John Williams was a familiar voice on the radio waves in North Dakota for decades. He is also a beloved member of All Saints’ Church–and you can hear that stentorian, confident voice on many Sundays as John reads lessons when we worship together. But John was also a victim of last year’s floods.
Here is his essay about how he coped, how in his communities of faith, friends and family, and even in a federal agency, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, he received the help and encouragement he needed.
If you’ve been following this blog, you’ve seen John’s picture before. He’s one of the recipients of the Christmas trees we had to share. The photo below was taken by Joanne Slanger, whose own home was flooded. She and her husband George now live in the Twin Cities.
HOW I SURVIVED MINOT’S DISASTROUS FLOOD OF 2011
The Four “F’s”: Faith, Family, Friends and FEMA
By John Williams—Homeless for more than 10 months
and cared for by the Above
The wailing of civil defense sirens on that warm June day came as no surprise to the thousands in Minot’s Souris river Valley who had already undergone, days earlier, the orderly evacuation of their homes as a precaution. But today, there was a difference. The Souris was rising frighteningly and the homes they were now being asked to flee were in real danger. This was the real thing.
I was among those who, until that morning, had arisen with the expectation of having until 6 that evening the last-minute chance to save belongings. But it was not to be.
At mid-morning, 8 hours before the previously-announced deadline, the word went out; sirens would soon be sounding and would mean only one thing. It was time to flee our homes, regardless of whether we’d saved everything or not.
My motorhome had been packed for the first evacuation, spent at the home of friends on the city’s more rural outskirts. Now, it was time to lock the house—as if that would protect it from what was to come—and drive again to safety.
I was in denial. Not that a flood was impossible, but in my belief it could not invade my home, a west side condo, to a height greater than 3 feet. Because of that denial, I had protected nothing higher than that level. I would ultimately return to a home in which the water had risen to within a few inches of the main floor ceiling.
In the more than 50 years that I had lived in Minot, this would be my third flood experience. I had moved out of the valley to rented quarters on South Hill a year before the 1969 flood—one considered an historic event at the time, but which would be considered nothing more than a dress rehearsal for what would come in 2011. As a radio and TV journalist, I covered the 1969 flood extensively.
In the 2011 flood, little was said of the fight that the city had had to mount in 1976 in the face of rising waters. I had always felt, at that time, that the railroad line, just a few feet from the condo, would be a sufficient protection. How wrong I was. Wiser heads ordered the construction of an earthen levee, at least five feet higher, stretching from near Perkett School, westward past the south side of the tracks and then over them to run parallel to homes along 2nd Ave SW. We were allowed into our homes for a brief check of property on Easter Sunday. I remember the silence of the neighborhood, the almost total absence of any human movement or activity. After my authorized check, I took the liberty of scaling the dike and was shocked by the reality of what I was seeing. A lake stretched from the top of the levee, southward to the golf course area and west to where the bypass is. Water lapped just inches from the top of the dike. I learned later that a breach in the dike had threatened my condo a day earlier, not with flooding, but with total destruction.
We survived, thanks to the Corps of Engineers and the work of volunteers.
But this was 2011—June—and floods don’t happen in June, or so we thought. A hard winter had been followed by heavy spring rains in portions of the Souris River watershed. Mother Nature conspired against all along the river, wreaking havoc from southern Saskatchewan to well into Manitoba, its exit point from our state.
I had always held the belief that God never gives us more than we can handle; but that belief would be sorely tested in the months ahead as we fled our homes.
When a friend had phoned at mid-morning on that final day, I felt a sense of panic. I knew the dikes were already showing signs of weakness to the west of me and had a vision of a wall of water engulfing me before I could move to safety. And so, with a growing sense of dread, I fled.
Was my faith sorely tested in the days, weeks and months that followed? Actually, my faith felt strengthened, in large part by the other three “f’s” in this essay.
My mind was numb in the early days of evacuation. I almost felt as if I could well experience, for the first time in my life, a full blown nervous breakdown. Going to church the first Sunday after flight, my mental misery was eased somewhat by the expressed concerns of my church family. And, as the days passed, that cloud that had seemingly enveloped me lifted. Questions that had smothered me: where will I live? how will I be able to rebuild my home? will I have a home to return to?—faded a little, but never completely left my mind.
Members of my church were my rock of strength. They prayed for me and other who had been displaced with no knowledge of what awaited them when the waters receded. More than a dozen households of our small congregation had suffered partial or total loss of their homes; some would never return to them.
