Sunday, July 01, 2012

The Duluth Deluge in Fond du lac neighborhood

I live in Tennessee, but I was there on June 19th-20th very late at night when the rains began to fall near Duluth. I had been told a few days earlier that my mother was in a 'coma', and may not survive. My sister begged for me to drive out of my way to southern Oklahoma and drive her up, as she had no other way. After I got to her house twelve hours later, she said she was bringing her child with. I think she thought this would be a vacation, and although I knew it would be hard I did not know just how hard and dangerous this trip was going to be. I left my own child home with her Daddy because I wanted to know she was safe at all times - that helped me keep my head in the situations that followed - because I knew she was safe and that if I could stay bodily safe, I would be able to return home to all of them in time.

The next morning in Oklahoma we packed my sister's items into the car and began to drive up to Minnesota, and after being lost a few times we ended up in Coon Rapids very late at night. I started driving at 5 am and since it hurt my sister's back to drive, I continued driving all the way through the day with very few stops. Since my sister had fallen asleep several times, we should have stopped for a hotel - but I wanted to be done and in Duluth before we found a hotel we would stay at for a few nights. I will admit I expected more navigational help from them in the passenger's seat and after getting lost a few times on bad exits - I was pretty flustered at Coon Rapids and did not want to have to deal with more of the same the next day. I am not an excellent navigator myself, but while going 70 mph is not the time to be arguing about the map. I decided to push on to Duluth even though it was already quite late and probably our last chance for a hotel.

From Coon Rapids we found our way back to Hwy 35 - and then at about midnight we hit a detour onto 23 for road construction. I had not heard about the detour - and did not know anything except the road did end up in Duluth and there was nothing else to do but follow the signs. There was nowhere to stop on the road there after that. There was heavy rain and our sister in law texted to us 'it is raining bad' from the Grand Rapids area, but there was no notification of flooding and no road blocks or warning signs. I was listening to a local radio station to stay awake and heard no emergency broadcasts. We crossed the St.Louis river into Duluth at about 1:50 am and then after the bridge there was suddenly water everywhere - getting deeper and with a strong current. I was at first very worried then hit a dose of terrified when the water began going over the hood of our little car. My only instinct was to get out of the water - not to stop the car in the water because it may not start again... I turned onto a side street driving by people standing out in their yards in life vests. It was like something out of a disaster movie and the people looked like zombies stumbling through the street and bearing completely haggard and sleepy expressions. It was very late at night and I am sure they were in shock, as well. In my mental state I was frankly terrified of them, and felt bad about that later hoping that they were okay. I did not stop to talk to them because my previous vehicle had been in a flood in Fargo, ND - and it did not start again after it was stopped in the water.

I continued until I found a small patch of pavement that was not submerged - and it had a street sign intersection that my husband back in TN could identify on Google maps. We quickly realized it was not a good place at all to be - and nowhere better to go either. I called the Highway Patrol to tell them where we were and that I was worried the water could rise on us. There was a resident of the neighborhood who came and gave me very good information to pass along to the Patrol - about exactly where we were, that Mission Creek was overflowing after being dammed with wood, and that if it was not cleared soon the river was going to rise and we would all be in trouble. About two more calls and an hour later, the Highway Patrol came by and found us - 'the people from Tennessee' they had been looking for - told us we would need to leave the area and take exactly what we would need - because there was a major effort about to start to evacuate. We left most everything in our car - thinking at the time it was really only going to be a few hours and the car was not going to be submerged, just really hard to get in and out of. They brought us to a bus, where we waited for five hours, and then when it was full of families taken from their houses, the campgrounds and cars in the water - we were shuttled away to a Red Cross shelter. I think back with hindsight if I had not called and just tried to wait it out - no one would have known we were there at all. We would have become missing persons.

The rain was still falling at that point. It eventually reached more than ten inches. While we were on the rescue bus the word came that they were opening the floodgates on the river. It was apparent that we would not be going back to the vehicle and we would have to survive on what we brought out of the car with us. The entire neighborhood of Fond du lac ended up under water up to the second stories of the very tallest houses. There were people who lost everything - except themselves. And there were other families that had been caught at the campground and were as stranded as we were. I called police and highway patrol daily to find out about the car - but no one had information on it for over a week... and there were fears that the pavement was unstable and the entire shoreline might fall into the river.

