By BARBARA SAUERS
When I hear newscasters tell viewers they can’t imagine what the people of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama are going through, I think, well, I can.
For me, a survivor of the 1977 Johnstown Flood, scenes from Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath being played out on our television screens are far too familiar.
I was 18, getting ready to head off to college, when on a July 19 night, 111/2 inches of torrential rain fell in 10 hours on the mountains and valleys of western Pennsylvania.
I’ve never seen fiercer lightning nor heard the kind of sustained, ferocious thunder of that awful night.
Our house and garage were surrounded by roaring water. Our basement was flooded. By dawn, the water was up the three steps of the porch and ready to flow in the front door. Firemen came to get us.
There was fear a nearby dam would break, bringing more water. We thought we would be taken somewhere, but when we reached dry ground, we found we were on our own. My parents had four kids and my grandmother to worry about. We had nothing but a few personal items and the clothes on our backs.
Of course, the extent of Johnstown’s devastation wasn’t the magnitude of what has happened with Katrina, but in Johnstown’s case, there was no warning of any impending disaster.
There was no time to escape or prepare. It was a random act of natural terror. In checking the Web site of my hometown paper, The Tribune-Democrat, in recent days, I find I’m not alone in the kind of memories the scenes from the Gulf Coast evoke.
The anguish, the shock, the expressionless eyes, the anger, the sense of hopelessness, the fear and the sense of time stopping – people in Johnstown can relate.
Those left in the rubble and devastation or in the refugee centers don’t know what the next minute will bring. They see helicopters flying overhead and don’t know if anyone knows or understands their plight. They’re afraid. They’ve just lost everything and, in some cases, everyone who means anything to them. They ask God for reason.
The stagnant water, the mud, the muck, the cars tossed about, the submerged, broken and overturned houses (if they remain), the damaged stores and businesses, the splintered wood, the submerged and dangling power lines and roaming animals are a scene straight out of an end-of-the-world movie.
The loss of life, no water, no food, no way to use a bathroom, chaos and wild rumors are all so familiar and too real.
When I see those sights, the smell of the stench of floodwater and rot returns to my nostrils. I can feel the heat and humidity of July. The sound of military helicopters carrying the dead echoes in my mind.
I remember what it was like to haul buckets of filthy water from the running dirty stream behind our house to the upstairs bathroom so we could flush the toilet. I remember walking with my mother and sister to the firehouse to fill plastic milk jugs with water from the National Guard water tanker when it arrived, and for weeks afterward.
The local Coca-Cola plant provided pallets of canned soda water; it didn’t taste very good, but it was wet.
Clean water is such a basic human need. When it’s denied or limited, it becomes precious in a way so personal you never forget to appreciate it when life returns to normal. There have been many times in the 28 years since the flood when I’ve stood before the bathroom sink, toothbrush in hand, in awe of the miracle of running water.
The ’77 Flood severely damaged Johnstown’s downtown and businesses and many of its roads. It left 85 people dead, including our milkman, Stanley Pilot. He lived in Tanneryville. Water swept him and his house from the face of the earth. His children and family searched the rubble and the banks of the Conemaugh River for weeks and months afterward.
He never was found.
I’ve never forgotten Mr. Pilot. He was the sweetest man and certainly undeserving of his fate.
Thousands of people lost their homes and livelihoods. In my family’s case, we were fortunate friends took all of us in, including my elderly grandmother, who had to be carried from the house by firefighters as water raged down our street and around our home. It wasn’t comforting to see the natural gas line bobbing in the rush of water in front of our house.
In the first three or four days after the flood, there were no police, no National Guard to patrol our neighborhood. I remember my dad carrying a handgun, checking on our house at night and letting it be known to strangers lingering about that he intended to protect his property.
In lawless times, there are always those who want to take advantage of someone else’s misery. Eventually, as the water subsided, we were able to return and to begin to clean up.
For those living through Katrina, surviving the hurricane and tidal surge is hell on earth.
But there is hope, real help and there are resources to begin the long, slow process of recovery. It won’t happen overnight or in a few weeks, but slowly the things taken for granted will return.
Life will be difficult, things will be different, but it won’t be as harsh as it is today. It will get better, but it will take time.
Donations of all kinds, large or small, cash or items, will ease the suffering. It all matters. It all helps.
I remember being grateful for small bags of cleaning supplies, brooms and brushes dropped off at our house.
Family and friends arrived to shovel buckets and wheelbarrows full of mud and muck and mountains of junk for days, weeks and months.
One day, an Amish man showed up and asked if he could help. He labored alongside us for a couple days before moving on to another place. He never did tell us his name, just pitched in to help make things right.
The women at the Lower Yoder fire hall made chili and soup.
The American Red Cross offered sandwiches – baloney and cheese sure tasted good.
And after a day’s work, it was good to take a moment to rest.
One aunt seemed to make mountains of spaghetti to feed a working army.
Our house was one of the lucky ones. While we didn’t have water, we still had electricity and an undamaged first floor.
Another aunt had running water at her house – it was brown and unappetizing – but when warm, that water felt good after we were caked with dust from the mud we shoveled all day.
These scenes will play out in thousands of ways across Louisiana and Mississippi by family, neighbors, friends, police, firefighters, paramedics, rescue workers, church volunteers, doctors, nurses, National Guard, Red Cross, Federal Emergency Management Agency and countless others.
There also will be many heroes who save lives, bring comfort, change things for the better.
For my family, it was nearly Thanksgiving when we finally felt back to normal.
It took our city and its infrastructure a lot longer to recover, and in some ways it never did. The ’77 Flood was the death knell for our steel companies.
Thousands of jobs were gone in an instant of nature’s wrath. The ripple effect of this one natural disaster changed a lot of lives forever.
The enormity of the cleanup and rebuilding in Louisiana and Mississippi will be the same and more.
Life there is disrupted and will be that way for a long time.
For the rest of the country, the aftermath means opening wallets and helping our country’s citizens, coping with soaring gasoline prices and dealing with the lack of some usual goods and services.
Katrina’s victims will survive. They will return.
Things will never be the same, but life will go on and, in some cases, it will be better.
This is a turning point, a test for all who live in the region and for our country. As Americans, we have lived through quite a few challenges and this one will be no different.
One of the slogans used to boost the morale of Johnstowners may sound a bit corny, but there is truth in it for those who don’t know where to turn now or don’t know what the future holds:
“We will survive.”
Barbara Sauers is managing editor of The Star Democrat, a daily newspaper in Easton, Md. A former reporter for The Tribune–Democrat, she moved to the Eastern Shore in 1988.
By BARBARA SAUERS
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