A year ago Columbus lost more than 2000 homes, was forced to vacate its hospital, saw two citizens die and suffered hundreds of millions of dollars in damage from a flood meteorologists say was a once-in-500-years disaster.
With the city dry and mostly recovered, residents are now trying to understand what the disaster meant to their community and how it will shape their future.
Standing in Mill Race Park near downtown Columbus, Lisa Burns watches her kilt-wearing nine-year old son Colin play snare drum in a band of mostly Baby Boomers. They’re part of a ceremony marking the high water line on a city bridge.
A year ago at this moment, she says Colin was strapped to his father as they both struggled through floodwaters between their home and dry land.
“We were gathering everything up and putting it up high but by the time we were able to leave the house the water was up to his waist. He was eight [years old]. So we put a belt around him and a belt around his father and waded with our dogs out of the neighborhood.”
The family’s home was declared a complete loss and later torn down. What happened to one of their dogs is still a mystery. Moving to temporary housing, they accepted a FEMA grant and have used the last year to try to get their lives back together.
But on this day, Colin, with the help of the mayor, helps tear off the paper covering of the memorial, revealing a gold bar and plaque.
“Again if anybody’s thinking this is an actual gold bar, it’s not,” said Mayor Fred Armstrong, to laughter.
Armstrong presides over a ceremony both jovial and solemn. He admits trying to appropriately mark the anniversary has been a tough note to strike.
Lynn Reece dealt with the flood by taking pictures – a few thousand of them.
Reece was also sent hundreds more snapshots of basements with floating furniture and raccoons clinging to fence posts as water rushes by.
“It just felt like the end of the world,” she said.
Setting these pictures to popular song, Reece uses the flood’s anniversary to premiere what she calls a glorified slideshow at the local cinema.
She used such songs as Johnny Cash’s “Three Feet High And Rising and “Bridge Over Troubled Water” by Simon and Garfunkel.
With so many pictures, Reece says she felt an obligation to create a time capsule of sorts.
I did it for my grandchildren so I could show them something. ‘Cause I didn’t think I would ever see something like this again. As a photographer, a picture says everything and when the flood was happening I didn’t believe it until I went out there and saw it,” Reece said.
“And I just kept snapping because it was so unbelievable. And I just thought, ‘Nobody’s going to understand how devastating and how serious what was going on that day.’”
But not every resident wants to remember the occasion. Two commemoration ceremonies were sparsely attended and Armstrong admits there are many families still trying to recover.
With total damages likely in the half-billion dollar neighborhood, Armstrong says, certain areas still look like post-Katrina New Orleans. At points, the mayor says, tensions have boiled over
“There’s always something you could do better. You have Monday morning quarterbacks that always want to criticize, condemn,” Armstrong said.
“But you go through what we went through for three or four days there that were really, really tough. Having two deaths, including moving 157 people from the hospital and hundreds of people from nursing homes. You know, you can’t be too critical.”
Despite the criticisms, Bartholomew County Commissioner Larry Kleinhenz says the community has no choice but to try to turn the event into some kind of positive.
“Everybody’s a little more tolerant of each other. Little more forgiving of each other, quicker to help. Maybe a little quicker to be grateful and have gratitude for good things that people do for you or to you,” Kleinhenz said.
“You know this event really brought just some of those basic life lessons to the forefront.”
A five o’clock, just about the time a year ago water started bubbling through the bottom of the elevators at Columbus Regional Hospital, all the church bells in the city start ringing in unison. Standing on any street corner, different-toned clangs mix just as neighborhood pitch-ins and picnics sprout up across town. The ground is just dry enough to lay down a blanket.