A Flooded River Versus a Flood of Volunteers

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I got a text the other day from my friend, Barbara, asking, “Are you in a disaster area?”

I glanced around my office, rolling around on an exercise ball, since my chair was heaped with file folders. On my desk were piles of papers, books, push pins, and pens, and a scattering of alcohol pads and paper towels I’d scribbled important notes on at work, rescued from my scrub pockets the last time I did laundry. A map of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness lay unrolled, pressed flat under dictionaries and old nursing textbooks in anticipation of my upcoming summer on a fire lookout.

Was I in a disaster area? I thought about taking a photo of the room and texting it in reply to Barbara’s question, along with the shrug emoji.

But I knew that wasn’t what she was referring to.

 Parts of Montana are currently flooded, and though my corner of the state remains above water, Barbara lives in Iowa, and has been watching houses in Montana being carried away by raging rivers on the national news. It makes sense she would be concerned about the only person she knows in Montana. Besides, floods are a part of Barbara’s and my shared history.

When I moved to Iowa in 2008 to attend nursing school, I lived with Barbara in her house on Schrieber Street in Cedar Falls along with my dog Bandit, a few cats, and Oscar, Barbara’s diabetic pug. Oscar goes down in history as my first practice patient, as I gave him his morning insulin shots in the fat roll where his neck should have been.

That June, after a historically wet spring, the northeast Iowa watershed became so supersaturated with torrential rains that rivers escaped their banks, submerging a portion of the state.

Watching flooding footage on the evening news kept the situation at the front of our minds, but still at a distance, still upstream, until the day someone official marched into the Pharmacology classroom, where my classmates and I were practicing injections on oranges, and announced that the Cedar River had crested.

We had about one hour to get to our respective homes before arterial routes through the city closed down. It was a little bit thrilling and a little bit scary, like when blizzards in my childhood were wild enough to close schools in Minnesota.

It was hard to believe we were in a state of emergency as I rode toward home that afternoon on dry streets, the air hot and sticky under a bright sun. Peonies were in full bloom, and baskets of geraniums, impatiens, and fuchsias decorated front porches. 

But when I turned onto the bike path, and down a hill into thigh-deep water, suddenly, the flood was real.

Though getting home safe was the goal, once I was there I couldn’t imagine staying. I wasn’t the kind of student to use the time afforded by canceled classes to get ahead in my reading, so I rode downtown to join a sandbagging effort that was underway to make myself useful.

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