by John F Zurn
Some tragedies happen in life, that are so extraordinary, words aren’t enough to accurately portray them. Catastrophic events like war, famine, and natural disasters provide examples of such life changing experiences. Probably most people encounter at least one such calamity in their lifetimes, and when it is over, it is never forgotten. For me, the devastating flooding of the Chemung River in Elmira, my home town, became such a catastrophe. Although it happened many years ago, the memories remain with me today.
The flood was actually caused by the combination of two major difficulties, either one of which could have eventually caused the disaster. However, when they occurred at about the same time, the results seemed almost unimaginable. The first event was a hurricane. Since it had only a minor impact on the river, it didn’t appear to be dangerous. But then, suddenly, dams burst upriver, and the river advanced relentlessly, growing faster and deeper by the hour. Within two days, the city and all the surrounding towns faced the real danger of being washed away. Since the deluge was either poorly predicted or completely unexpected, entire areas needed to be evacuated in a matter of hours.
But before those perilous days in June of 1972, the Chemung River had been a source of joy and an almost primal source of wonder for me. This primal feeling of the river with its distinctive seasons transcended the dull routine of school and chores. The river offered something exciting to explore, and no adults found the time to quash our enthusiasm.
Perhaps one of the reasons the Chemung became so important to me was that my family lived only about a quarter mile away. Our family lived on Water Street in a large faded brick house, and the back door faced the river. All year long, my friends and I would hike down to the river bank and spend most of the day there. We fished on its banks and canoed down river. We even swam in the river’s polluted current once in a while. When we grew older, we all drank beer along its banks and built campfires to keep warm in winter.
The Chemung River watched over us like a faithful witness that always surprised us. Whether we heard the fish leaping for insects or the sound of the breeze rustling through the Cottonwood trees, the sounds of the river remained unpredictable and mysterious. Even the birds added intrigue to the night air with their strange haunting calls that couldn’t be either identified or located.
The river and its nearby woods provided a kind of entertaining alternative to the television shows that were beginning to invade every aspect of our lives. These TV programs manufactured countless needs and endless fear that hadn’t been in us before. The river represented a different kind of purpose that felt active, engaging, and imaginative. Although this purpose was often subjective and personal, it still communicated some common awareness concerning the natural world.
Our dog – aptly named Happy – seemed to be compelled to seek out the river almost daily. Like most animals, Happy’s instincts led him to places that allowed him to explore, and, of course, the river always attracted him. Even though our front door stood only about thirty feet from the Water Street curb, Happy was never injured by a car. He always raced out the back door and headed straight for the river. In the entire time we lived there, our dog never once ventured out front. The river was his one destination. Occasionally, he would come home reeking of skunk or gag after eating some contaminated carrion, but I believe the river proved to be as mysterious and exciting to him as it was for me.
But there had been times when the Chemung River did overflow its bank so, the army corps of engineers had constructed an imposing levee that had often saved the town from the violent flood waters of spring. This levee was enormous with natural walls over fifty feet high in places. Flood gates were also appeared in strategic areas, and the embankment scanned well over ten miles in length. At times, in the summer, the river could be so shallow, it was barely visible below in the distance. This barrier further separated the town making the levee a kind of sturdy natural boundary between the natural world and the realm of man.
When the river did flood, however, it would usually happen during late spring. For example, in the winter, gigantic irregular blocks of ice sometimes pushed against the shore like an advancing glacier. These blocks created an almost surreal impression as if the frozen landscape represented another place in time. Since they melted very slowly, they became yet another source of curiosity and exploration.
Then there were the tiny ponds that appeared when the river gradually receded. Huge carp fish inevitably became stranded in these pools, and when the water evaporated they would perish. Being ignorant boys, instead of returning them to the river, we netted and harpooned them. Eventually, we threw them into a large garbage can to show them off, and then tossed them over the backyard fence. The endless quarrels of neighborhood cats penetrated the air for weeks, and the stench was inescapable. It only occurred to me many years later, how cruel the enterprise had been.