I felt that Christmas would be my first serious test of faith. I should never have worried. By then I was in my FEMA trailer and one Sunday afternoon in December, several members of the congregation were at my door bearing a tree and decorations, along with some seasonal snacks. Within an hour, a beautifully decorated tree was up—something I didn’t think I’d have room for. Outside, the more athletic of the group had climbed a ladder, stringing lights along my trailer’s roofline. Some colored lights on the railing outside completed the decorating. What a lift to my spirits, one that would last long beyond the holiday season.
Faith: without it we fall victim to all the fears—most of them unfounded—of our situation. Homeless we might be, but we would survive, given our faith in better days to come.
What would we do without the love and support of family? I had a friend who was an only child. He had no brothers or sisters to give him nieces and nephews. At the time of his passing, his only living relative was an elderly mother, unable to attend his modest funeral.
By contrast, I was almost overrun with family, and I say that in the kindest way. My three siblings gave me a total of nine nieces and nephews, and each of them has given me the benefit of their love, and in large part an even larger gathering of great nieces and nephews.
From the start, I knew I had the love and support of all of them as I faced an uncertain future. We were in constant communication. In large part, I was able to face that uncertain future thanks to my family.
In the months during my “homelessness” I visited the two closest branches of my family in Canada. Being with them seemed to bring about a shedding of all the fears I had about the future.
If “family” was at the heart of my flood survival, my friends weren’t far behind. While the closest of my family was hundreds of miles away, the proximity of friends was a godsend. I couldn’t have done without them.
So far, I’ve not given the names of anyone that helped, but, at this point, I can’t continue without acknowledging the contributions to my well-being by long time friends Perry and Margo Moll. In no way can I diminish the role played by all my friends, but in Perry and Margo, I had an everyday source of help and emotional support.
Within minutes of the broadcast announcements that evacuation had been ordered, the Molls’ younger son, Cameron, and his friend, Josh, were at my door to move furniture and other items to upstairs safety. Days earlier, I’d undergone surgery for a patch of skin cancer on my right shoulder and had been sent home with the admonition that I wasn’t to lift anything heavier than a hot dog for several weeks.
I couldn’t stand by and not help, so I tackled smaller and lighter items. It still took a toll as the work led to the popping of several stitches.
And that’s the way it was in the days that followed, with the Moll family taking care of me through the summer and into the autumn season. Their contributions to my welfare were numerous. Perry’s father, Arnold, and brother, Nathan, appeared one Saturday soon after I and my motorhome were placed on the Moll homestead just south of the city. They had come to upgrade my electrical service to 30 amp so that the air conditioners could be run in the hotter weather of summer.
Time and again I was part of their family at gatherings, and supper with Perry and Margo became a welcome routine—one which I’ll probably never be able to repay in kind.
My friends helped me through a very difficult time and I will always be indebted to all of them.
In the late days of my evacuation, I stopped to speak to those manning a flood information booth at our mall, and voiced my appreciation of that FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) had done for me, and was surprised to learn that I was the only one who had expressed that sentiment to them.
Without FEMA, the long, hard road back would not have been possible. Early in my evacuation, FEMA put money in my bank account to cover “transitional” costs. But, the real financial help came during the summer. A FEMA inspector came to my home with the aim of determining the extent of loss (all of the first floor), and the square footage of the affected area.
Within a few days, a substantial amount of money was placed in my bank account to assist with the repair and rehabilitation of my home. A constant question in my mind was, “What would I have done without that help?”
But they weren’t done with me yet. Towards fall, and with the valuable help of my “advocate,” Paul Zaharia, who just happened to be a member of my church, I secured the use over the winter of what city residents came to refer to as “FEMA trailers.” Thousands of them were brought into the city. Getting into one wasn’t the problem; making sites usable was. My eventual deployment had me in a previously flooded trailer court, Holiday Village, deep in the valley on Minot’s east side. I was just thankful to have a roof over my head for the winter. I expected to stay in my unit until I could return home in late April, or early May.
FEMA imposed no payment for rent or utilities. The trailer is small, to be sure, but I have been very comfortable throughout my stay. It will eventually be towed away to serve someone else facing a natural disaster.
Because of infrastructure damage or loss, getting secondary services had to wait a while after my siting. Phone service and cable television, which I, of course, was required to pay for, finally came to Lot 406 at Holiday Village.
It’s said that “all good things must come to an end,” and so it is, too, with adversity. My life has seen its share of good times and bad, but I never thought I’d be forced from my home by a natural disaster. At this writing, nine months after fleeing my threatened home, I’m still dealing with the realization that the worst is in the past, and that I soon can resume a more normal life—thanks in large part to the people and entities named in this essay.
I know that my neighborhood will never be fully whole, that some have moved away, abandoning their homes, and even moving to other cities. But as relocated businesses return and homes again are lit in the hours of darkness, I’ll know that again “all is right with God’s world.”