You might describe the gathering as a mandatory party that nobody wanted or planned to attend. This past Thursday, the powers that be in charge of Norfolk, Nebraska city government ordered a mandatory evacuation for approximately one-third of the town.
The reason was that widespread flooding was imminent and very possible due to severe flooding across some of the Great Plains states–notably Minnesota, Iowa, South Dakota, and Nebraska. This took place at about the same time as the so-called “Bomb Cyclone” was dumping snow on Colorado. However, what took place here in the Upper Midwest was the exact opposite of what Colorado was receiving. We were very rapidly losing our heavy snow-cover to very heavy rain and warmer than usual temperatures. All of this excess liquid water on top of frozen ground was a recipe for the recent catastrophic flooding.
Norfolk is located in a relatively low-lying part of Northeast Nebraska. We have a wide river, The Elkhorn, that meanders past the southern city limits. There is a smaller tributary, the North Fork of the Elkhorn that passes through the town. It is the tributary that is directly adjacent to my back yard. Due to some historically severe flooding in the past, particularly in 1944, a flood control system was built to prevent future severe flooding disasters. A flood control bypass channel on Norfolk’s eastern city limits was constructed that diverts water from the southern portion of the North Fork of the Elkhorn that passes near downtown and near my house. That section of the tributary is bounded by mechanical “gates” that control river current. The northern “gate” prevents water from entering the downtown section when closed. The southern “gate” prevents backwash when the flood channel and main Elkhorn river are above flood stage.
The historical volume of flood waters to the North of Norfolk that drained into the North Fork had caused the bypass diversion channel to fill nearly to capacity. There was nowhere for the water to go because the main Elkhorn River was already well above its banks. This immense amount of water threatened to overflow the levee that protects the eastern third of the city. If you know anything about levees, you know that they erode quickly when flood waters begin flowing over the top. This was the situation this Thursday. Water was only inches from the top of the levee and more water was flowing into the system from up north. Hence, the mandatory evacuation order was issued.
I knew about the levee crisis, plus I was very concerned about the portion of the channel that was near bank-full near my back door. If the flood control system failed, anyone remaining in eastern Norfolk risked death. Even if everybody evacuated, there would be an incredible amount of property damage.
So, at about 11:00 Thursday morning I packed a few essentials into the trunk of the ol’ Camry and drove away to one of the assigned evacuation centers located on higher ground in the western part of Norfolk. The closest, most convenient location was BelAir Elementary School which is located on the side of a tall hill.
The evacuation was a brand new experience for me, so even though I hated to leave my little house to the fate of an enormous flood from the levee or “minor” basement intrusive flooding from the channel near my back yard, I decided to make the most of the school situation. After checking in with a worker using the city database of residents, I settled at one of the school’s lunchroom tables.
The social atmosphere of the lunchroom was a mix of bewilderment and boredom. I soon blended into the blank-stare feeling because of the sense of isolation from information and the unfamiliar venue–an elementary school. Although all of the evacuees were from my part of town, all of them were total strangers to me. There being no plan to inform nor entertain us, people resorted to twiddling with their mobile phones or tablets. I soon followed suit. There was WiFi available for such purposes as social media and weather sites, but there was no general access to the Internet due to the fact that we were in a school. I could access email, Facebook, and weather, but nothing else. The only outside news sources were land base television and radio.
Half an hour after my arrival, the volunteers in charge of the evacuation center requested “able-bodied” people to help unload a truck full of blankets and bedding provided by the “Orphan Grain Train”. The Norfolk-based organization usually helps in disasters and famines around the world but is almost never needed in its home city. Soon a line of us able-bodied people lined up behind the supply truck in order to pass the boxes from one to another in bucket brigade fashion. I was second in line. The truck unloading took about 15-minutes. The physical portion of the day’s “entertainment” was done. Then it was back to blank-stares and boredom for everyone.
The next event was lunch. There was a bevy of sandwiches from nearly every chain fast-food restaurant and at least one supermarket. The vittles were arrayed buffet-style on tables along with chips, raw veggies and soft drinks. All of this was free of charge. I had a Subway veggie sub and onion with sour cream potato chips and plain water. As it turned out, lunch morphed into becoming the afternoon entertainment. Evacuees continually visited the buffet table for more sandwiches and snacks. I held back, because I’m trying to watch my weight. Then at around 2:30, a stack of a dozen large pizzas from Dominos arrived. I did enjoy one large slice of cheese pizza because–why not?
