We see our share of extreme weather here in Iowa.
And floods. Not just floods of political groupies every four years, but floods of actual water… mixed with raw sewage, shattered lives, and whatever else the current drags along for the ride. The floods of 1993 and 2008 were epic events that tattooed themselves onto our collective memory, but there was also a flood in between those two that had an impact on anyone living in Fayette or attending Upper Iowa University at the time.
It was May of 1999. I was finishing up my sophomore year at Upper Iowa. You’d think that I would be studying for finals around this time. Nope. I was probably playing video games with my friends and complaining that I went through an entire school year without going on one single date.
Somewhere around May 16, the skies exploded and drenched Fayette County with about eight inches of rain in 24 hours. One evening, my friend leaned into my dorm room and asked if we wanted to go help with sandbagging. The Volga River on the north edge of town was rising fast; it was threatening not only the bridge above it, but the whole town south of it. We all threw on some old clothes and rushed to the town garage to help.
When we arrived at the town garage, it was clear that we were stepping into orchestrated madness. Even though everyone was bustling all over the place, it seemed to be strangely organized. Townspeople and UIU students toiled shoulder-to-shoulder to fight Mother Nature. I volunteered to hold sandbags open while people shoveled sand into them, and then when the bags were full, I tied them shut and heaved them onto a pile. By the time we finished, all 10 of my knuckles were ripped open and bleeding from their head-on collisions with wayward shovels. We were all exhausted and out of breath by the time we stopped to take a break, but it was worth it. Fayette was our home away from home, and we were determined to save it from the imminent surge of the Volga.
When my friends and I finally stopped sandbagging, we walked over to the bridge to see the progress Mother Nature had made in her attempts to drown the town. By this time, the bridge was getting swarmed on both sides: the Volga underneath and curious onlookers above. What followed was one of the greatest butt-chewings I have ever witnessed.
The curious onlookers included a small group of out-of-state athletes. They weren’t there to help sandbag; they were only there to gawk at the flooding and make ill-advised jokes about a serious event. Quite frankly, we were pissed. We were just a group of unathletic guys using every last muscle to help Fayette. Here I was, maybe 110 pounds soaking wet (and trust me, I was soaking wet that night), giving everything I had. Yet these athletes, with all their strength and abilities, were standing there contributing absolutely zero effort to the cause.
Up stepped one of my buddies, who was known to always speak his mind, whether it be at a flood or a flag football game. He proceeded to tear them a new one, using a few four-letter words to effectively say “You live here! Why aren’t you helping?!?!” Despite his best efforts, I still don’t think those guys truly understood the point he was making. Most students (both homegrown ones and transplants from out-of-state) will develop a connection to Fayette during their four years there… these guys were the exception. They kept making their stupid jokes while we walked off to keep fighting the flood.
We wandered around town the rest of the night, stopping frequently to give people a hand. I wish I could tell you some phenomenal stories about how we did something heroic, but all I remember is running around town to help wherever it was needed. My memories of what we did are just a big soggy blur now. However, I have heard some crazy stories about my friends and other UIU students rescuing people from their homes. At some point, we headed back to campus, where the relatively dry dorms awaited us. I’m sure we changed out of our drenched clothes and showered right away, because hey, who wants to smell like dirty river water and sewage? Then we headed outside to watch the sun rise. That was the first peaceful moment we’d had all night.
The aftermath was brutal… millions of dollars in damage… homes ruined… businesses destroyed. On a much smaller scale, several professors canceled finals. And I lost a couch that I had just bought for 25 bucks (it was in my buddy’s flooded storage garage, which he had just rented the day before). Many of us students helped with the clean-up, got the recommended tetanus shots, cleared out our dorm rooms, and moved home for the summer. Some dedicated souls stuck around all summer and continued to help with the never-ending mess.
Like I mentioned earlier, Fayette is home away from home for UIU students. It doesn’t take long to form a sentimental bond with that little town. And when a flood threatens to swallow that little town, you don’t think twice about risking your well-being to protect it. The rising river delivered a painful blow to the homes of our professors and our friends, along with so many city landmarks, including Gavin’s IGA grocery store, DT’s bar, the Sugar Bowl restaurant, Big Rock Country Club, Klock’s Island Park, Stan Woodson’s University Barber Shop, and so many more.
The flood of 1999 was the worst in the town’s 125-year history. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was post-flood Fayette. The town gradually dried off, cleared out the carnage, and reinvented itself. I firmly believe that post-flood Fayette is even better than the pre-flood version. Leading the way was a revitalized Main Street and an ever-growing Upper Iowa, both of which continue to thrive today.
A flood can be a horrific catastrophe. However, it’s healthy for us to remember this monumental experience from 15 years ago.
It reminds us to help others in need.
It reminds us that we can accomplish great things when we work together.
It reminds us that harm and heartbreak are not as strong as rebuilding and redemption.
It reminds us that flood water leaves an indescribable stank in its wake.
It reminds me that my knuckles have finally healed.
And for those of us who call ourselves Peacocks, it reminds us yet again that we love Fayette and Upper Iowa.
****Special thanks to good friend and fellow Peacock Nicole DeHoet for providing the flood photos pictured above.****