TERRE HAUTE —
The power within the Wabash revealed itself last week.
Throughout 2012, community groups planned the 2013 Year of the River observance, hoping to raise awareness of the Wabash’s influence on Terre Haute — historically, culturally, economically and physically. Their mission is right. The fabled waterway has been overlooked, as well as abused and neglected, for too long.
Occasionally, the Wabash itself delivers blunt reminders of the force it contains, refusing to be ignored. That message arrived last week.
It came through floodwaters, pouring into the resilient village of Dresser on the west bank, rushing toward homes and farms in rural southwestern Vigo County, and surrounding a trailer park north of Prairieton. Honey Creek, a Wabash tributary, overflowed or eroded its levee in several places, swamping or washing out roads, stranding some residents.
Meters and gauges give us one dimension of the river’s behavior, telling the depth, volume and speed of the waters. The Wabash crested at 27.4 feet on Monday, discharging 124,000 cubic feet of water per second, according to Don Arvin, hydrologist for the U.S. Geological Survey in Indianapolis. Those statistics are scientifically valuable.
But the greater measure of the Wabash came in its effect on the human spirit last week.
Try to imagine another element of the community capable of bringing together such different groups of people for a common cause. The rising river brought greater Terre Haute into the world of folks for whom every year is the Year of the River. They actually know what “the banks of the Wabash” look like, because they live near its main stream or creeks. In the midst of the flood, they met new neighbors from all walks of life.
In the predawn hours Monday, floodwater threatened the church in Dresser, which dates back to 1920. Neighbors hustled to fill sandbags as pumps strained to drain the church basement, and water seeped through the main-floor registers. Volunteers from the Vigo County Community Corrections program helped unload sandbags to shield the church.
That same day, friends and residents plugged holes in the levee near the Blue Hole area southwest of Prairieton, and filled and stacked sandbags, trying to keep homes from washing away.
The roster of helpers grew and flowed into the hard-hit locations on Tuesday. Indiana State University and West Vigo High School students showed up in Dresser, along with members of the Zorah Shrine Temple in Terre Haute, ISU’s Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity, and people from Rockville and other outlying towns, including some in Illinois. Businesses, charities like the Red Cross, Families First, and just good-hearted people sent in food to the sandbagging crews. Inmates and staffers from the Federal Correctional Complex pitched in, as did Terre Haute Ministries, the Salvation Army and other groups.
Some volunteers arrived after full days at work or school across town.
By Wednesday, flooding overwhelmed the levees guarding homes in the secluded, remote lowlands between the towns of Prairieton and Prairie Creek. Federal prison inmates filled sandbags at the prison, before Vigo County Highway Department workers transported the bags to the endangered area. There, federal inmates from the minimum-security camp stacked the sandbags around the home of Stacy Smith. Nearly 40 friends had started sandbagging around her house on Tuesday.
As one volunteer told Tribune-Star reporter Sue Loughlin on Monday in Dresser, the hard work was “worth it, being able to come out and save people’s houses and save the church. It brings the community together.”
The flooding didn’t reach massive proportions, as it did in 2008, said J.D. Kesler, deputy director of the Vigo County Emergency Management Agency. But the wide, quick response from all corners of the community — from county commissioners to fraternities, inmates and churches — left him confident the county can handle larger disasters in the future.
“To see people literally come out of the woodwork and volunteer … it was really kind of neat to see,” Kesler said Thursday afternoon.
Outside of natural disasters and calamities, last week’s effort raises a different question: What other community problems could be tackled if people from different backgrounds, political stripes, faiths and economic levels enlisted each other’s help, talked, and paid a visit to an affected neighborhood they rarely see?
Maybe the Wabash just taught us something.
Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or firstname.lastname@example.org.