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The 100-year flood wake-up call

It seems as if every time the clouds around here even think they might let moisture escape, the rivers flood. I swear, it seems as if Lafayette is in at perpetual flood-stage, though usually not significant. (For those not familiar with the topography of this area, basically the West Lafayette levee area and um, downtown Lafayette, are built down in the valley right on the Wabash River.)

But this was different. Not here, but in parts of our northern coverage area, on the Tippecanoe River that feeds into the Wabash, the river was flowing so high and so fast that it was about as close as possible without going over the 100-year flood level. (That means, for those keeping score at home, the likelihood of such a flood happening in a year is about 1 percent. That is, it might happen once in 100 years.)

I should have taken it as an omen when I woke up at 6 a.m. to howling wind, rumbles of thunder and glints of lightning. I never wake up in the middle of the night. I know 6 a.m. isn’t night. But when you go to bed at 2 a.m. or later and set your alarm for 8 a.m., that’s the middle of the sleep cycle. I remember thinking at that point even how weird it was I was woken up by the weather. Little did I know, I wasn’t the only one. I went back to bed.

When my alarm went off for real. I hit snooze, and then reluctantly got out of bed at 8:15 a.m. thinking I would have plenty of time to shower, eat breakfast and iron the outfit I picked.

Not even five minutes after I crawled out of bed my phone rang again. I thought I must have hit snooze or set a second alarm on accident. Then I saw it come up from the paper. My immediate reaction — which is horrible but true — was “Oh, crap. I got something wrong in my story.” I had written the lead story on front for Tuesday after chasing down details and documents and squirreling some information, reluctantly, out of officials. Though I thought it solid, there was always that chance as a pit in my stomach, “What if I got it wrong?” Well, I didn’t. (Though I did get a call from a less than pleased official re: that story.)

The call was actually my editor. His plea, which he was sending out to every reporter at that moment, was I needed to get in ASAP. We had major flooding and need to mobilize. I told him I could be there in 15 minutes. He told me to wear boots.

So, without a shower and throwing on jeans and a sweater under my coat, I headed out into the drizzle.

I didn’t even have my coat off before I had orders and assignments. (I was among the first reporters to get there since I live closest.) Over the first hour and a half, I called the National Weather Service and the emergency management agency directors in three counties and the power company that owns the dams and I don’t even remember who else trying to find out where everybody was working from, where the flooding was at, how much flooding, what else was coming and more. As reporters came in, they were dispatched, some with photogs and others with point & shoots, to the places we were hearing were worst affected. Meanwhile, I was being handed releases as my editor got them and hearing things on the scanner to check into.

I wrote three Web updates before I even got in my car to head out to the flooded lands. Before I left, we probably had a dozen updates, easy. All told, I don’t know, we had at least 30 related updates today. Plus photo galleries and call-outs for stories and pictures.

As I was driving toward the staging area in a nearby county to find some personal stories and see with my own eyes how bad it was near the dam, I heard the radio come on with “the latest information we’ve gathered.” Only, they didn’t say where they gathered it from. It had been our Web site. I would have been suspicious anyway, because it was information I got from one of the emergency directors as he was leaving a meeting and fueling his truck, not something he sent out in a release. But when they read, verbatim, the quote he said to me (and it was pretty distinctive, which was why I used it), I had to laugh out loud. But I figured, whatever, I’d rather people be aware. Still funny though.

So I drove along the river and through a few water-filled/covered roads (that my mom would not like to hear about and my editor pretended not to approve of either, though they were between me and the story). I spent about an hour and a half talking to people coming off rescue boats or standing on their property watching as the water level rose and came literally to their door. As shocked as these people were, for me, it was my first time ever seeing this type of disaster in person.

Floods are one of those things you hear about elsewhere. And even here, as much as we hear about roads closed due to flooding or the river at flood stage or even as high as I see the water creep into the tree line, this was different. I mean, I was standing on a bridge with water crashing into it and a boat tethered to it. I was told there was a boat dock below that bridge off to one side. But you couldn’t have gotten a toy sail boat between the river and the bridge when I was there. And in the distance, I could see the dam just gushing and gushing. On the other side of the bridge, downstream, I could see homes submerged as far as my eyes allowed me along both sides of the river. It was a site for me to take in as much as it was for anyone else. I had to force myself to pause and breathe and acknowledge the “Wow” factor even before I started flagging down people getting off the boats.

I don’t know who said it, but someone once described a journalist as someone who runs toward what everyone else is running from. It might be stupid or dangerous, even. But I won’t deny it is fun to be right there, to see it in person not just on the news or in the papers. But more than any of those things, it’s important. For the stranded families who needed to evacuate or know when to evacuate and to where, and for the drivers looking to avoid getting swept away, and for the family members near and far who wanted to make sure their loved ones were OK, the information we could only get by being there was worth it.

As rumors swirled — would the dams hold? — and unexpected problems occurred — a fire in a home where the fire department had to be “shipped” in? — a voice of calm and reason was needed. That’s kind of what I saw our role as being. We didn’t need to sensationalize the flood of the century. We just needed to get the facts out, as quick as possible, to as many people as possible. And we did. So I’m heading to bed now, wiped out, but proud of our work today. And hoping tomorrow doesn’t bring the flood downstream.

More: jconline is “flooded” with flood-related coverage now and will be for awhile. Also, take a look at the editor’s take on covering the flood in her blog.

One Response to “The 100-year flood wake-up call”

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