After the storms: Flood waters forced local family to evacuate (part 1 in a 3 part series)

Water rises in the field behind the Gabbard home. At one point, it was only 40 feet from the back door.

(Editor’s note: The flooding that struck the Mid-South area in April and May caused devastation for many local families. While the waters have receded, the impact of the disaster remains as a part of many lives. Paul Smothers’ 3-part series shares the experience of one such family, in hopes that people will continue to support United Way’s work for long-term recovery efforts. This is part 1 of the series.)

To live in your home for over 30 years and to have it taken away from you all at once is devastating. That’s just what happened to Debbie Gabbard and her family.

The family lived in Kingsley Park Mobile Homes, off Highway 51 in North Memphis. The Gabbard home was destroyed by the Mid-South floods in late April.

“We had been there 30 years,” she said. “My husband Steve and I raised a daughter and granddaughter in that home.”

It was widely reported that the waters flooding the Mid-South during the first week of May “could, in one second, fill up a football field 44 feet deep.” In some places, the Mississippi River widened to six times its normal size, forcing thousands of people in Arkansas and Tennessee to flee their homes. Weeks of heavy rain in the region had forced snakes and other reptiles to flee into residential neighborhoods to escape the rushing water. The river rose to 47.6 feet and to crested at a record 48 feet later according to the National Weather Service. More than 1,300 homes in the region were ordered to evacuate and another 240 were warned that they might need to leave. Nearly 400 people had to stay in area shelters.

During the last days of April, Debbie and Steve were watching the waters as the Mississippi started to rise and then settle. The Gabbard family had received notice by mail that the water from the flooding could rise 6 feet or more. Each day before the river receded, they used a pole to determine how much the water had risen. Gradually, the Gabbard family began seeing the waters running in their backyard.

When they saw the water, Debbie says they spent the first day making arrangements for their daughter and granddaughter, who they sent with as many clothes as possible to be cared for by friends. Then they packed all day and night the second day. The third day, they had many items packed, but had 3 feet of standing water at their door. Time was running out. Boxes were everywhere. The rain was coming down, hard.

“The water was slowly coming up in our backyard,” Debbie said. “We could see it.”

The couple rented a storage unit for their boxes. They left their house only for a few minutes at a time and returned, continuing to pack. They were awakened early the next morning by their neighbor screaming: “Get up, get up now!”

“There was the worst storm,” Debbie said. “The water had come up considerably. We threw on our clothes, start grabbing whatever we could! We had to get out of there!”

With help from her brother who drove to their home in the middle of the storm, Debbie and her husband gathered the last items they could before the water rose so high that they had to leave. The next time they saw their home, they would have to come by boat.

(To be continued in part 2, tomorrow) Updated: Read part 2 here.

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