Gays Mills flood victims pick up the pieces, await answers

By Correne Martin

When you walk back into your house after muddy flood waters have turned your once comfortable surroundings into the most vile rubble you could ever imagine, you don’t even know where to begin. 

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You feel overwhelmed. Dazed. Tearful. 

You clean, sort and throw belongings as simple as plastic bowls and utensils. But, then, the significant family memories go too, as you hastily drop drenched photographs into the trash. 

You pump out rooms containing water and pressure wash for days.

What’s worth cleaning? Is there even an unsoiled area for you to sit down and clean what’s salvageable?

You scrub and disinfect three or four more times. You attempt to save your possessions—things like crockpots, dog dishes, bicycles, chainsaws, coolers, toys, stereo systems, nail polish bottles, storage bins and racks. You collect what little is left of your 12 truckloads of chopped and stacked wood, most of which floated away in the stream. 

You accept help from volunteers. You take hugs. You laugh and cry, together with your neighbors, because you’re all going through the same misery. 

You reassemble the pieces of your life as best you can. But, you feel like you’re fighting a losing battle.

“It’s tough. I just wanna get my life back.”

These are, simply put, Samantha Olson’s raw feelings. She lives two blocks from the Kickapoo River, at 121 N. Gay St., in Gays Mills, with her 14-year-old twin boys and, on weekends, her college-aged son and his 1-year-old as well. She’s also legally blind.

“I had this house raised 8 feet from flood stage four years ago,” Samantha uttered. “We thought we were high on the hill and we’d never have to go through this again.” She and her family moved into the 100-year-old, two-story house after the 2008 flood. Including this deluge, they have endured six crests above the 13-foot flood stage since.

“This was a double flood for us,” she indicated, sharing that after being rescued by boat, they were back in their home for one day before being re-evacuated. “It was terrible. It happened so fast. It went from ‘It’s coming up fast,’ to ‘Wow, we gotta get out of here now!’”

After staying with Samantha’s mom for several weeks, the Olsons went back home to see all they had lost: from bigger items like their couch, carpet, TV, crib, lawn mower, bikes and kitchen table, to assets such as Christmas decorations, baby clothes, socks and shoes. 

“The trampoline is demolished,” she said. “I know that’s not important but, to the boys, it’s a big deal.”

Samantha has been trying to stay positive through the emotional aftermath. But returning to see heaving floors and mangled cabinets, which she recently had redone, is completely crushing to her spirits.

“It’s so hard, especially with kids,” she remarked.

It’s been years since the previously historic 2008 flood forced the Crawford County village of 500 to finally move its government center and some residents to higher ground in 2012—away from the high waters that repeatedly ravage the downtown—to a new location on Highway 131. 

On June 9, 2008, the Kickapoo crested at a record 20.44 feet in Gays Mills, only 10 months after it reached 19.79 feet on Aug. 20, 2007, according to the National Weather Service. 

While those years were catastrophic and unimaginable enough, no one ever expected worse in 2018. Failed dams upstream and heavy overflow brought flash flooding, as the Kickapoo hit 22.31 feet in Gays Mills, Aug. 29.

Though Crawford County Emergency Management has confirmed no deaths or serious injuries, residents believe the devastation, this time, was more widespread.

“In ‘08, this house had an inch and a half inside. This time, it was 4 feet,” affirmed Arleena Roe, a resident at 111 Park St., in Gays Mills. She and her fiancé, Augie Stanley, bought the property two years ago, and, after remodeling the home, moved in this past July with their 13- and 15-year-old daughters.

“I had just installed the shower days before the water came in,” Augie said. 

Self-proclaimed super practical people, Arleena pointed to the barn board and corrugated steel walls, now water-stained, almost a month after the flood. What remained above the water line in their unoccupied home Monday was rustic and welcoming—clearly a result of rolling up their own sleeves and putting in hard work to make it their own.

“The toughest part is the unknown. Can we stay and raise the house, or are we taking a buyout?” she quipped, as they, like so many others, wait for answers from the Federal Emergency Management Association and other organizations of assistance.

For now, the young family is displaced, living in a camper in their back yard, with a living room set up in their garage. They’re seeking temporary housing. 

“We don’t want to leave this area; our hearts are in this town,” explained the two, who both grew up in the community. “There are houses for sale, but we still have a mortgage payment.”

In recounting the adversity, the couple stood outside their one-story home, making plenty of light out of such a devastating situation. Their home was one of three in Gays Mills that had its foundation blown out because of the flood waters, Arleena said. The concrete walls of the basement shifted, leaving an approximate 7×2-foot section to buckle and cave in beneath the house. A gaping hole is now a staggering reminder of this unnerving flood. On Monday, the hole remained filled with 3 feet of murky water and cluttered with a water heater, cinder blocks and other basement mainstays.

“We have our own pool,” she joked. “The first couple weeks, I was an emotional mess. I felt helpless. But now, we might as well laugh about it.” 

They’ve had water fights with their kids. They’ve bantered with friends about their new lakeside property. They’ve stepped back and enjoyed their Labrador’s entertainment, splashing through the water.

Their positive outlook is their way of dealing with the tragedy that’s been thrown at them. They are optimistic that this impossible moment in their lives will work itself out. They know they won’t “go without.” 

They’re comforted, knowing they’re going through this, together, with their fellow Kickapoo River neighbors.

They are grateful, just like the Olson family, for the cordial collaboration of the community and school, fire department and emergency organizations, volunteers and donors.

Yet, they admit, it’s rough not having “a home,” where they can go relax and feel normal. 

“It’s surreal. You feel like you’re home, but you’re not, really,” Augie described.

“It’s like the whole town is on pause,” added Arleena.

Many are waiting. Many have questions. Not just personal concerns, but some about the future of little river towns like theirs. 

Arleena said places like Barnum and Bell Center have grown quiet. She hopes something can be done to prevent Gays Mills and others’ beloved hometowns, like Steuben and Viola, from becoming ghost towns too.


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