30th Anniversary of the Great Flood of 1982: Where were you?

By Eric Olson

February 29, 2012 Updated Feb 29, 2012 at 6:35 PM EDT

FORT WAYNE, Indiana (Indiana's NewsCenter)--You have to hunt for signs that it even happened…a high-water mark in front of a riverfront business…miles of massive dikes lining city rivers, rock and concrete clues that something large must have happened here. It did, thirty years ago…when frozen ground buried under deep snowpack conspired with freakishly early spring weather.

On March 11th 1982 heavy rains began to fall and temperatures spiked to 45 degrees, and Fort Wayne’s rivers began to rise. Two days later thunderstorms dropped another inch of rain pushing the waters of the St. Mary’s river over its dikes, sending flood waters surging through the Nebraska neighborhood. 3000 residents fled their homes.

“You’re standing there with this helpless feeling like ‘how do you stop it?’” says Dick Fox of Fox & Fox Frame Service. “You can’t. It’s Mother Nature and it’s gonna do what it’s gonna do.”

Business owner Dick Fox frantically emptied tools and equipment from of his car repair shop on Van Buren street, but could do nothing to protect the building.

“And just seeing the street filling up” Dick says, “and the water was gushing in under those overhead doors and in half an hours time the place is flooded. And that’s a powerful scene.”

On the other side of town in Fort Wayne’s Lakeside neighborhood, Bonnie Harber was agonizing over what would prove to be the inevitable.

“When you have to evacuate your home you really hate to leave it,” Bonnie says, “because you don’t know what’s gonna happen when you’re gone.”

Like the rest of Lakeside’s residents Bonnie had no choice but leave. The nearby Pemberton dike was saturated by the rising waters of the Maumee. By March 17th officials feared the dike would collapse. Lakeside’s streets were already flooded. A breach in the dike would send a tsunami through the neighborhood wiping it out.

As the magnitude of the disaster became clear city officials set up sandbagging stations around town, manned mainly by high school kids. They filled more than a million sandbags to reinforce dikes and protect property. Volunteers fanned out all over town, piling sandbags, evacuating residents and rescuing belongings. It was a civic effort whose story survives as legend to this day.

“The number of people that came to do whatever they could do,” recalls Dick Fox, “the sandbags, whether that was a friend or competitor or customer. And so you know it really was a community spirit kind of thing.”

Fort Wayne’s plight and her spirit made national headlines, the nation called us ‘the city that saved itself’. And on March 16th President Ronald Reagan flew in from Washington to praise the city’s resolve, raise our spirits and join in the fight. Fort Wayne’s three rivers would hover above flood stage until March 26th. By the time the waters receded 9000 people had been evacuated, 2000 homes destroyed, 56-million dollars in damage. Bonnie Harber’s basement had filled with water but her home was spared.

“It was very stressful and I would not want to go through it again,” Bonnie says, “because you never know how much you might lose. Just not knowing’s the hard part.”

Business owner Dick Fox shoveled out the sludge and debris from Fox and Fox Frame Service and reopened for business. He had no flood insurance but his biggest loss was being closed for more than a week.

Much has happened in the years following the great flood. The federal government spent 15-million dollars buying up 200 homes in the most flood prone areas and tearing them down. The government also spent many millions more building dikes along all three of Fort Wayne’s rivers through downtown. The city bought flood prone properties too, and created Headwaters Park and numerous holding areas for floodwaters. The state legislature created the Maumee River Basin Commission, charged with improving water flow through the three river’s floodplain, to lessen damage from future floods…which officials say there will be.

“Could it happen again in the near future?” says Rodney Renkenberger, head of the Basin Commission, “Absolutely. In the flood plain management field…it’s not a question of if; it’s a question of when. May not be in my lifetime, but it will happen again.”

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