TERRE HAUTE — Rain pounded the windshield of the Vigo County Highway Department truck as Jerry Lindsay and Bobby James drove around the county inspecting roadways and looking for flash flooding.
It was not yet midnight on June 6, 2008, and water was starting to cover a number of county roads.
“We realized it was a real problem and we started closing roads,” Lindsay said. Sometime between midnight and 2 a.m., Lindsay called then-Vigo County Commissioner David Decker to say “we have a serious problem.” He told Decker he and the other commissioners might consider declaring a state of emergency and closing all county roads. Soon after that, a state of emergency was declared in Vigo County.
“From that point on, it progressively worsened,” Lindsay recalled.
Terre Haute Fire Department battalion chief Ron Steiner and other firefighters battled a house fire on Cleveland Avenue until around 2 a.m. Saturday, June 7. A few hours later, Steiner heard the first call of a car stranded in high water on Indiana 46 near the Interstate 70 overpass.
“I started going that way,” Steiner said. Just then, radio reports of other stranded motorists and people trapped in their homes started pouring in. “You started hearing things everywhere,” he said. Soon, Vigo County central dispatch was “overwhelmed.”
Tom High, deputy chief of the Honey Creek Fire Department, was at home that Saturday morning when Vigo County central dispatch issued a “code red,” declaring all county roads closed. Soon, High learned that Bethesda Gardens, a retirement community in southern Vigo County, was flooding and its residents needed to be evacuated.
“I was at home and figured I better get to the [fire] station,” High said. Soon, however, High realized the roads were flooded in both directions from his home, meaning he would have to stay put. A bridge near his home was flooded so badly, the guard rails were under water. “I didn’t want to become a statistic,” he said. He returned to his driveway and started radio communications with emergency responders and others all around the county.
Vigo County School Superintendent Dan Tanoos was out of state with his family when the first call came to him around 6 a.m. June 7. Flooding was reported in a school parking lot. That didn’t sound too serious, but soon Tanoos learned the situation was growing worse.
“We packed up and came home,” he said. In six hours, Tanoos was back in Terre Haute.
Meanwhile, other senior school corporation staff “hit the streets,” Tanoos said. “Our people deployed right away.” All principals were called to inspect their schools. Other senior staff started working directly with emergency responders such as the Emergency Management Agency, the Red Cross, TransCare, city and county police and fire units and the Terre Haute Chamber of Commerce.
Some schools were quickly made available as emergency shelters, while others need to be sandbagged. School buses were used for evacuation of flood victims.
“We were pretty much in the middle of it,” Tanoos said.
All the local officials interviewed for this story have one thing in common. They all remember June 7, 2008, as a day of non-stop communication and coordination with other emergency response organizations.
“That sucker was so hot I had to hold it away from my ear,” Steiner said of his cell phone. Steiner was the city fire department’s man at the Emergency Operations Center set up at the EMA office on South Fourth Street. He coordinated boat rescue efforts in many flooded areas with High, Riley Fire Chief Jeff Fox, Sugar Creek Fire Chief Jim Holbert and others. Phone calls were coming in to the EOC constantly for several hours, Steiner recalled. “It was a lot of people working together that made it happen,” he said.
Meanwhile, back at the Vigo County Highway Department office on Haythorne Avenue in northern Vigo County, a bad situation was about to get worse.
Someone called the department’s offices and said “You’ve got water headed your way,” Lindsay recalled. Immediately, the department’s office staff started placing computers and other equipment on top of file cabinets or any place high off the floor. In less than an hour, at least 3 feet of water filled the offices.
“This was nasty water, too,” recalled Dan Bennett, assistant superintendent. Soon, department dispatching efforts were coordinated out of pickup trucks in the facility’s flooded parking lot, he said.
High and dry
“There were a lot of heroes that day,” school superintendent Tanoos recalled. Bev Noblitt, supervisor of transportation for the school corporation, worked all day dispatching about eight school buses to different sites, where they were used to evacuate flood victims. The buses carried people to Terre Haute North Vigo High School, designated as a Red Cross emergency shelter.
“Not a single person said ‘no,’” when asked to work that weekend. None of the school corporation staff, except custodians, was compensated financially for the time, Tanoos noted. “It was non-stop work” for all the staff, he said.
Meanwhile, back at his home, Tom High was communicating with other emergency responders using two radios and a cell phone. He sat in his pickup truck in his driveway, unable to get out of his neighborhood.
The flood “left me high and dry,” High said. But, thinking about it later, that was probably a good thing. Being in a fixed location with no access to rescue resources, High was able to keep the big picture in mind as he helped coordinate rescue and other flood-relief efforts until 6 p.m.
“I had to keep my head above the troops,” he said. “I would have probably been in the water” if he could have gotten away from his home, he said.
Another thing all emergency responders had in common was the length of their work day. Tanoos and other school officials got maybe two hours of sleep that night, he recalled. The Highway Department’s Bennett and Lindsay both worked consecutive 22-hour days along with their staff. High, who finally got away from his temporary island home around 6 p.m., would continue working until around 1 a.m. Sunday. And Steiner, along with Emergency Medical Services chief Leroy Stewart and fellow battalion chief Bob Kiefner, all worked late into the night, despite having started their days around dawn.
“There are no Saturdays or Sundays in things like this,” Lindsay said. “You don’t look at your watch,” Bennett agreed.
The planning and training that area emergency responders have done paid off the morning of the flood, officials said. They all also said that their staffs deserve the lion’s share of any credit that is given. In fact, there were too many heroic acts that day to name.
“Any place we called for assistance, they said ‘What do you need and where do you need it?’” recalled Steiner. The National Guard, State Police and a local air boat company provided emergency response assistance. Restaurants furnished free food. Local beverage companies supplied drinking water. Church groups were soon helping flood victims recover.
“I felt my guys worked extremely well,” High said. They worked without breaks and with little food for hour after hour.
“Our guys did a heck of a job for the community,” Lindsay said. “They really went above and beyond the call of duty on this storm.”
Arthur Foulkes can be reached at (812) 231-4232 or email@example.com.