When we headed out last Wednesday, my freelance producer Steve Narisi and I thought we were headed to the aftermath of a rain event. Five days, four rivers and about 2,000 miles of driving later, I'm finally back at my desk letting my waterlogged thoughts air out a bit.
Rivertowns and River People
When you live in a flood plain, the theoretical, the practical and the actual all collide. The beautiful view of a babbling brook outside your window can turn into a nightmare when the flood waters begin to rise. Some of the people we met describe waters rising in a matter of hours, leaving them little time to pack up and exit everything they'd worked so hard to build.
When you see volunteers scrambling to sandbag their small town centers and their neighbor's homes from impending waters, there is a level of civic pride that just doesn't seem present in big cities. Everyone pitches in. Kids, their parents and their grandparents, pour in from surrounding towns, and put in the long, back-breaking hours necessary to fortify the homes of strangers or businesses.
My coastal friends may be callous enough to think this type of disaster is just inevitable and people should never live in these places — and while in theory that maybe correct, it is hard to tell someone who has three or four generations of history on this land that they should move.
When you get into very rural areas, and you find river people — and I mean a very small and select group who choose to live on the isolation of a river — you realize that they are a different lot. Some are ardent anti-government individualists who are living as far "off the grid" as possible, others have insulated and isolated themselves with their extended families and live off the rivers for everything, and these aren't people who respond well to being told when it is time to leave their property.
Not all floods are the same. Sometimes high waters are caused by heavy rains that flow over grounds too saturated to absorb them, which then flush into creeks and rivers. That is the traditional notion most of us have of a flood, but there is also the flood from when a river downstream gets so full that the tributaries flushing into it back up.
We spoke to a hydrological technician in Arkansas who pointed us to a fascinating website that I'd never come across before. At this site, you can see the real time river-flows of every major river and stream in that state. Substitute the "AR" in the address with the state abbreviation of your choice and you can access data from that state.
We visited this tiny gauge house in the middle of a bridge in Pocahontas, Ark., where sensors are submitting data on stream flow twice every second to satellites and onto the internet. It is data that is priceless for communities trying to figure out where upstream the rivers are cresting and when it is time to skedaddle.
The Not-So-Glamorous Bits
Within that first excruciatingly long 24 hours, we managed to drive from Dallas to Batesville, Ark., (a town that boasts that it is the hometown of champion race car driver Mark Martin) to file a piece for the CBS Evening News standing in waters overflowing the banks of the White River. That night we were back on the windy and mountainous roads through the Ozarks again, toward Galena, Mo. Steve had spent several years working and living in Arkansas and managed to scare the hell out of me with some of the stories he had covered up in those hills.
We stopped for gas in Mountain View, Ark., where under fairer weather; we might have witnessed impromptu jam sessions in the town square with people on their dulcimers. We zoomed by a town named FIFTY SIX which has a population of 163 to cross the border and try to find a little mobile home park called Hooten Town along the James River. Thanks to road closures and detours, we drove for hours and found it around 2 a.m. We drove another 45 minutes to our hotel in Branson (an almost Vegas-like town for country music acts and comedian Yakov Smirnoff) but by the time we returned at 4:30 a.m. after our 45-minute naps there was an incredibly thick fog which prevented us from showing viewers the town we'd worked so hard to reach.
So 24 hours after leaving my bed in Dallas, Texas, I'd filed pieces standing in the waters of the White River in Arkansas, and the James River in Missouri.
Thursday, we had to hire a driver to get us from Branson to Eureka, Mo., because neither Steve nor I were safe to drive as we noted after watching each other begin to weave between the lines on the highways.
I was wading through waters from the big river for the CBS Evening News that night from a neighborhood slowly being swallowed. By Friday morning, as the waters kept creeping up, my waders sprung a tiny leak, enough to get me nearly hypothermic when standing up to my thighs in those frigid waters. By the evening, we were witness to the damage done by the waters of the Meremack in Pacific Missouri.
And if hadn't been for the March madness basketball games, we would likely have continued that pace. But we slowed a bit over the weekend and had one last sprint on Monday beginning in eureka Missouri after filing for the Early Show and racing toward Pocahontas, Ark., to survey the damage as the crest surged slowly down the White River.
We weren't able to file for the Evening News that night, but we can report that the food at the new Green Tomato café is very good and and the wool weaving / yarn making operation next door at Small Farm Fibers is something worth checking out.
The rivers swelled on Good Friday and they began to recede on Easter Sunday, a fact not lost on the faithful in these parts. As the rivers retreated, so have the volunteers, and the clean up from this mess is going to take just as much if not more effort.