COLUMN: When the water comes

This is my Sunday column for the June 24, 2012 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune. Those who would like to do something to help the people in Duluth, either financially or with your time and effort, should go here.

When the water comes
By Aaron J. Brown

Like most folks we’ve encountered leaky basements in the past and tried most of the things you can do to fix them. Digging and trenching outside. Tubes. Pumps. Stuff from spray cans. These tactics worked sometimes. But then I saw a picture of a frightened seal on a Duluth street last Wednesday, drenched with heavy rain drops sparkling in the headlights of a parked car on Grand Avenue.

Indeed, sometimes the water comes and you no longer control what is going to happen.

Water is one of those forces of nature that remind us the limits of our overblown sense of human importance. If you’ve spilled a glass of water on your table you are unlikely to stop things on the table from getting wet. A flowing body of water may only be redirected with great feats of human engineering, all of which are fallible, indeed likely to fail eventually.

This week an entire summer’s worth of rainfall quite literally fell on Duluth in one night. Though estimates are still in flux, the public and private damages are monumental, certainly the worst flood event in the city’s history. The countless washed-out streets are one part of the bill; the water-damaged businesses and homes will also rack up vast amounts of insurance claims.

And it wasn’t just Duluth. Towns and roads all over northern Minnesota and Wisconsin experienced some damage, not least of which Superior across the bridge. The net result is a regional economic blow during the peak of tourism season. Rebuilding will be conducted quickly and the community pride seen in Duluth is truly inspiring. Nevertheless, a difficult task lies ahead.

The flood was an exercise of unexpected, unstoppable force. Only two Duluth rain events in the last century have come close to this but neither had this much water, nor did they occur in such a short period. And while there will surely be finger pointing and policy changes as a result of the flood, it simply doesn’t seem that any the damage could have been predicted or prevented. Like many, I went to bed that night hearing talk of three or four inches of rain – no small amount – but the nine or ten that came were simply astounding.

The strain on limited local resources will be enormous. State and federal emergency funds will come, but costs remain. The one good thing is that human decency still generally allows such endeavors to occur in a bipartisan way; arguments about the role of government fade when the role of government in this case is painfully clear.

That no human lives were lost is truly remarkable. Considering how much water fell at once, surprising nearly everyone, everyone made it through the night and following day. There were close calls. The story of an eight-year-old boy who was swept through a mile of culvert before being spit out in a holding pond is a tearful miracle.

Of course, many animals at the Lake Superior Zoo perished in the flood, while a polar bear and two seals managed to escape their pens. This was the story that drew the most attention; and admittedly it’s a grabber. The polar bear was tranquilized by a dart as it wandered the zoo. The two seals managed to escape, but were recovered quickly – one in a nearby river and the other, more famous seal got all the way to Grand Avenue where motorists and police surrounded it until it was picked up by zoo officials. This is the seal that “started a Twitter account” that very day, which provided a much needed smile for many during a terrible time.

Whether it’s an individual basement or a large, proud city on a hill, when the water comes we must contend with something we do not control. In the end the only solution is a sense of community and higher purpose. We might not be thankful for the flood; but we should be thankful that we are surrounded by people who will rebuild what the flood took; perhaps even better than before.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from the Iron Range. He writes the blog and hosts 91.7 KAXE’s Great Northern Radio Show on public stations.

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