Saving family history, journals during Hurricane Irene

By Sherman Fleek

For the Deseret News

Published: Sunday, Sept. 11 2011 3:03 p.m. MDT

Hurricane Irene forced many creeks and streams to burst their banks along the East Coast.

Sherman L. Fleek

HIGHLAND FALLS, N.Y. — For several days, news and official reports had warned the inhabitants of the East Coast of the potential danger of Hurricane Irene. On Aug. 27-28, Irene, now classified as a tropical storm, hit New Jersey, the lower areas of New York state and Connecticut.

I, along with the local population, had prepared for the storm. As an LDS member, I had 72-hour kit that was mostly complete, yet there were last-minute changes.

The small village of Highland Falls lies among the Hudson Highlands 50 miles north of New York City and is just south of the West Point military reservation, the home of the United States Military Academy, where I work.

My basement apartment has a walk-out entrance to a city-owned parking lot. It is also about 40 yards from a normally gentle and clear creek running from the higher hills. The stream continues down to the Hudson River about a half mile away. Yet that Sunday morning, Aug. 28, there was nothing clear and gentle about this now turbulent, brown and raging torrent.

I awoke at 6:30 a.m., and by 7 a.m. I was outside on the bridge that spans the stream and enters into my parking lot. The rushing water was just cresting the bank and flowing into the parking lot. I walked down through the raging storm and pelting rain to the apartment of an elderly woman, whom I home teach. I had parked my car near my office a few hundred yards away on much higher ground and away from the many trees in the area.

I had visited my neighbor the day before to provide any assistance. After several hours, three trips, advising her to pack, prepare and leave and then retrieving my car, I returned to my place at 11 a.m. The bridge to my parking lot was closed by city crews, so I parked on a higher street behind my apartment. I had already packed and had my emergency and necessary items. My plan was to simply go to my office on the fifth floor of a government building and wait it out.

As I arrived home, no water had reached the door, though water was pooling in the small front yard. The street above where I parked was rain soaked but not flooding. As I prepared to evacuate with two backpacks, I looked at my dozens of history and literature books. Also dozens of binders with all the research material I had gathered for years as a military historian. I decided to take a few minutes and “water-proof” my place as best as possible. I took everything off the floor, all the books on the lower shelves, and placed them on my bed, tables and counters and unplugged all the electrical cords.

I felt satisfied, but two things occurred to me. I first heard water raging outside. My apartment has an exterior wall with two windows that overlook concrete steps and the foundation of a building that no longer exists. I saw water cascading down the steps, like a water terrace. I immediately knew I had to leave. Then suddenly I realized that I had forgotten my personal journals that were in a green, hard-plastic tub with a sealed lid. I grabbed the tub, but with two packs of essentials I could not carry the heavy tub.

I stood in my kitchen nearly devastated thinking that some 36 years of personal and family history and other items would be ruined by the raging water. As I stood there, a calm and powerful feeling suddenly came to me. I recalled a story I had heard on my mission in Idaho in the late 1970s. Whether true or not, a family reportedly had hundreds of documents and family history items on a large oak table when the Teton Dam broke and flooded in 1976. The story went that the water entered the home, the table floated up, and when the water receded, the table lowered straight down and no papers were ruined.

A strong feeling of peace calmed my soul and I knew then that my journals would be safe. I left my apartment and climbed up the cascading steps of water to my car parked on higher ground. It was completely flooded. My heart sank for a moment thinking of my apartment, but I pressed on.

Three hours later, I returned to my apartment and entered knowing that it would be flooded and all my belongings ruined.

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