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Impact of severe floods often lingers

April 8, 2013
By Jasmine Rogers ( , The Marietta Times

Living through a flood just comes with the territory when you're one of the thousands of Washington County residents who lives near the area's rivers and creeks. But there are some floods, such at the Great Flood of 1913, that leave a psychological impact on even the most seasoned flood veterans.

"A flood or disaster like that can be a significant stressor," said Ryan May, McCoy Associate Professor of Psychology at Marietta College.

The heavy rain, the rising waters-a flood makes people feel like they have very little control over their circumstances, said May.

Article Photos

Times file photo
Marietta resident Dick Wendelken walks through his basement after the September 2004 flood. The water nearly crept onto the first floor and ruined several personal effects that the family did not have time to retrieve from the quickly flooding basement.

"That sense of not being in control can lead to a greater source of distress," he said.

Distressed is just the way Macksburg resident Helen Stack, 78, felt as flood waters from Duck Creek invaded her Elba home in 1998.

"In '98 I lived alone. I'm afraid of water. I never learned to swim," said Stack.

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That night the storm was so severe that Stack contacted her daughter and together they went to see if the creek was out of its banks.

It was.

"My daughter went around and woke a lot of people up. It drowned a couple or three people up in Caldwell. That's a nightmare to go through," she recalled.

Fact Box

Mental impact

Floods, like any natural disaster, can be a significant source of stress that can exacerbate mental problems already in place.

Flooding causes a sense of loss of control, something that can make many people anxious.

Depression or loss of interest in one's passions can result from the experience.

Those who have experienced devastating flooding could feel a sense of anxiety when it rains or when water levels begin to rise.

It has been proven that people with a significant support system are more equipped to cope with the mental strain caused by a natural disaster.

Source: Ryan May, Marietta College McCoy professor of Psychology, Flood victim interviews.

Stack and her nearby relatives were all safe, but the water had reached the ceiling on the first floor of her home, forever ruining countless possessions.

"It was up over my sink and in my microwave. Like a coffee table you can wash it off, but a lot of stuff you can't. It breaks a lot of stuff. It moves it away. It's a dirty mess," she said.

And it would not be the last time Stack had to watch as the creek invaded her home.

"I replaced things and got my house all remodeled and in 2004 it did it again," she recalled.

In fact, it did it again twice.

As the flood waters waned for the third time, so did Stack's enjoyment of the things she used to love.

"You kind of lose interest in things. I liked to sew awful well, but I've had no interest in it since. You lose a bit of your passion," she said.

Three times were enough. Stack packed up and moved to Macksburg, away from the threat of water.

"When it rains now, I sleep just fine," she said.

Another factor that increases fear and anxiety during a flood is that communication is often cut off, said May.

"There is that fear of the unknown and not knowing the well-being of others," he said.

In 1913, many people had relatives in the bigger cities, where great loss of life had been reported, and people were hungry for whatever news possible from those places.

There was such a desire for information that many personal letters and telegraphs ended up in local papers, even if they reported only the welfare of a single person.

"A.D. Alderman received a telegram this morning from his son C.D. Alderman, who is in Dayton. The telegram was brief and concerned Mr. Alderman's welfare only," wrote the Register-Leader on March 31, 1913.

Now we have much greater access to communication, noted May.

But it still is not infallible, as 78-year-old Dick Wendelken found out in 2004.

"The water got our phone system," he recalled.

At the time, Wendelken and his wife had not yet decided to purchase cell phones.

Luckily, a man that lived nearby brought the Wendelkens an extra cell phone so they could contact their loved ones.

After another flood pulled the same trick in January 2005, Wendelken had learned his lesson.

"We made some revisions. We moved the transformers for the telephone upstairs," he said.

The Wendelkens lost a lot in 2004.

"It came up so fast we were only able to get the computer and some of the important stuff," he recalled.

But what frustrated the couple was not so much the destruction of the basement and some possessions, but the fact that the modern flood warning system had left them in the lurch.

"We were upset more over the failure over the weather department predicting the proper level of the river. That was what got us," said Wendelken.

The National Weather Service had canceled a flood warning on Sept. 17, 2004 and reinstated it much later that evening, after it was too late for many area residents to save their belongings.

But Wendelken, who purposely built his house four feet off the ground to avoid flood water in the first floor, has learned to take the effects of a flood in stride.

"Once it comes in the basement, we live with it," said Wendelken, who stayed in the house with his wife and two dogs in 2004, even though the water was one step away from reaching the first floor.

"We had a boat if we needed to get out," he said.

Many people who have grown up around flooding have learned to take the events in stride, said May. But still, there is a lot than can be done to alleviate the stress, he said.

"One thing that's been shown is that people who have a strong support system tend to do better," he said.

In 1913, support poured in from around the world to the towns torn apart by the flood. In Marietta, the high school served as a large shelter. The National Guard was stationed in town to facilitate recovery, and local newspapers from the days after the flood show several accounts of donations being made for flood victims or recovery efforts.

"(Several men) arrived in the city at midnight with two wagon loads of provisions and clothing sent from Cambridge and Byesville," the Register-Leader declared on April 1.

Though the flood of 1998 and 2004 left Stack with many negative memories, what she will likely remember most is the outpouring of help afterward, she said.

"Women from up north sent quilts down that they made. Lots of people helped with food and putting people up," she said.

A group of young girls, possibly from a local church, came around just to talk to the residents and see how they were doing, recalled Stack.

"There was a lot of help that came in every direction. It meant a lot," she said.



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