Meantime, my back and derrière were in pain after sitting at the child-size cafeteria table for much of the afternoon. Also, my tablet needed charging, so I sat on a padded wrestling mat near some electrical wall outlets. There, I became acquainted with Bert, an older man who lives two blocks away from me on the same street. Finally, I could enjoy some small-talk and maybe explore the possibility of a new friendship.
Perhaps after an hour of visiting with Bert, a volunteer spoke over the intercom that it was time to serve supper. There would be more sandwiches, extras, drinks, and deserts. Bert and I exchanged puzzled glances and wondered who had room for still more food. Well, both of us soon queued up with everybody else like sheep to the slaughter. Why not have just a little something to tide us over until breakfast? After our snack, Bert decided to lay down and go to sleep on the mat.
After mingling with other evacuees and volunteer staffers, I returned to the wrestling mat to decompress. A very young boy stopped by the wrestling mat and insisted that I play a game of plastic disks and slots similar to “Plinko”.
After the child wandered off in search of another adult playing partner, I decided to check out my sleeping area. I brought my devices, a stadium parka, and an oversize pillow from home to my temporary “bedroom”. They assigned me to “Mrs, Crey’s Fourth Grade” classroom. My room mates were a young family from northeastern Norfolk. After some brief, polite smalltalk it was time for sleeping.
I was provided with a black plastic air mattress and one of the “Orphan Grain Train” blankets. The peculiarly unfamiliar “bedroom”, along with having complete strangers as room mates conspired with hallway sounds, and strong winds howling outside the window to keep me awake. I tried concentrating on counting sheep as a distraction. That attempt failed and morphed into worrying about the possible fate of my little house and the possible loss of almost everything I own. I philosophically “let go” of the worst-case scenario, but it kept creeping back into the mind. Just as I was finally beginning to drift to sleep, I experienced an attack of GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease). This is because I ate too much and too close to bedtime. Normally, I know better not to do this, but the unfamiliar surroundings and related stress lessened my usual mindfulness regarding food.
There was no way of laying down to sleep without the risk of serious choking, so I struggled off of the air mattress, put on my shoes and eyeglasses then left the the fourth grade classroom.
That’s when I met Carole–a woman about ten years older than me. She said she was also suffering from an attack of GERD so she settled into sitting against the wall opposite from the boys and girls restrooms. Carole and I hit it off right away. Before long, we were discussing existentialism and who our favorite modern philosophers are. She convinced me to read more of Albert Camus’ writings, while I encouraged Carole to give Friedrich Nietzsche another try. But the conversation kept coming back to existentialism.
We both felt safe from GERD and sleepy. So Carole tucked in near the restrooms, and I returned to Mrs. Crey’s Fourth Grade room. With thoughts of Albert Camus on my mind, I was finally able to drift off to sleep.
Then, at 4:00 AM, sharp, I awakened, looked at my wristwatch, and felt cold, cramping pain on my left leg. Much of the air in the mattress had managed to escape–leaving me lying on the hard, cold floor tiles of Mrs. Crey’s classroom. So, I got up and wandered into the hallway in search of coffee. There were a few other early-risers whose air mattresses had also deflated, including Carole. Soon we were eating still more sandwiches, fruit, and some breakfast-type foods.
Near the end of breakfast, we received news that the flood waters had begun to recede. Norfolk officials had decided to cancel the evacuation as of 9:00 AM. We were free to return home at any time. This is when my anxiety flared up. Soon I would find out if my house had become waterlogged or if it had somehow escaped damage. It was the first time
in my life that I was afraid to go home. I had to find out soon because I was cranky and tired from lack of sleep and an excess of anxious thoughts.
I drove the ol’ Camry towards home; made it to my street; and rounded the final curve. There it was, home sweet home. It was on dry ground with no signs that any flood waters had approached it. The feelings of relief were epic. Norfolk’s Flood Control System had worked again. After switching off the car’s engine, I dashed to the front door; strolled in; and felt the joy of being home again.
The Blue Jay of Happiness quotes Canadian scientist and policy analyst Vaclav Smil. “People shouldn’t be living in certain places – on earthquake faults or on flood plains. But they do, and there are consequences.”