The overall point I’m trying to make is that the river became a major part of my life growing up. I have many fond memories and have learned many important lessons because of the years I spent exploring there. Nonetheless, the horrific flood that inundated our town during the week of graduation has eclipsed my childhood experiences. Consequently, it is the flood that is never far from my memory for long.
It is, of course, difficult to write about the intensity of the flood in all its ferocity and terror; however, perhaps specific examples can provide enough imagery to convey the magnitude of the event. By describing various individual facts, perhaps the whole will come out to be more than just the sum of its parts, so to speak. In this way the feeling of wonder, fear, and resignation may become more understandable.
To write that the flood was totally unexpected is certainly the truth. However, unlike a tornado or earthquake that strikes almost immediately, there did exist some time before the deluge hit, so there was a certain feeling of foreboding that accompanied its approach.
I still vividly recall the police officers in their squad cars bellowing out commands from their loudspeakers. Their tone felt unmistakably urgent and assertive. Everyone needed to abandon their residences immediately. Since it was after midnight, people looked groggy and puzzled about the impending disaster; but when the police officers returned, it became clear that something was very wrong. By daybreak, people were in various stages of evacuation, while others decided to remain in their homes despite the warnings.
Meanwhile, I decided to examine the river myself to determine the extent of the threat. One thing I wanted to investigate for sure was a very loud crashing sound that had been happening intermittently during the night. It sounded suspiciously close to our house, and I suspected that it might have something to do with the river.
When I reached the levee, I was astonished to discover that the river had been spilling over the top of the structure itself. The current rushing past me was also so overpowering that it pushed massive amounts of debris as easily as carrying leaves or twigs down river. Then I heard that unmistakable crushing sound again.
As I tried to identify the source of the frightening sound, I gazed toward the southeast and saw houses ramming against the Walnut Street Bridge. The river had become so destructive; it swept entire buildings off their foundations and then rolled them down the river. When the houses collided with the bridge, they made the most thunderous sound imaginable. Finally determining the source of the mysterious crashing, I began to understand why the police sounded so concerned.
As I continued to witness this once in a lifetime encounter, it began to feel almost mesmerizing in its power to hold my attention. This was the most miraculous thing I had ever witnessed, and it felt spiritually important somehow. I realized that if I leapt into the torrential current, I could be one with this mysterious energy. It felt as if I could merge with a presence so overwhelming that part of me sought to discover its beauty and inner truth.
However my reverie lost its power when I saw a lowly muskrat swimming in the current. The poor creature frantically paddled toward the shoreline but then turned around and swam toward the middle of the river again. It finally occurred to me that the poor animal was so far out in the swollen river it didn’t know which way to go to reach dry land. In its confusion and anguish, it was in the process of drowning itself. When exhaustion did finally end its life, it would be ignorant of its mistake.
Perhaps, these two experiences – the houses crashing against the bridge and the drowning muskrat – that finally gave me a clear understanding of the seriousness of our situation at home. It became apparent that our family home would be inundated with tainted river water. There could be no way of knowing exactly when it would occur or how much flooding we would be required to endure; but the river would definitely soon going reach us, and we had no prior experience with such a dangerous situation.
To make things even more bizarre, my father had just lost his job and had found a better one in Chicago where he waited for us to join him. Incredibly, we were actually in the process of moving when the flood descended upon us. Fortunately, since most of our possessions sat in boxes, the only things left we couldn’t secure were pieces of furniture and major appliances.
If there was a specific time when the flood became truly personal, it had to be the moment the river current crashed through our stone wall. As it poured through the back yard with eruptive strength, it smashed against the garage nearly causing it to collapse. This destructive power became so intense it actually startled the moving company employee, and he headed for the front door. It was the first time I’d ever seen an adult really frightened, and it felt unnerving. My mother seemed alarmed as well, but she continued to move our remaining belongings upstairs.
