In recent weeks, television news has been showing the devastation caused by floods in across the country and here in Arkansas. My heart and prayers go out to these victims of destruction. You see, I know well the nightmare they are living…and what they are facing in the future because Freemon and I have walked in their shoes.
After retiring from Houston in 1996 we moved to La Grange, Texas, to a house fronting the Colorado River and backing to the Frisch-Auf! Golf Course. We loved the town, the people and getting away from the hustle and bustle of Houston.
Oct. 17, 1998. A cloudy Saturday with rain all day. Early evening, we received the first flood warnings. Torrential rains from a stalled tropical disturbance was threatening the nearby Austin area. All five flood gates opened above the city.
We drove to the bridge to check the river level. It was 19 feet; local warnings predicted a La Grange cresting at 32 feet on Tuesday. Our house was on a rise and the river must get to 40 feet to reach our door. We would determine our plan the following day.
6: 05 a.m.. Oct. 18, 1998. We were awakened by the sheriff and loud noise along our street. Two neighbors were loading U-Hauls! Others were gathered around the mayor who told us we had until 10 a.m. to evacuate or our one way out would be impassable.
We called for a U-haul. None available. We called motels. Most were full. We were lucky to find a room. People from upstream were arriving.
Panic. I ran in circles trying to decide what to take and what to store in the floored attic and on which upper surfaces we could place the rest. I stopped to make coffee!! A crazed mind accompanies fear.
We filled garbage sacks full of valuables to take to the attic…portraits, precious mementos, Bibles and albums, four bags of diaries, silver chest, jewelry box, etc. Next, we loaded bed tops, high cabinets and upper shelving. Computer equipment was placed atop bathroom vanities as the clock inched toward 9:30. We then prepared to pack the cars.
When we walked outside, the river was already out of its banks! It roared like a train as it rushed downstream! We didn’t have until 10! I hurriedly caught the two cats, Fred and Ethel, placed them inside a carrier, as my husband grabbed the file drawers holding important papers. I threw three days of clothing inside another garbage bag and just flung all hanging clothes over the top of the rods, forgetting shoes. ..and other important things.
We were the last to leave at 9:44 Sunday morning. The angry river continued to roar and rain continued to pound. Driving away, I allowed all my pent-up tears to flow. I I looked back only once to whisper, “Good-bye, Sweet House.” Somehow, I knew that it was.
We’d been told we would be gone only a couple of days. Little did we know then we’d spend the following six weeks inside one small room in a downtrodden motel. While there, we experienced four other family tragedies I will not go into here.
On Tuesday, we were allowed in the back way where police stopped us at the club’s Pro Shop. There we stood looking down at our house. We could only see the roof and the very top of our windows. On Thursday, we were allowed back inside the neighborhood and friends from church met us there.
Opening the door, total ruin confronted us. 5 ½ feet of river water had invaded our house! This we could tell from the line of debris below the ceiling. A marble- topped table lay broken by the door. Nearby, the refrigerator was on its side, its ‘mouth’ open. My beloved box granddaddy gave me at age 5 was “face down,” its ivory keys scattered about the floor. Nothing survived their bed top or other high surfaces, including all our 8mm film of wedding, family and Melissa’s babyhood and early childhood. Everything was covered in malodorous sludge.
We retrieved what valuables we could while the men carried loads of garbage to the curb. A local storage company donated use of units for antiques and the few salvages. A local cleaners offered free cleaning but we had so little. Church men pulled up carpet and took it and other ruins to the curb. Ditches along the street were filled with goods and memories. Gawkers drove by and looters broke in. But so many others came to help and to bring us food and clothing.
You’ve seen pictures of floods. So had we. But none prepare you for the real thing. None prepare you for the horrible stench that remains in your nostrils and on your taste buds for months. None prepare you for 2-3 inches of VILE mud as slick as glass covering the floor and every available surface. None prepare you for the fetid mildew, rotting walls and destruction left behind. None prepare you for the many nights you scream with nightmares. On occasion, I still have them almost 20 years later. We weren’t prepared…
BUT, the flood taught us certain truths: All we lost were possessions, which are just things. We still had God. We still had America. We still had family and friends. We still had each other and we still had LIFE. Next time: “The rest of the story.”
Brenda Miles is an award-winning columnist and author living in Hot Springs Village. She welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org