I had been hearing reports of the devastation in the northland all day, but it was not until late evening, when I was able to cloister myself at the bachelor pad, that I was able to view the full extent of the damage.
I experienced a sensation of numbness as I sat and watched video after video, paged through dozens of still photographs, and read early accounts of the damage to my hometown.
Duluth, the surrounding communities, and the north shore of Lake Superior are part of me. The places and names are comfortably familiar, as they have been my whole life, yet some of the scenes were practically unrecognizable in the images on my laptop screen.
The landscape in many areas was obscured by enormous volumes of dirty water. Other places have been transformed by the power of the raging torrents that collapsed sidewalks and roads, and washed away the land.
I was especially saddened by the damage and loss of life at the Lake Superior Zoo. This has always been a special place to me, and many dedicated people have worked hard to make it even better in recent years. The damage and expense caused by the flooding will be a terrible setback after all of their efforts.
It is fortunate that the storms did not cause more injury or death, but there is no denying that the economic impact on the region will be severe. Not only will residents face the expense of rebuilding roads and other infrastructure, but the timing of the damage couldn’t be much worse in terms of economic impact.
The northland is a magical place at any time of the year, but summer is the season in which tourism drives the economic engine of the region, and many businesses depend on summer revenue to get them through the year.
Despite the pain of watching the damage to my homeland, I know that the region will bounce back. I know this because the people of northern Minnesota are a strong and resilient breed, and because I have seen it happen before.
Forty years ago, in August and September 1972, Duluth was hammered with three major storms that dumped torrential rains during a one-month period. Some areas today look eerily similar to the landscape back then.
Just as last week’s news included reports of a Proctor boy who survived being swept into a culvert and carried underground for blocks before emerging into daylight, a Duluth boy had the same experience in 1972.
President Nixon declared the area a federal disaster area in 1972. Last week, Governor Dayton signed a disaster declaration for the area.
One key difference between the floods of 1972 and today, from a personal perspective, is that I experienced the earlier floods not on a computer screen, but in person.
Our neighborhood was not among those that experienced the washouts and major damage, but I remember going with my family to see the areas that were most heavily hit.
As we walked those crumbling streets, looked into gaping pits, and observed buildings hanging crazily over voids that had been solid ground days before, I was reminded of scenes I had seen on television depicting the aftermath of earthquakes and the bombed-out rubble of cities ravaged by war.
The floods of 1972 brought the damage close to home and made it real. That kind of thing makes an impression on a person. Somewhere, tucked away in a box, I still have a couple of small albums of faded photographs to remind me what it was like back then.
What I don’t remember from that earlier crisis is anyone whining or feeling sorry for themselves. There was a period of disbelief, even awe at the destruction nature had wrought, and then the people rolled up their sleeves and began rebuilding their neighborhoods and their city.
The raw destruction in northern Minnesota reminds us of the tremendous power of nature. We humans like to think we are in control, but the forces of wind, water, and fire can wipe out any illusions we might have in the blink of an eye.
A good old-fashioned natural disaster reminds us that man-made objects are fragile, and we may be better off trying to work with nature, rather than against it.
A natural disaster can remind us of something else, as well. It can remind us of the strength of the human spirit.
The cruel hand of fate may wipe out years of work in a matter of seconds, but somehow, that does not keep people from starting over. Neighbor helping neighbor, and stranger helping stranger, people have a way of shaking off adversity. Together they begin picking up the pieces of their lives and rebuilding things from the ground up.
In a case like the flooding in Duluth, people may have to start by rebuilding the ground itself before they can begin rebuilding whatever was on top of it, but, something tells me that is exactly what they will do.