Monday, January 7, 2013 -- Today marks the five-year anniversary of the great Flood of 2008 that devastated Pontiac and Watseka.
I remember it well. I traveled to Saunemin for some meetings in the early evening. While sitting in Saunemin, the storms rolled in. I turned to my city administrator and said we might been to take off early to get back to Pontiac to make sure we are not late for the city council meeting that evening. Since he and I drove separately, he left first and I followed a few minutes later.
Driving back to Pontiac was one of the hardest drives I've experienced. The storm was so intense that I couldn't even see the road. I crawled at around 15 MPH at best, doing everything I could to find the lines on the road. If it wasn't for my GPS, I wouldn't have had any clue where I was during the trip back to Pontiac.
It rained and rained. The lights flickered during the meeting. We went as quickly as possible to get the meeting in before completely losing power. Then I went home.
The next morning we knew we were going to have a problem. The National Weather Service was predicting major flooding in Pontiac. The massive amounts of rain that fell east of Pontiac were headed our way. The ground was still frozen, and the several inches of snow we already had were melted by the warmer temperatures and rain. It was the melting snow, plus the major rainfall, running along a frozen ground with no where to go – except through the middle of Pontiac.
The Vermilion River was already pretty full. It was the prefect situation. Even if the rain would have fallen on top of Pontiac, we would have been in much better shape. But if fell between us and Indiana, and all of that water was going to run-off to the streams, then to the rivers -- and Pontiac was in its path.
Pontiac was being taken over from the inside-out as the flood waters began to rise from the river that runs through the center of town. At the same time, Watseka, Illinois was dealing with the same storm event, but it was taking them over from the outside-in. Watseka sits at the junction where a major stream meets their river. The water was rising both the north and south edges of town of that smaller community.
As we met to discuss and plan an hour-by-hour action plan, the water kept rising. We installed a measuring stick to a tree to measure the water, because the National Weather Service equipment was flooded over. Residents and city workers worked like crazy to protect as much as possible.
A few of us took a plane up to access the damage from the air. I couldn't believe what I saw. Everything was flooded. Rivers, streams, roads, farm land... everything. In areas east of town, there was more water than dry land. It almost didn't seem real.
After returning to the Pontiac airport, I was driving to city hall when I came across rushing water on the north side of town. The water was quickly taking over the streets. It was like a major water main break, and I wasn't anywhere near the river. I hurried back to city hall and we sent crews out to block those streets and monitor the water in those areas.
The night the water crested was one of the longest nights of my life. Overnight, I met with department heads every few hours at city hall. I'm told someone snapped a photo of me sleeping on my office floor as I tried to get a few minutes of rest. The police and fire departments continued rescues throughout the evening and night. Some of our police and fire personnel had their own homes flooded, but they reported to work anyway. Each department provided updated information throughout the night, as we reaccessed our strategy and took action.
The water seemed to recede fairly quickly. I remember standing in a flooded street watching massive amounts of water run down the storm system in the dark early morning.
Once residents were able to get back into their homes, the cleanup process started. I must have visited hundreds of homes. I saw the destruction and loss first hand. Piles of ruined personal belongings were being hauled out to the road and tossed in piles. Family photos, keepsakes, and the entire contents of childrens rooms were dumped at the street.
Residents were working like busy bees hauling stuff out of their water damaged homes – yet, while seemingly in a daze. No question some were in shock over what happened, and over the work ahead.
I took photos of the piles of garbage for the record. Most of the appliances were gone as soon as they were brought outside. Trucks cruised the neighborhoods looking for metal to recycle. While residents were trying to save what was left of their homes, vultures were taking advantage.
But I also found many who were coming to the aid of those affected. Businesses, even those from other towns around Central Illinois, came to Pontiac and donated their time and equipment. They pumped basements, pressure washed homes, and provided much needed labor for those who needed to empty their house contents or rip out the interior walls.
Others came with blankets, soap, mops, food, clothing, baby food, bedding, and everything else. The American Red Cross of the Heartland arrived with dozens of volunteers to distribute food, clothing, cleanup kits, and provide temporary housing. The OSF medical system provided medical assistance, including a mobile hospital. And thousands of individuals come on their own and gave of themselves, for those they didn't even know.
Our community came together. Other communities also came to our aid. It was a massive operation of people helping people, unlike anything I've ever witnessed in my life.
There are a lot of untold stories. There are a lot of people who deserve metals and recognition that never received it. There are people we'll never know about, who did good things without ever being noticed or acknowledged. I wish I could shake each of their hands, give them a hug, and thank each one of them.
To me, the flood isn't the story. The story is what happened after the flood. The story is about the individuals who were part of the an emergency agency, church organization, medical team, youth group, the city, and even those who got up on their own and went out to help someone recover from the worst natural disaster we've ever seen.
Five years ago, a situation that seemed unfathomable happened to us. Every year since, I remember all of the good that came from such a horrible situation. I remember everyone who was affected and everyone who helped.
It's been five years. Hard to believe. Seems like yesterday to me.
My home may not have been affected by the flood, but my life sure was...
Scott H. McCoy