I stand in the middle of the street, with a notebook in my hand. I know that I should talk to someone, but my feet won’t move. Interrupting someone’s hard work seems like just another blow to the worst week of these people’s lives. Instead, I watch, trying to soak in the images and meaning.
The house in front of me is one I’ve known for years. Just the picture of the front windows and door reminds me of red wine, delicious potatoes and satisfying pie. It’s a symbol of long-term friendship and kindness as this is the place I spend my Thanksgivings.
Now, it’s something else. The ever-long driveway and spring green grass are unrecognizable. Piles of dirt are scattered and a couple of dozen workers barely lift their heads up to anything other than a slice of pizza or a quick hello.
I observe all of this, feeling helpless. Then he drives up in a four-wheeler. He stops and gets out.
“I hear it’s your birthday,” I say.
“It is,” he said.
“Happy Birthday. I am sorry it has to be like this.”
“Yeah, not how I wanted to spend my day, but can I get a birthday hug.”
“Yes,” I say as I wrap my arms around him. I want this small notion of affection to make up for the fact that he is trying to save his home, the one he welcomed my family and me into every Thanksgiving. It amazes me that he can still smile.
Weeks before, I noticed that the local newspaper’s assistant editor left and wrote the editor telling him I could help until the fall or he found a replacement. Sometime and uncertainty passed, but eventually the publisher called and offered me a temporary position until I was able to rejoin the Peace Corps.
At the time, I was working as an aide in a kindergarten classroom. I would spend my days in the kindergarten and my nights in the newsroom. The days were long and it was a humorous transition from budding learners to the stories of adults that ran the community. It would slow down, I told myself, and then I would live normally.
My relationship with reporting is turbulent and I never know how I feel about it. I decided to take this job over others to really figure that one, but I made a promise that it wouldn’t control me. Work would be work. Maybe if I can achieve that attitude, I told myself, journalism and I could have a future.
Three weeks ago, I fell into a story. The Oahe Dam was releasing water out of the stilling basin for the first time every. I did a three part series, but all sources told me that summer would go as usual.
Then, something changed. Because of a major rain event, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had to increase those releases, meaning the Missouri River would rise and its power would consume houses, business, parks and anything else in its path.
I rummaged for information as the rest of the town, and state, came together to prepare. Many nights I came home after 12 or 13 hours of work, feeling useless. If only I could fill a sand bag, I would feel like I am contributing.
I wanted to tell all the angles but hours passed so quickly that I never felt accomplished. I wanted to get all the stories, but would tighten up when I had to stop some deep in the fight for a comment or two. There would be a technical failure, or six, and I would burst into tears in the lonely newsroom.
Other media outlets rolled into town to capture the events. They walked with confidence and air that was an indication, to me at least, of superiority. Immediately, they got attention from the sources and audience. It didn’t matter that a few others and I had been there first and would be there long after they were gone, they were better than me, or so I let them tell me. To them, it was just a story. To me, it was the destruction of my hometown.
Many times I’ve thought about how I am supposed to be on another continent but events transpired so that brought me here for this heartbreaking event. I don’t know why. I don’t even know how to process it. I just know that I need to pick up my pen and do what I can.
Other stories are better, I am sure, but I suppose that isn’t a reason to stop fighting. This isn’t about who has a piece of info over another person. It’s not about who gets what shot or interview. It’s about doing your job because it helps other people. It’s about capturing the event, but doing so because you care over scooping your competitor.
So, when the man who I spent holidays with told me that I was doing great work, it was all I needed to keep going. This is I contribute to the flood fight.