I grew up on the muddy banks of the Mississippi River; it was literally within eyeshot of my parents’ land. My father was a small-scale commercial fisherman, so I spent a lot of time on the river in my youth – and I really understood its amazing grace and power.
We lived on a hill about a half-mile from the normal flow of the river, but many members of my extended family, including my grandmother, two sets of aunts and uncles, and several cousins lived on lower ground in a small town protected by a levee system – effectively a large mound of dirt to hold back the water.
In April 1993, it started raining, and on my parents’ property, we had measurable rainfall for 108 straight days, through to mid-July. My father, being an avid gardener, carefully measured the rainfall every day and recorded it in his gardening notebook, and we watched the river, from April to mid-June, stay quite high.
On about June 20, disaster began to strike. We had a five inch rainfall on the 20th, as did many locations north of us (as the river flows north to south), and it was followed by several long, drizzly, wet days outside. And the river began to rage and roar. It started rising about eight inches a day for a week, and by July 2, it had set an all-time high. On July 10, after three weeks of eighteen hour days of sandbagging and some memories that I almost can’t bear to repeat to you, the river finally crested at 28 feet. The previous all-time record was 21 feet. That very same day, the levee collapsed; the river’s level had been over the top of it for several days and only piles of sandbags had been keeping the water out of town.
My grandmother, my aunts and uncles, my cousins – they all lost their homes. My parents invited all of the refugees to live with us and our property looked like a campground for several weeks. We had so many people on our land that FEMA designated my parents’ property as a disaster relief center, meaning that one day we had a semi pull up to our house and start unloading stuff: hundreds of bars of soap and so on.
Let me tell you two brief stories so that you might be able to visualize some of it in your mind.
My hometown was surrounded on three sides by large mounds of dirt that under normal conditions (a river stage of about 8 to 10 feet) kept the town nice and dry. As the water rose, though, these dirt levees began to feel some serious stress. One major task in fighting a flood is to walk along these levees and look for leaks – they’re often referred to as “boils” because they look like muddy, boiling water as they bubble through. If you spot one, you were to immediately radio the trucks and people nearby and they would come with truckloads of sandbags that you would use to stop the leak.
On the day before the levee broke, I was walking along the top of the levee, which meant at that time that you were mostly walking along a pile of sandbags that were there making the levee taller, because the water was higher than the original levee. I came to one point where the levee was higher than in other places and it appeared to be just normal dirt, so I started walking along it. About five steps in, I took a step and hit nothing but mud. My leg sunk in up to my hip bone (with my other leg outstretched) and I could feel the force of the river swirling my leg around. I started yelling, but I managed to radio for help – I was having a lot of trouble pulling my leg out again because of a suction force. I was eventually pulled out by five people and by some miracle I didn’t injure my leg at all, but the scariest moment was when the first sandbag truck arrived and they started blocking the water off with me still in the hole.
Here’s another story. The day after the levee finally gave way, morning rose and we could look down the road from our house. Less than an eighth of a mile away, it was covered in water, and beyond that the entire town was underwater. My father and I went out on our fishing boat down the main street of my hometown. At one point, we actually went over the roofs of several houses and I could just make out their murky outline in the water below.
What personal finance lessons did I really learn from all of this?
Know your insurance Many people who lived in the town did not get a dime from their home insurance policy. Why? It didn’t cover floods. Read the policy, know what it covers, and if you’re facing any extra risk (like living in a flood plain), make sure that the risk is covered. To avoid finding yourself underinsured after a natural disaster, you should also know the replacement costs associated with rebuilding your home.
Know your community A situation like this showed the power of knowing everyone in your community. The network of people in the community gelled and managed to almost fight off this terrible flood – and that same network ensured that everyone got out of town safely. It was those connections that saved many of my grandmother’s belongings and alerted a lot of my family members when it was time to leave. It was those connections that got everyone organized and ready to go when the time came.
Emergency funds really come in handy My grandmother’s emergency fund was a giant jar full of quarters and dollar bills. When the flood happened, she took it to the bank, got some cash, and rolled through it without skipping a beat. Meanwhile, others were living in tents in our yard and very relieved that we were giving out free meals. Where would you want to be in the event of a disaster?
All I can say is that I hope it never happens again.