We all have experiences that stay with us throughout our lives. Often, they teach us something profound. Going through our daily chores, some memory will present itself, flashing us back to that day. For me, one such day occurred 29 years ago. My husband and I, his brother and my one-year-old baby drove to St. Louis to fill sandbags in a little town called Eldred, just north of St. Louis. The Mississippi and several other rivers were flooding all at the same time. We spent the day filling sandbags while my daughter sat on the sandbag pile which grew continually until a truck came to carry the bags to the levees (earth walls about 30 feet high) that protected the land behind them. These levees were built miles from the river protecting ten-mile squares with farms and small towns inside each square.
After spending most of the day bagging, we decided to drive to the levee and see how our bags were being used. So, we followed the truck. And it led us down a country road, then up a farmer’s driveway. From the front yard of the farmer’s house, we could see the 30-foot levee with another five feet of bags on top. Working on top of the levee were large men—convicts, along with heavily armed state troopers. The convicts were unloading the trucks and placing the bags on the levee. We walked up to the levee to see what was on the other side of the bags. As we got nearer to the levee, all the ground was as wet as a soaked sponge. There were no puddles—the water was in the ground. And the mere weight of each step squished the water from the earth around our shoes. Even as we climbed higher on the levee, the water did not stop leaking out of the ground beneath our feet, no matter how high we climbed. And at the top we could see why. The Mississippi River was lapping up to the top bags—five feet above the levee. I will never forget that image. On one side was the Mississippi—and it was so wide I could not see across. Everything—the farmer with his family in the front yard, the house, a mile of corn stalks, other farms, roads and buildings—were separated from a wall of water 35 feet high by nothing more than a squishy levee and five feet of sandbags stretching as far as my eyes could see. I took it in—and then we left quickly. Looking back, I’m not sure it was my finest hour as a mother…
That night we heard that the farm next to the one we helped, had been flooded. The TV news showed the video of the breach. Water rushed in tearing away the levee. And news footage showed the unlucky farmhouse being swept away. This film can still be found on news rolls about floods in general. But an interesting thing happened. Because the one farm and everything within those ten-square miles was lost, the farm we helped was saved. The water pressure lowered as the water filled the ten-mile square bowl that was the neighboring farm. One farmer lost everything, and the other was saved.
One might ask the farmers why they farmed in a flood plain. And they will tell you that humanity has been farming on flood plains since before the time of the pharaohs, because that is the most productive land in the world. Deserts never flood, but they also don’t produce crops like a flood plain either. And I am not going to argue with a farmer who has put everything he holds dear at risk to make a living.
We, in Kewaunee must make some of these calculations ourselves. Our town exists because it’s at the mouth of a river as it feeds into Lake Michigan. There are several people in town who can remember the trains filled with resources, such as ore and coal that met ships in our harbor. Our city’s forefathers made the calculations to put their businesses in a harbor area that was subject to floods. Originally homes, schools and churches were there too. Many still remain. When it became feasible, they built their homes, schools and churches up on the bluff, safely away from the harbor waters which provided all the income for the city. My home was built by just such a person. His living was produced in the harbor, but his home was uphill. A flood could have wiped out his livelihood of ship building. Obviously you can’t build ships up on the bluff.
Today that harbor still provides income to the town—campers, recreational and commercial fishermen and sailors travel hundreds of miles to spend their vacations here. We can’t deny the strategic advantages of the land around our harbor. But we also have to beware that nature and especially water can be cruel. In this Monday’s meeting we are going to make some important choices. There are always costs and benefits. And we will try to weigh the different factors and do what is best for the city, while not over-burdening any one person.
If you are interested, please come to the council meeting. We would love to have you. And if you are curious, please read the packet on our city website:
And then if you like, ask to speak for up to three minutes at the beginning of the meeting. We are all ears.
Thanks for listening,