Living with flooding’s risk

Flooding in Texas in the wake of Hurricane Harvey has affected us in many ways in the past week. Somehow or another, we seem to have a connection with folks who live in the affected areas and are doing their best to survive days of misery caused after Harvey moved inland. The reports of individuals rescued from homes and vehicles left stranded by the inundation — and facing the grim realities of the aftermath — offer a reminder to Ohio Valley residents who also experience the effects of nature when it goes out of control.

For me, it meant calling my sister and brother-in-law, Cathy and Frank Wolter, who moved to the Lone Star State five years ago, to see if they were okay. The relief was in their living in a suburb of Dallas, some 400 miles northwest of where Harvey made landfall at Galveston and Corpus Christi. The only impact they were to see from the hurricane was perhaps 2 inches of rain — a not unwelcome development, my sister said, given how dry their part of the state is in late summer. More immediate, however, was a member of my high school class back in New York and Facebook friend Kevin Wildner, now a resident of Dickinson, Texas, which was in the path of the storm. His home initially escaped the flooding, and water that had built up had receded. However, because the rain continued, he and neighbors still confronted the threat of water getting into their homes.

At one point, Kevin’s frustration poured out, prompting him to apologize for some things he posted. I assured him that it was okay, the situation was enough to drive anyone to distraction and beyond. For living in our area, close to a major river which, over its length, is fed by scores of streams and creeks, flooding is a fact of life that nobody welcomes but is one we have come to live with, especially after a winter with a lot of snow that turns to water as soon as there’s a thaw.

And it happens at other times of the year, as my wife and I recall from late May 2001. Heavy rainfall sent our neighboring Raccoon Creek out of its banks and creeping up the back of our property. Thinking back on that event, I could appreciate how sick and disheartened Texans hit by Harvey were because of the seemingly endless deluge it hosted. After preparing our house as best we could for the worst, we rested for awhile during the afternoon of the day when it appeared the worst would come as the rain continued. But we awoke a couple of hours later to find the precipitation had ended, the sun was peeking through the dispersing clouds, and the floodwater’s progress was halted.

We had experienced a similarly nerve-wracking weekend in 2000 when memories of the historic 1997 flood that I covered as a local reporter came back to haunt me. Only in 1997 I wasn’t living in Vinton, married or had a house; three years later, I did have all of that and my outlook on dealing with disaster in our backyard had changed from the neutral to fearful. But the flooding of 2000 receded without inflicting damage on our property, and after the near-miss of the following year, a mitigation program administered by an Ohio agency allowed our house to be elevated some height above 1997’s high water level.

We were fortunate that our brushes with flooding didn’t cause us any grief or loss of possessions, but we can only imagine what those people in the affected areas of Texas will go through once Harvey takes its leave. These folks are a hardy bunch, we’re told, and even my friend Kevin is retrieving his trademark good humor, making the best of a bad situation. But you wouldn’t wish it on anyone, not from what I’ve seen.

I first became aware of the effect the mighty Ohio can have on our shores when I saw photos of Pomeroy’s downtown during a 1979 high water event. Later, as I became more familiar with the history of the area, the stories of the devastation left by major floods in 1913 and 1937 came to the forefront. On the 50th anniversary of 1937’s flood, I researched an article on the event, in which the river rose to more than 66 feet and sent water into the business district on Gallipolis’s Second Avenue.

Examining photos from the Tribune archive, I tried to imagine the impact of floodwater covering the floors of familiar sights and storefronts, especially after I’d seen pictures from other communities in 1913 when people exited their homes to waiting boats via second story windows — if they were lucky enough to have houses with two stories. The completion of the Gallipolis (now Robert C. Byrd) Locks and Dam later in 1937 helped protect Ohio River communities without floodwalls from a repeat performance.

One photo from ‘37 that caught my attention, largely because of my being an old movie buff, was of the Gallipolis Theater and its main attraction advertised on the marquee: “Valiant is the Word for Carrie,” a 1936 Paramount release later considered one of the prime Hollywood tearjerkers of its time, then-prominent because its star, Gladys George, had been nominated for the Academy Award as Best Actress of the year. She lost to Luise Rainer’s work in “The Great Ziegfeld.” I wondered how many showings of “Valiant,” or other coming attractions, local audiences missed due to the flood.

But back to the present. The most gratifying of scenes that have aired out of Houston and surrounding areas are of the relief workers, supplies and simple acts of kindness that arise in a time of disaster. The event has had its share of controversy due to our divisive times, but none of that talk is important when it comes to saving human lives from loss and misery. We are a nation fortunate in being big enough to share with people who have suffered through no fault of their own, and willing to lend a hand in tough times. I have no doubt that Texans who pride themselves on their self-reliance will rise above the devastation, but it’s up to all of us, especially those familiar with flooding and its impact on our lives, to aid them in returning to some kind of normalcy.

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Living with flooding’s risk

Kevin Kelly, who was affiliated with Ohio Valley Publishing for 21 years, resides in Vinton, Ohio.