But, the main purpose of the trip was to see my mother in the hospital. So when my uncle arrived at the shelter we did not stay - we left and went with him. We could have probably stayed there for free in the days that followed, but my sister would not have been able to make that walk back and forth to the hospital up and down Duluth's hills. I did walk to several places downtown for survival supplies as it felt like the other two were now my responsibility. I thought to myself what might have happened to them if I had not been there to be the brains of the operation. That sounds a little harsh I know, but I had to show them several things I thought were obvious - like planning how to spend (my) money to get the bare basics and conserve until we knew what situation we were in. I found what resources were within walking distance and planned a trip by myself in a cab to a place a little further away to get other bare essentials - but did not buy more than that and I know that made them feel like they 'missed out' on things they wanted. I bought socks and underwear but did not spring for new shoes or more clothing, or 'good' snacks etc...

We left the shelter for a medical rate reduction hotel that had a free shuttle to the hospital. A relative of mine up in Minnesota helped contact the right people at the hospital to find out what we needed to on that - and it was a boon. I am also lucky enough to have had resources back home to help me pay for that, even though they were not with me at the time. So we lived between the hospital waiting rooms and the hotel for about ten days - which was not easy but was harder for my sister and her child than it was for me. I was enthused that we had a coffee pot and a can opener, access to a washing machine, dryer and a shower. I walked to a relief center in town and found a change of clothing for each of us, combined with a few things my uncle and stepdad brought with them a few days later. I bought soup and bread and tea at a gas station and made 'survival' food using hot water from the coffee pots so we would not spend all of our cash at hand at the cafeteria, which was expensive. After trying to go with them for a meal at the cafeteria, and a local restaurant the first two days - I realized they did not know how to conserve and went for the bread and soup survival tactics. I know that upset them more, but it was all food Esme would have eaten if she had been with me - and it was a fraction of the cost of a single meal in the hospital. My sister and her kid at first did not know what to make of my 'survivor' type actions but then (I hope) they came to appreciate it when they realized how long we would have to do this. I had to take care of them as they had never even been camping before, much less had to live in the middle of the city with limited resources. I am very grateful to my work team here in Tennessee that pooled together to give me more phone minutes to continue to update them on conditions and also to text back and forth to my husband, who was cool and collected and resourceful. Knowing he could give me objective advice and also much needed words of encouragement was another thing to keep me strong inside during the trip, and to remind me to keep strong all around.

After a few days our mom began to respond more to the antibiotic for her pneumonia, and they did a heart surgery on her she responded very well to. She began to become more aware of us and to get better by leaps and bounds each day - although she still had a lot of physical activities she was not yet able to do, she could not lift her hands for the first day and was by the third day attempting to get her own food and drinks from a tray. She could not talk the first day, and was beginning to be able to be understood by almost anyone the day I left - although her memory was still fuzzed by the many medications so that she did not always remember why she was there or why she could not do something. I think with time and cooperation she will be even better than she was before she went to the hospital - she had the pneumonia for at least six months before she went in, so her muscles and lungs were very weak even before the actual seizures and heart attacks.

My sister and my niece got home via bus tickets from their Oklahoma family - and it was none too soon because I could not keep paying for hotel. I was ready to start living in the hospital waiting room and now with the survival supplies in hand I was ready to do that. I would have been ready to live out of my car in the parking garage and waiting room there if it had been just me - but with sister and kid along that plan had become impossible even before the supplies in the car were lost. When they were safely on the bus home only then could I begin trying harder to find ways for myself to get home. Mark helped me find everything as computer access was limited - and he found a few connecting flights with layovers between I could get on to hop home. I flew on several small regional jets to get here - and having never done that before and never been in an airport before - it was all very new and scary - but not as scary as what we had just been through. And I was doing that with just myself - so I did not have to keep the high level of intensity I had the first few days, which was actually wearing on me and starting to take a toll by then.

And now I am home and have been in my garden, and played rabbits with Esme and made homemade soup with garden tomatoes and herbs... it is so nice to be home!

1 comment:

ElizabethEK said...

Wow! What a crazy experience.