On June 19th, 1972, the first hurricane of the season, Agnes, crossed over the Florida Panhandle and quickly headed back out to sea. With sustained winds of just over 75 miles per hour, Agnes was considered a low level threat by most weather experts. They were wrong.
By June 22nd, the remnants of Agnes stalled over the northeastern United States, dumping up to 22 inches of rain in some areas, including the Elmira/Corning region of New York. The devastating flooding that followed would result in one of the worst natural disasters in the region’s history and change the landscape of the region forever. (from www.wksg.org)
I was born in Elmira, New York in 1954. Elmira isn't a town that anyone's ever heard of unless they are from that area. Oh, Elmira has its claims to fame. Mark Twain married a woman from Elmira and wrote many of his famous novels there. Ernie Davis, the first African-American Heisman Trophy winner was a graduate of Elmira Free Academy, as was I. Brian Williams, the NBC news anchor, was born there, as was Tommy Hilfiger, the fashion designer. Hal Roach, the Hollywood director was born there and is buried there, along with Mark Twain and other notables. Yes, Elmira has its claims to fame. No one wanted the Flood of 1972 to be one of them.
In 1954, I was actually brought home from the hospital on the day Hurricane Hazel hit Elmira. Naturally, a few days old, I have no cognitive memory of that event, although I've been told plenty of stories of downed trees, neighbors with chainsaws, and community destruction. In 1972, it was different. I was a freshman at Elmira College, and my family home was one block from the normally tame Chemung River. The Chemung, which is Iroquois for "Big Horn" and was so named for a mastadon tusk found in the river, is typically a lazy, meandering, river - the kind most people discover in the viewfinders of their cameras since the surrounding communities are bucolic.
As Agnes built her web of destruction, dams in the region began to give way. There was nowhere to run, although people tried. In every direction, roads and bridges were washed out. By June 21, the dam in Hornell gave way. On June 22, the Chemung was expected to crest at 14 feet, below flood stage. By late afternoon that same day, it hit 17 feet, and it was still raining. On June 23, vast areas of Elmira and its sister city, Corning, were underwater. Boats were commandeered from everywhere to save trapped citizens. Helicopters evacuated downtown businesses. And I was watching it all unfold, clutching the drama in my heart and mind as only a 17-year-old can.
Over a matter of a few hours, as more dams gave way, dikes buckled under the raging torrents, and the Chemung was turned into a raging, destructive wall of water that would change the landscape of our hometown forever. I vividly remember my father, brother and brother-in-law spending hours moving all that we stored in the basement to the first floor of our home. Only as the water encroached and the rain was unceasing, the warnings more dire, did all of us realize that it had been in vain. The water was coming, it was coming fast, coming hard, and everything that my family had accumulated over the years would be lost. The mere thought of it was enough to create a panic mode and we all started rushing what we could to the second floor. By the time the water reached the wheel wells of our family station wagon, my brother-in-law, Marine training kicking into high gear, fairly pushed us into the car and yelled "Go!" As we drove toward one of the emergency shelters, I could hear my mother softly weeping.
My baby sister, only 12, was scared, as was I. None of us had been through anything like this. Nearby farmers scrambled to save livestock, sometimes to no avail. One of the worst memories I have is the sight of dead cattle bobbing in the water as it was pouring into city streets. The rain was Biblical in its proportions, and we wondered if it was the end of the world. Little did we know, that it was ... life, as we had known it, would never be the same.
There were no cell phones in 1972 and the emergency weather system was not then what it is today. People used ham radios to spread the news. We had been told it wouldn't happen, but the forecasters were wrong. Thankfully, despite the horror, not one human life was lost in Elmira. Phone service was dead. Power was out. Homes were ripped from their foundations. Fires burned. Tankers were damaged and gasoline spilled into the waters. But not one human life was lost, and to this day, those who were in charge at that time and who are still alive consider it a miracle.
On June 24, the water began to recede and we were left with the mud. Oh, the mud. At the end of our block, there was a water treatment plant. Along with the wall of water, chemicals invaded our home and ate the upholstery on our furniture and melted the enamel faces of our appliances into huge puddles of twisted waste on the floor. The National Guard couldn't get in, because roads and bridges were washed away, but they were eventually airliftedin to maintain some sense of order. Guardsmen with bayonets warned against gawkers and looters. We shoveled mud. Many of us, myself included, wound up with chemically-induced reactive pneumonia and recovered at the infirmary set up at the local college campus. The day we walked back into our home was one of only two times in my life that I could ever remember seeing my father cry. None of us had any idea of how to manage other than to roll up our sleeves and clean up. We didn't talk much. We cried a lot. And we shoveled mud until we couldn't stand any more.
There were other miracles. Recovered photographs - not all, by any means - but enough to restore a certain sense of childhood memories. The lazy susan that sat upon our kitchen table had floated upward in the water, coming to rest upon the top of our refrigerator as the waters receded. Not a drop of salt or pepper was spilled. We marveled over that for days.
Industry moved out, the region became economically depressed and never fully recovered. My brothers and sisters and I all moved to areas where work was plentiful and memories were to be made, rather than remembered. I chose Atlanta, inspired by the Phoenix symbol of the city nearly destroyed by Sherman. I needed a place where survival and resurgence were enmeshed in the city itself and in the life of its inhabitants. My parents never left Elmira. My mother passed away in 1979 and is buried nearby. My father remarried, and he lives in Elmira to this day, although much further away from the river, and still sadly remembering the "glory days" prior to the flood.
What has all this to do with Holly Springs? Not much, perhaps. However, if there is one thing that the flood did for all of us who survived, it was to give us a new perspective. Never again could we read of a natural disaster and just turn away. It didn't much matter if it was a flood, an earthquake, a tornado or just someone's family home burning to the ground ... one doesn't go through that experience without gaining a compassion for the aching hearts of those who might go through something similar. When metro Atlanta experienced her historic flooding just a few years ago, I was also reminded of a fear that I carry deeply buried within my heart. Gratefully, the passage of time has pushed a desire to be of service beyond the fears I carefully hide in the recesses of my heart.
Today, on the 40th anniversary of the greatest natural disaster I've ever been personally involved in, there's a great deal of chatter on Facebook about The Flood among those of us who experienced it and survived. The emotions run the full gamut, from sadness to joy at the tenacity and sheer will of those who remain in Elmira, doing their best to rebuild it to its former status as the jewel of the Southern Tier.
In their honor, I just felt I had to write this. I pray each day that Elmira will be blessed with the spirit of the Phoenix - that same Phoenix of mythology that is the symbol of Atlanta. Thankfully, there are a great many people there who are working diligently to make that happen. Today, however, many are pausing to remember ... and to thank their God that they are alive to remember.
I am reminded of the words of Mark Twain, one of Elmira's most revered adopted sons, "Drag your thoughts away from your troubles ... by the ears, by the heels, or any other way you can manage it." Despite Agnes' best efforts to destroy us, the lesson she taught us is what we all hope to learn in adversity - that we will come away renewed with a spirit of compassion, a spirit of victory through the grace of a loving God, and a dedication to making the world a little better for the next victim of Mother Nature's fury. May God bless all those who are rebuilding, no matter the disaster, and may they be filled with courage, hope and the optimism necessary to overcome.