The Great Flood

BY JEREMY HOECK
jeremy.hoeck@yankton.net

The flood waters envelop these cars in Sioux Falls on Thursday night. (Jeremy Hoeck)
The flood waters envelop these cars in Sioux Falls on Thursday night. (Jeremy Hoeck)

Anniversary No. 4 won’t soon be forgotten.

That was the year we almost got sucked under by a roaring flash flood. That was the year we spent a night in a hotel with zero overnight toiletries. That was the year we waited three hours for a tow.

Those are experiences you don’t forget.

Every once in a while we all have an experience that we wish we could re-live; one we wish we could do over because it was so much fun.

That wasn’t one of those times.

My wife, Katie, and I drove to Sioux Falls on Thursday afternoon to celebrate our wedding anniversary with an adventure of exploring, shopping and dinner. We had originally planned to go hiking at Palisades State Park, but with the forecasted rainy weather, we changed our minds and chose the Sioux Falls route. Little did we know, the weather would end up causing more havoc with this option.

First, a run-through of the night’s events:

– – – –

Our first stop was the Washington Pavilion downtown. We had each been there separately a handful of times (though it had been longer for me; at least since a wedding reception nearly a decade earlier). We were the only adults walking through the Kirby Science Discovery Center; we probably got more of a kick out of the rock climbing wall than any of the kids in that place.

Then came a little shopping in downtown Sioux Falls, highlighted by a brief chat with my friend and former college roommate David Whitesock – he works downtown. Katie then wanted to visit the Irish store (Mrs. Murphy’s), and we ended up spending 25 minutes talking Irish culture with the owner.

Innocent enough start to the trip, right?

It was at that point that it started raining in Sioux Falls.

The rain fell on our entire drive to Outback Steakhouse, so much so that by the time we arrived, it was pouring. We literally ran to the restaurant.

That should have been our first indication to head for home.

But no, the mall was beckoning.

As Katie shopped in one of the stores, I ventured out to one of the couches to relax – it was at that point I realized my cell phone was in the car, so I couldn’t check Twitter for any weather updates. Those would certainly have come in handy.

Had we seen any of the flash flood warning alerts, we probably could have left Sioux Falls right then and been fine on the way down Interstate 29.

Instead, we stayed in the mall, and it was while we were in one of the big department stores that an announcement came over the speaker that due to the severe weather, shoppers were cautioned not to leave – but it was up to them to leave.

By then, it would have been too late to leave Sioux Falls. The worst was just around the corner, and again, we had no way of knowing. (Lesson one of the ordeal: Keep your phone around at all times).

– – – –

This is where things went from bad to worse.

As we were leaving the mall parking lot to head back to I-29, we noticed giant pools of water in the lot. Not incredibly deep, but certainly enough to cause you to avoid them. The drive from the lot to the stop light on 41st street made it clear that the weather was getting worse – a car appeared stalled in a huge pool.

Fifteen minutes on the 1-29 overpass made it clear: We weren’t leaving town quite yet. There were cars on the interstate with water already up to their windows.

I looked over at Katie and said, “Let’s turn around.” There was no way we were going further west on 41st street, traffic was at a stand-still.

Our best bet, I thought, was to turn around and head back east.

That was a huge mistake.

In those 15 minutes we had been on the overpass, the water had already risen at least 2-3 feet. I remember this part clearly: We followed a silver truck down 41st street, and by the time we got back in the vicinity of Barnes & Noble, we weren’t able to drive through the water – our wheels were already off the ground.

Suddenly, the car quit. No sound, no lights. Nothing. Only the sound of the rushing water.

And that was probably the eeriest part of the whole thing. One second you’re driving along, trying to push through some water, and the next second it’s taking you away. That was one of the most helpless feelings I’ve ever had while in a vehicle.

There was nothing we could do. And we didn’t know what to do.

Luckily, and I don’t even remember from what direction they came from, three Mexican guys appeared and signaled that they would help push our car to the side of the street. It took them all of a few seconds because of the water, and suddenly we were in the Wendy’s parking lot. And they were back out in the water, probably looking to help more drivers.

This is where the fear ended and the frustration began.

How could this be happening? I literally bought this car a month ago, how is something like this already happening? Is the car a total loss? Will it start again? How are we getting home?

Eventually we had to move the car a second time, as the water began receding into the Wendy’s parking lot, but it became pretty clear: We were going to be here a while.

– – – –

As my wife and I, along with dozens of other stranded drivers, sat in the fast food place, we looked out at the rushing water. Was this really happening on 41st street?

I instantly remember the sights from the 2011 Missouri River flooding in Yankton. I remembered the surreal sight – and sound – of the roaring water, and just how fast it was moving. What we saw Thursday night was pretty dang close. The sound didn’t so much catch your attention as did the speed. If you figure the average vehicle travels about 30 miles per hour on that street, the water had to be rushing at least 60-70. At least.

– – – –

An hour later, as I wandered outside to take a look at the intersection, I could see that most of the water had receded 41st street and was now racing down Louise Avenue. It was safe for us to cross the street, toward Barnes & Noble.

Our best option at that point, with no travel being advised in the city, was to find a room at a hotel and spend the night. The car was going to have to be towed in the morning. All we wanted was sleep.

– – – –

Friday basically consisted of us calling for a tow truck and waiting three hours for the driver to get to us – as you can imagine, the towing services in Sioux Falls were busy.

Sports editor James Cimburek happened to be in Beresford on Friday morning for a cross country meet, so he was kind enough to come pick us up.

We finally got back to Yankton around 3 p.m. – a full 26 hours after we left Yankton, and a full 18 hours after we originally planned to be back.

As we drove back down Highway 81 to Yankton, I was reminded of something I posted on Twitter on Wednesday upon hearing the news of the murder of two journalists in Virginia: I had said, I had never once felt like my life was threatened doing what I love.

And looking back on the past 24 hours, I have to admit, yes, Katie and I could have very easily been injured. Or worse. What if we hadn’t gotten to the side of the street? What if the water had rushed into the car? What if we had tried to get out and had been sucked under the surface? There are so many scary scenarios.

Fortunately, we made it through. And to our amazement, so did everyone else in Sioux Falls. By all media accounts, there were no injuries reported. Plenty of water damage and lost vehicles, sure, but no injuries. Having experienced the brief flooding, I couldn’t believe it.

Nor could I believe how fast people came to our rescue. Those three guys on 41st street and the fourth guy in the parking lot didn’t think twice; they jumped right in to help us. That was the lone bright spot in the whole ordeal: There are some very generous people out there. It’s only too bad that we weren’t able to thank them again for their help.

In the end, I realize how lucky Katie and I were. It could have been much worse. And while I’m fearing what my car bill will be (it’s likely that we’ll have to replace the engine), we’re alright.

Follow @jhoeck on Twitter

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