Our three cats were understandably skittish as well. With sirens blaring, people screaming, and the house in disarray, they felt confused and uneasy. This made it extremely difficult to force them into cages. Their resistance required patience and perseverance because they scratched and bit us. They obviously couldn’t understand that we needed save their lives.
When the Chemung River did finally flood our basement and first floor, our street ironically did become “water street.” The river forced its way down our street with a violent rushing surge that eventually rose until it looked about waist deep. The new tentative shoreline became the main sidewalk across the street. As we stood there watching the river’s relentless fury, we were speechless.
However, before long our silence was interrupted by the wailing plea of someone shouting. Although we recognized the screams immediately, the rushing torrent made it difficult to identify the source of the distress. Finally, we recognized a short woman who was bent over a chair on her front porch. The water kept rising so fast and so high, she was in real danger of being swept away.
When we finally apprehended the treacherous situation, my neighbor and I waded through the swift moving current, picked up the terrified senior, and carried her to shore. She was still upset when we placed her on the ground, but she knew she was safe. Although she had probably ignored the evacuation orders, the terror she had experienced seemed like more than enough “punishment.”
I wish I could honestly say that my actions in saving the mysterious woman were truly heroic, but the man who that waded into the current with me stood over six feet six inches tall; and he could have easily rescued her himself. In addition, I’m pretty sure that courage involves acting while overcoming fear. For me, the experience felt exhilarating, and I never even thought about any consequences.
But, to be accurate, consequences did exist for most people who became flood victims, and even if all the descriptions of the flood of 72 are patched together; they don’t really give any real insight into the overwhelming fear and confusion the disaster created. For those of us in its path, it was an assault. Like a swarm of locust destroying everything in its path, we knew defeat and were in retreat everywhere. We felt like refugees who relied on rumors to discover the fate of our communities.
Probably the best single photograph I have ever seen of the flood is the photo of a picnic table lodged in the top of a telephone pole. The flood waters had been so unfathomably deep and destructive; the table remained stuck there even after the water receded.
In addition to this stunning photo, there were also many remarkable pictures of the downtown that portray people being airlifted from rooftops and evacuated from downtown stores. There were also countless photographs of twisted bridges and torn up streets. If a “picture is worth a thousand words,” the flood photos certainly help illustrate this principle.
To be honest, the adults and teenagers seemed to have very different attitude toward the calamity. For adults, the financial and emotional pain was excruciatingly real. They watched as all their possessions contaminated with germ infested silt. Many of their houses remained uninhabitable for a long time. The adults were wise even to foresee the many hardships and sacrifices ahead.
We teenagers, however, experienced the flood with far less resignation. We only understood the power and excitement of it all. It felt like we were actors being cast as extras in a Hollywood disaster film. Within forty-eight hours our world had been completely transformed, and we felt wonderstruck. We were naive and perhaps too selfish to recognize the powerful disaster for what it was – a tragedy of the worst kind.
Lastly, there is one final detail that is worth relating if only because of its strange and humorous significance. One week before the flood, when no evidence of an impending flood existed; my parents sold our home. The buyer, however, had one major condition. He vehemently insisted that he wouldn’t purchase the house unless he could sign the papers immediately. Since this meant I would miss my high school graduation, my parents asked him to wait a week. The man couldn’t be persuaded, so my mother signed over the house immediately. Now I don’t know whether it was providence, poetic justice, or just plain dumb luck; but when the flood waters began disappearing down Water Street, we were legally obligated to give the buyer the keys. By meeting his demands, we were able to simply drive away.
Nevertheless, in closing, it’s important to remember that the other citizens of my town couldn’t just “drive away.” The friends and neighbors who we left behind faced a long lasting crisis from which full recovery seemed uncertain. Since government loans aren’t the same as grants, I suspect many people were financially burdened for a long time. But to be truly honest, looking back, despite all the destruction; I still can apprehend the unmistakable wonder and mysterious reverence I experienced on that levee during the flood of 72.
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