May 19th, 2011 - Sarah Mrock
I had just moved from Chicago the previous summer. At the time, the heat was high and the Mississippi River was low. Chicago has construction season but never a flood season. On the rare occasion it’s had a flood, it was always sudden and merciless. It was usually caused by a heavy downpour choking sewers and drains, filling previously unnoticed slopes in the roads, making basements prove if they can hold up to the water pressure. The next day people would say how crazy the storm was, how it’s been years since a rain like that happened, and how their basements held up. By the next week it would mostly be forgotten, except by the bald WGN weatherman who really loved Mother Nature’s anomalies.
When I became one of the many neighbors the Mississippi River has, it was the following spring when I got a true taste of what flood season was like. The river didn’t flood like a fit of anger, but a build-up of cold winter feelings steadily being released. Because of the flood’s arrival being slow and not sudden, I learned of the local rituals to prepare for it. Everyone checks how much snow is melting up north, to figure out how much the river will rise. Everyone volunteers to fill sandbags as spring approaches. Temporary floodwalls are put in place. The river’s levels are checked daily. This made me feel that flood season was just a gentle intrusion I could easily handle; however, I learned very quickly not to underestimate the river’s reach and her desire to pull you in.
It was still surprising to see the flood’s arrival and its effects on daily life. It’s one thing to hear the stories of past flood seasons, but it’s another to be living it. Many storefronts and pastimes must shut their doors, barricading and insuring themselves against the river. Sometimes the river wins and those places are lost. It’s one thing to hear about inconvenient detours, but it’s another to be driving in it. I had driven a road one day, only to find a small lake on it the next day. I learned to add 10 minutes to my drive, having to go uphill to get to a highway entrance. I knew of others who had to add several hours to what should’ve been a short daytrip. It’s one thing to have looked at a stranger’s old pictures of a flooded baseball stadium and drowned tracks, but it’s another to be looking at your own. Looking at my pictures today, there’s just a different feeling of knowing I was there in the middle of it. To look at another’s pictures of the same thing now feels false, a little intrusive.
I took those pictures alone on that overcast, late afternoon. My fiancé would’ve come with me, but at the time we had a drastic difference in our work hours, literally night and day. With no errands to run and being bored in the apartment, I had set out with my camera to capture a way of life my friends back home could never fathom. I captured pictures of River Drive becoming part of the river. This was the main reason for many detours. I captured the river surrounding the baseball stadium. After many wet years, the stadium finally learned to stay dry by installing temporary floodwalls. I captured ducks hanging out on the river’s shore, which at that moment reached the Greyhound Station. I captured hydrants and trashcans barely getting a breath above the water. Standing on a concrete & glass overlook, I saw how far and wide the river could softly smother the land.
The Mississippi River crested at 20.71 feet that year, almost 6 feet above its minimal flood level. Though it was not the biggest flood on record, it would be in the Top 10. The damage was done, over two million dollars of it. Turns out that preparation and cleanup isn't cheap, from both the local and federal government. What was a new fascination eventually became an old annoyance to me. Though other floods would come, break records, and become more devastatingly surprising, I will never forget the wonder of those waters reaching out to me for the first time.
Sarah Mrock is a mailroom clerk. She resides in Northwest Illinois, where the Mississippi River is less than half a mile from her house. A former Chicagoan, she spends her time writing poetry and short prose. The rest of her time is spent sleeping, working, or with her husband and young son.