By Zachary Michael Jack
Memorial Day weekend in the nation’s midsection once represented a chance to be at ease, to reflect and to remember. But in our climate-altered new normal, it’s now an occasion to observe losses of a different sort.
Here, in the larger watershed of the roiling Mississippi and Missouri rivers, May and early June inevitably mean direct impacts from the sundry and serious calamities our insurance agents place under the umbrella “acts of God” — tornadoes, floods, straight-line winds and pea- to baseball-size hail.
In my little town of 400 people in far eastern Iowa, we spent Memorial Day weekend under a National Weather Service flood warning, our river nearly 1½ feet above flood stage. On that Friday evening, a tornado with winds in excess of 80 mph roared through my home county, spoiling graduation parties and wrecking commencement ceremonies. On Memorial Day, more than 50 reported tornadoes wreaked havoc across Idaho, Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio.
My own small farm offers a microcosm of how the little things we do, and don’t do, contribute to the problem of flooding in particular. An old-timer in town claims the little stream that runs in the back of my property ran dry most of the year when he was a boy in the 1950s and '60s. Now this same creek, which ultimately drains into our local river and in turn drains into the Mississippi, tops its 8-foot banks most springs, swollen with agricultural runoff from hills under tillage where, previously, there was permanent pasture.
Meanwhile, national reporters arrive in the aftermath of our calamitous weather to record our ruined or washed-out lives, our compromised dams and levees, our cars, trucks and tractors up to their engines in muddy floodwaters. We’re an almost biblical people in their eyes, fated to endure devastation and deluge and to bear up under it all, somehow, with a faith and moxie we possessed long before their pressing deadlines.
More often than not we do bear up, for the record. Sometimes, though, and contrary to popular image, we break down as soon as the cameras stop recording. We don’t always look out at the canvas of the devastation God wrought and say in that John Wayne tone the media seems to reserve for us, “Well, it coulda been worse.” Sometimes, it’s worse than we could have ever imagined. Sometimes, given space and trust, we’re willing to say as much.
The severity and drama of our severe weather hits us doubly each late spring and early summer. Not only does it leave many of our already hard-pressed communities hurting, but it detracts from all the other good and worthy things coming to bloom in the forgotten middle of the country: Re-population and “brain gain” in some of our rural counties is helping reverse the threat experienced by three previous generations of rural-to-urban migration. Record numbers of new farms serve as the blessing of our uniquely grassroots politics.
Already this season, tornadoes have devastated portions of Oklahoma and Missouri while river flooding has reached historic levels across Oklahoma and Arkansas. In St. Louis, the Mississippi River has been above flood stage for more than 70 consecutive days while waterlogged South Texas continues to recover from receiving 600% more rainfall than it typically does in early May.
More calamities, as yet unseen, seem sure to knock on our door, as more than 400 river gauges across the region reported water levels above flood stage in the last week of May.
Still, it’s worth recalling when the national media zoom in on what’s left of our lives, scattered on the lawn like so many pickup sticks, that we are more than the sum of our natural disasters, more than the projection of our collective and genuine grief at the magnitude of events beyond our control.
We can take back some of the agency denied us in the press by farming smarter to reduce runoff, and building better and more permanent flood control in our cities to replace the temporary Hesco flood barriers defending river towns up and down the upper Mississippi.
What we are is a region that’s larger than our losses. What we are is a stick-with-it people who deserve more than breezy and passing coverage.
Zachary Michael Jack is a seventh-generation rural Midwesterner and author of “Wish You Were Here: Love and Longing in America’s Heartland.” He lives along the Wapsipinicon River in eastern Iowa and near the Current River in southern Missouri.