June 22, 2008 / 1:08 PM / 10 years ago

WITNESS: Humor, the strongest levee in the Midwest?

Nick Carey is a Chicago correspondent for Reuters who spent last week traveling up and down a 300-mile (480-km) stretch of mid-Mississippi River flood plain as the giant stream overflowed its banks and levees and swallowed up small towns and thousands of acres of some of the richest farmland in America. In the following story he writes of his impressions of people he met as they fortified levees, organized flood responses, and coped with the disaster.

A levee is fortified against the Midwest floods outside of Hannibal, Missouri on June 19, 2008. The Mississippi River's crest migrated slowly downstream on June 20, submerging farm fields and small towns with its relentless flow as people and industry tried to recover from the worst flooding in 15 years. REUTERS/Nick Carey

By Nick Carey

PALMYRA, Missouri (Reuters) - I knew for a fact that Brent Hoerr was exhausted.

Half an hour earlier in the kitchen of his farmhouse, as we drained bottles of ice water in the heat of the day, his wife Charlotte told me Brent had barely slept for a week.

As a local Drainage District official — a job rotated among Brent and his neighbors — he had battled to shore up his levee against the rising waters of the Mississippi.

The couple, like thousands of other residents the past week along several hundred miles of one of the world’s major rivers, had made virtue of necessity by rallying together to do the best they could amid the worst Midwest flooding in 15 years.

Charlotte had just returned from delivering sandwiches and drinks to volunteers up and down the sand-and-earth levee.

Bulldozing, sandbagging and fortifying the barrier had gone on round-the-clock for days.

As a reporter born and raised in Britain, I had heard that the people of the Midwest — the farming heartland of the United States, the world’s biggest grain and food exporter — were hard-working, stoic, pillars of “family values”.

But a week of watching them fight the floods made me think that perhaps their greatest bulwark against the tide of disaster was an inclination to laugh in the face of adversity.

Down at a pumping station in a blazing sun — the metal railings were too hot to touch — things looked grim. Brent Hoerr’s one remaining diesel-powered pump sounded like it was hours, maybe minutes from expiring.

If it did, flood water would seep in from the river and likely undermine his levee, spelling disaster for the 4,000 acres of just-planted crop land it protected.

“Don’t sound too good, does it?” Hoerr said, nodding at the wheezing machine and lost in despair for maybe a second.

“You do know how to swim, don’t you?” he added, his eyes twinkling as he broke into a belly laugh.


Nearby, Jeffrey Conte of engineering firm Klingner & Associates was urgently trying to help Hoerr find a way to keep pumping water, sorting through options while the sweat trickled down his forehead.

“This was supposed to be my day off. I was going to paint the house,” he said. “I sure dodged that bullet.”

Grim humor. Gallows humor. Bad jokes. Sarcasm. Humor under stress has a host of names. But you can also call it lubrication, exhalation, therapy, allowing people to revive and break down barriers with strangers, comrades in arms.

Across the river in Quincy, Illinois, a group of Amish — a devout Christian denomination known for farming, shunning modern technology and politely keeping to themselves — turned up at the civic center where more than 4,000 volunteers were filling a million sandbags during the week.

As the group of Amish men approached the door, an elderly Quincy man held it open, smiling, and motioned with his thumb.

“I think we saved you some sand out back,” he said, nodding toward the tons of sand piled in the center’s parking lot.

Among the hundreds of volunteers toiling at the center were 130 young Mormon men and women, aged 19 to 22, on a two-year assignment to undertake charitable work around the world. They formed a chain and sandbags emerged at a steady rate.

Clark Hardy, a missionary in charge of the group, said there were teams like his in towns up and down the river.

But he smiled, saying Mormons held a special place in their hearts for Quincy.

In 1839, the state of Missouri drove 5,000 Mormons into Illinois at gunpoint, he said. “The people of Quincy took pity on them: they fed them, clothed them and housed them.”

“While we’re happy to help anywhere we can, when it comes to Quincy we think of this as a special payback,” he said.

About 60 miles north, in Dallas City, Illinois, Bud Hallan was among the volunteers filling sandbags. Just a few feet from us, the swollen Mississippi was lapping at the back door of one of his neighbors’ houses, with a last ruinous gush uncertain.

Hallan, seated and tying sandbags, said he lived well up on the river bluff and out of harm’s way.

“I came down here to help out my neighbors,” he said. “And I aim to stay here until the river pushes me out of this damn chair.”

Reporting by Nick Carey, editing by Peter Bohan and Howard Goller.

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