Driving rain and wind pummeled the house all night, rattling the cistern boxes, bellowing down the chimneys, and pouring sheets of water against the windows. Although the wind died down the next morning, rain peppered steadily for three more days.
With this sudden dumping of water on already saturated ground and into already full streams, we had the making of a major flood. And the flood came, engulfing West Virginia, Kentucky, and the southern borders of Ohio and Indiana. In every town along the Ohio as far up river as Marietta, people watched the waters rise high above flood stage. Every stream in Kentucky south to the Tennessee border was bursting, every creek, every run, every branch and fork. Kentucky, it is said, with its abundance of rivers and streams, in addition to its long expanse of Ohio River frontage, has more river miles than any other state except Alaska.
Now these streams ran wild. The Licking River normally flows around Falmouth, Kentucky, a pleasant little town in Campbell County where apparitions of the Virgin Mary have been reported. Suddenly, however, the Licking changed course and swallowed 90 percent of the town. It also devastated Butler and Cynthiana.
The Ohio at Cincinnati rose dramatically, surging into the low-lying riverfront area as far as Third Street and sweeping into nearly every little town close to Cincinnati — Point Pleasant, New Richmond, Bellevue, Ludlow, Cleves, Aurora.
Our own little town had problems of its own. People carried things to high ground and then stood by as the Ohio rose to meet the front steps of the General Store, then the porch, then the top of the Clabber Girl sign on the side of the building. Water poured into the first floor of the tiny log historical museum and the Kentucky Huckster next door. It submerged the red antique fire truck to the top of its fenders. People checking their property putted down River Road by the only means — in boats.
In the new washing of a people with charity and common purpose, the muddy, fast-running water of a flood is the water of baptism.
For all its danger and devastation, a flood, of all natural disasters, is among the most awesome. Awesome, perhaps, because it symbolizes to the human heart a primeval world where God has yet made only sky and water. The dry land of one’s place, where one cultivates his own corner of God’s creation, has yet to appear. The earth upon which man, by God’s grace, will build his household and join with his Creator in the work of the Kingdom is yet unseen.
In the meanwhile, the rain stops; the sun comes out; and there is the majesty of the flood. Gunpowder Creek, spreading its watery carpet from wall to wall of Riddles Run hollow, glistens in the morning light. Sunlight filters across the backs of the cows that have taken refuge up the high slope. Below its ridge the Ohio stretches for miles in every direction, blanketing all the familiar landmarks in nothingness. The river reigns, and we can only wait.
The water subsides, leaving the ugliness after a flood — layers of impenetrable mud. Then come the volunteers, the large heart of America incarnated. They come with tetanus and diphtheria vaccine, rubber gloves, buckets and disinfectant, bottled water, power washers, and front-loader vehicles. Seven thousand offers of help swamp the Red Cross stations. Money falls out of envelopes. Emergency money, write two little boys. We had an emergency fund, and this flood is an emergency. Take this money, an old lady writes in offering her widow’s mite. I wish I could give more, but this is all I have. We’re driving down from Akron, says a man. Just tell us where to help. We’re drying out books, say others, tackling the tedious, often hopeless task of scraping mold from precious court documents and family Bibles. Family photos are my biggest loss, says a grandmother; but, look, says her friend; here’s your Sacred Heart statue, caked with mud but unbroken.
The restoration of order after a natural disaster calls forth enormous energy, practical intelligence, sweat, and often a profusion of tears. Yet, given time and muscle, it is accomplished. The reordering of natural disorder, mammoth as it is, often is less terrifying than reordering moral disorder in the human soul. Most people, if given a choice, will tackle natural disorder and leave moral disorder to God. What they may not realize, however, is that in addressing the natural disorder, they unite in a common moral purpose. In so building the virtue of charity, they likewise cement the bond of community. Thus, in the new washing of a people with charity and common purpose, the muddy, fast-running water of a flood is the water of baptism.
This column originally appeared in the May 1997 issue of Crisis Magazine.