“It's a relief to hear the rain. It’s the sound of billions of drops, all equal, all equally committed to falling, like a sudden outbreak of democracy. Water, when it hits the ground, instantly …
“It's a relief to hear the rain. It’s the sound of billions of drops, all equal, all equally committed to falling, like a sudden outbreak of democracy. Water, when it hits the ground, instantly becomes a puddle or rivulet or flood.”
— Alice Oswald
T.S. Eliot & Griffin
By the time the January 1991 floodwaters overtook my parents’ house in a serene neighborhood just a few blocks from the hapless banks of the Duck River, I had been out of newspaper work for two years.
It was time to go.
After 12 years of daily deadlines, long hours and hectic lifestyle in the newsprint industry, burnout had taken its toll and the zeal to try something new had taken its place.
Public relations was little more than a stone’s throw from the career I was leaving, and the new job still found me in close proximity to the people I had left: journalists, both print and broadcast.
To a PR guy, all delivered their own brand of frustration.
It is for this reason I sighed in despair while carrying another load of saturated carpet from the house to the growing heap of refuse in the front yard. It wasn’t the stench of my load that forced my frown. It was the sight of a TV news team parked in the gravel driveway of my folks’ devastated home.
Ignoring their presence — a lady reporter and male cameraman — I instead resumed my gait, dumped my ditched roll of carpet and returned to the front door where I disappeared.
It was my older brother, who was ramrodding this recovery effort in the midstate community of Columbia, who greeted the visitors from Nashville.
I didn’t dislike TV reporters. I just didn’t trust them. From my earlier newspaper days, I worked alongside many covering the same stories. They had a job to do, as did I. But our directives were naturally different ... based on target audience.
As a newsprint guy at a midsize paper, mine was to get the facts and organize them into a legible story, get it done before deadline and rely on the reader to judge.
Theirs was different. They, too, wanted the story. They, too, wanted the facts. They, too, wanted to be first. But their incentive went a step further. Their news station dealt with a thing called ratings. They had to give viewers a reason to tune in each evening. So they did what they had to do. If that meant plugging a dose of sensationalism into a story — unfiltered human emotion, overselling the significance of the news event, frowning into the camera lens and narrating the story in an “on-your-side” tone — then so be it.
Not only did I see it then as a reporter, I witnessed it too often as a public information officer whose job was to dispel myth, as created from the public rumor mill which was influenced heavily by those on-your-side TV voiceovers.
Sad to say, in today’s evolving media climate I’m seeing it more and more in some newspapers — as well as internet “news” sites — whose reporting style has become more accusatory than serving as objective centers of information.
But that’s another story, one to which I could dedicate hundreds — probably thousands — of column inches.
Back to the flood.
Stepping through the front door of my parents’ home, I saw from the corner of one eye my brother shaking hands with the TV reporter, and then the cameraman. She was a redhead, tall and trim, and dressed like a model. He was rough looking, wearing blue jeans and some kind of TV station jacket, had long, curly hair and brandished the start of a beard.
Within minutes, they stepped into the stench of putrid disaster. There, they found my nephew and me finishing the carpet removal from one bedroom, and we prepared to head to the next. Meanwhile, my mother continued emptying kitchen cabinets and filling the cardboard boxes given to us by the manager at Piggly Wiggly.
Introductions were made and hands were shaken, and then my brother led the TV people on a tour of the rancid structure.
My brother even told the TV lady I was a former newspaperman who now worked in public relations. She offered a courteous, but disingenuous smile.
“Where to next, Uncle Rick?” my nephew asked.
“Let’s hit the back den,” I said. “That’ll keep us out of their way.”
The cameraman overheard. With raised eyebrows and excited voice, he asked, “You guys are going to remove more carpet?”
Realizing he was just doing his job, I answered “Yes.”
“Cool!” he replied. “Mind if I come along?”
Feeling my eyes roll but hoping it wasn’t seen, I said, “Sure. But watch your step. It’s a mess in here.”
We made our way to the den, dodging dirtied appliances and overburdened bookshelves that didn’t make it to the U-Haul before high water overtook the house. Most sat atop cinder blocks, hurriedly placed by the cold hands of volunteers on that cold January night. Some items could be salvaged. Others, not so much.
Following the same cut, rip and roll process as in the other rooms, my nephew and I slowly cleared the den floor of sopping carpet and muddied pad. In the meantime, the cameraman filmed from every conceivable angle of the room.
Back in the kitchen, the TV reporter talked with my mother. That’s when my anger set in. But with pursed lips, I kept my silence ... because my brother had invited them in.
Watching a neighborhood go under water was bad enough. Seeing its damage was even worse. But part of the negative emotion spreading among flood victims was an unconfirmed report that floodwaters “might” have been avoided if a dam somewhere up river had not released water prematurely.
To this day, I don’t know the truth from the fantasy. But on that day the TV lady was exacerbating the controversy. She was asking leading questions while setting an emotional tone, all for the sake of keeping her viewers’ interest. With every calculated word, she riled my beleaguered mother, whose patience already straddled the edge.
It was not a proud moment in news reporting, nor for Mom’s temper.
And the reporter’s prized finale: “Mrs. Norton, would you describe this as devastating or just a mild setback in your life?”
Let me answer that one 36 years later: “Lady, my mom lost her home ...”
After the news story aired that night on Nashville TV, Dad — who watched from my brother’s house — seemed a little embarrassed. Mom might have been, as well, but she stuck to her views. She could not be faulted. Heartache can do that.
On the upside, Mom conducted no more TV interviews ... at Dad’s request.
In spite of my parents’ anxiousness to get back into the house quickly, the recovery process was long.
We emptied the house. We removed the carpet. We pulled the wooden floors. We cut away the bottom four feet — or more — of sheetrock. Once the house was cleared of all remaining furniture and debris, professional contractors came in and did the rest. In the meantime, we worked outside, clearing rubbish and reclaiming the yard whose grass was once lush, beautiful and inviting.
For 13 consecutive weekends I made the drive from Cleveland to Columbia, and back, to assist with the recovery.
The work was hard. It was tiring. And there were times we felt defeated in the face of such destruction. But we persevered ... because we had no other options. A few months later, Mom and Dad moved into their “new” home.
I wish I could say our family lived happily ever after. We did not.
Dad died a year later.
The house went under floodwaters twice more over the next few years. After the last, we moved Mom into another modest home on higher ground. Three months later, she was diagnosed with cancer. Six months later, she joined Dad in a new life, one free from floods and calamities and all cares of a troubled world.
As I am told today, that old house still stands and hasn’t been taken by the rising waters of the Duck River since the day we evacuated Mom for the final time.
Sometimes there’s no understanding life. It’s probably best we not even try.
Be that as it may, travesties like Harvey and Irma and Maria — and all storms that follow in their wake — get my attention.
To the survivors, I offer my encouragement.
To the loved ones of those lost, I offer my prayers.
What happens will happen, and when it does we face little choice but to find meaning within that which seems meaningless.
It is the first step toward restoring hope, and the biggest step in defining our new day ... the one most know as tomorrow.
(About the writer: Rick Norton is an associate editor at the Cleveland Daily Banner. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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