A year ago, Plymouth was hit with the worst flooding in the history of our city. The Yellow River winds through Plymouth, adding to the landscape of the community and offering recreation, fishing, and habitat for local wildlife. It also possesses the power to damage homes, businesses, and the very environment it travels through.
During the flood, I volunteered to assist the city, county, our neighbors, and local businesses any way I could. Following are my thoughts and memories from this event and what I learned from it.
I am grateful for the hundreds of people from all around Plymouth and Marshall County who volunteered to help our city.
*Josh Walker authored this article, which first appeared in the February 12, 2019 print edition of the Pilot News.
On Thursday, February 22, I prepared for a typical workday. I didn’t have to look out the window; I knew the rain continued to pour as it had been for days. I’d been tracking weather reports and river forecasts, anticipating the flood. With the rain still falling and the river consistently rising, it was only a matter of time. The Yellow River had flooded before, but this event was predicted to be much worse than we’d ever seen.
As the rivers began to overflow into the streets, I had to help.
After I finished serving with the 101st Airborne Division in 2006, I still felt a strong urge to help people. I realized I could use my skills to help with disaster relief. During my tenure, I’ve deployed to communities like Joplin, Missouri, where, in 2011, an EF5 tornado decimated the city. I’ve slept in the foothills of the Himalayas in Kathmandu, Nepal, after the devastating earthquake in 2015. I’ve responded to communities in Illinois following tornados and in Michigan after flooding.
Never did I think my own community would be hit so hard by a natural disaster.
As the flood waters came, so did calls for help.
Families had standing water in their main living areas.
Families lost heat and running water.
Elderly people were trapped in their homes and needed to be rescued by the Plymouth Fire Department.
Families lost nearly all of their belongings.
Some residents’ homes were so damaged they required gutting and complete renovation.
As the work began, I was reminded that every disaster relief initiative I’ve responded to, regardless of geographical or cultural difference, can be summed up in one word:
Compassion means “to suffer together.” During distress, conflict, and disaster, compassion transcends language, ideology, and politics. Compassion brings people of all backgrounds together, creating a bond we otherwise would not have. Compassion drives us to put aside our differences and work together to help our neighbors and community.
I was appointed the incident commander of the county-wide disaster relief effort, and I saw compassion among us in tangible, remarkable ways.
Businesses and nonprofits donated their staff, assets, and money to help people affected by the flood. Their support only increased as more families were impacted.
I watched as students and adults stood side by side, passing sandbags in icy, waist-deep water with smiles on their faces
I met with business owners and staff who worked twenty-four hours a day for days on end to keep the water out of their buildings. They slept on the floor or in office chairs, taking turns working to preserve their strength and livelihood.
During one particularly stressful afternoon full of site visits, coordinating damage assessments, and basement cleanouts, a mother and her two little boys stopped by my office. They delivered a plate of homemade cookies and a handmade card with sweet words of encouragement. My eyes were wet with tears of gratitude and appreciation. Those boys have no idea how perfect their timing was and how much it encouraged our team.
In Plymouth, the flood didn’t discriminate or choose who to target in the wake of its catastrophic presence; and in response, we stood as one community in a united front. The lines of social demographics, economic status, religious beliefs, and education levels were washed away and replaced with a mutual desire to lift each other out of the waters.
As the incident commander, I went through all of the addresses and names on the assistance request forms and the volunteer forms. What started as simple forms to connect people turned into invaluable data that allowed the relief teams and city and county officials to deliver support where and when it was most needed.
Something curious came out of that data, though.
I started seeing the same names on both forms.
The first few times, I wondered if it was a technology glitch. Were the flood victims’ names copying to the volunteer spreadsheet by mistake? I quickly discovered that the forms were working as we had designed. What was happening was not a flaw.
The victims of the flood were also signing up to volunteer to help other victims.
Families who lost nearly all of their belongings signed up to help their neighbors.
Families whose homes had been destroyed donated money to help the relief efforts.
Families who lost belongings, photos, and memories put others’ needs before their own.
I already knew Plymouth was an incredible community. The historic flood just showed how strong and caring it is. The people of Plymouth embodied compassion through their actions toward each other.
Eventually, the waters receded, the sun shone, the grass grew back, and most people returned to their daily routines. However, as of today, families are still recovering from the flood. Local residents still meet weekly, volunteering on the Marshall County Long Term Recovery Organization committees, helping Marshall County families. Disaster relief requires immediate response during the crisis phase. Just as importantly, it demands long-term recovery processes to get the community and its families whole again.
I’m proud to live among selfless, compassionate people who come together to help each other. I am proud to serve the city as a leader and fellow volunteer.
I am proud to call Plymouth my home.