home in Upper Arlington, Ohio. There had been heavy rains for days, and the nearby Olentangy River was at flood stage. Even though my neighborhood stood much higher, the high river waters caused the drain systems to back up, and back into the basements of nearby homes. Our basement had flood waters of about 3 feet. I had gone to the store and bought a sump-pump. Standing in the deep water, I proceeded to get the pump installed and working.
Suddenly, our daytime baby-sitter called to me from the top of the stairs. “Come quick, I think Miss Nancy (my wife) is dying.” Nancy was a nutritionist at the Nisonger Center at the Ohio State University. Two months earlier, Nancy had delivered our baby daughter. At that time, doctors found that she had colon cancer of the worst kind. She never got out of bed. I ran up the stairs, dripping with water, and rushed to my wife’s side. I sat down on the edge of the bed, held her head in my arms. Nancy immediately died in my arms.
Our blended family of six boys, and now a baby girl, had to bond and face the uncertain future.
Floods are mysterious, treacherous and heartbreaking.