Residents recall the tragedy and the community’s resilience

Photo provided Brian and Stephanie Rawlings are all smiles for a family photo with newborn Claire, who was born at Columbus Regional Hospital on June 6, 2008 — one day before the hospital was evacuated due to historic flooding.

Editor’s note: The Republic asked local residents to submit their memories of June 7, 2008, when massive flooding engulfed Columbus and Bartholomew County and upended lives and businesses, forever changing the community. Here is a selection of memories they shared.

A newborn evacuated from CRH

Bev Rust was a new grandmother who would not be deterred.

As she entered Columbus Regional Hospital on June 7, 2008, she heard an announcement that visitors were being evacuated due to flooding. “I said, ‘I can’t. I’m going to visit my daughter!’” That would be Stephanie Rawlings, who had given birth the night before.

But with water rising, Bev had no choice. Because her family’s home was unreachable due to flooding, she and husband Tom headed to Stephanie and son-in-law Brian’s home.

“You can’t go in there,” she said a sheriff’s deputy called to her as she waded through flood waters to reach her kids’ home. But she did, explaining the situation, and getting a cautious exception. She moved what she could out of the way of water that was rising from the crawlspace and into the garage.

Soon after, even patients were being evacuated from CRH, which was forced to close for the first time in its history. In an email, Brian recalled the chaotic situation he and Stephanie faced as new parents to their newborn daughter, Claire.

“Alarms were going off inside the hospital; things were very confusing. We remember exiting the hospital through flood waters and seeing people carrying their IV poles with them wading through the waters,” Brian said. “The hospital staff did a great job in a crisis situation; there were a lot of heroes that day.”

With both families’ homes inaccessible, they stayed at a friend’s home in the Presidential Parks neighborhood that was spared flooding.

The next day, the family went to Stephanie and Brian’s home. “It looked like a river in front of our house,” Brian recalled, but they were able to get in the house through the back door. They found flood waters had receded after coming about an inch from getting into the house.

“God saw us through that one, I do believe,” Bev said.

“We will always remember how the community all came together,” Brian said. “Our neighborhood and street looked like a war zone, but people stayed positive and pushed on.”

Lives were lost in the flood

For the past 15 years, Clarence “Dale” Gates of rural Hope has struggled to understand why his brother, Steve Ray Gates, was carried away to his death by the swollen Haw Creek.

At age 54, Steve Gates became the second of two Hope-area residents to die the afternoon of Saturday, June 7, 2008. Ernest W. Wilmer, 54, perished a short time earlier after attempting to walk back home from his partially-submerged car.

Dale Gates, now 73, said when his only sibling suddenly disappeared, he began to think of how much they had shared and helped each other for nearly a half-century. It has taken 15 years for Dale to be able to talk about it, he said.

On the day his brother died, Dale had made three unsuccessful attempts to drive from his farm into Hope. Eventually, he spotted a car owned by his sister-in-law, Jennifer, parked along County Road 475E.

Jennifer told Dale her husband had used his cell phone to tell her his truck was swept off the road about a quarter-mile from their residence. He also told her his truck was stuck in a field and quickly filling with water, Dale said.

Despite his best efforts, a dump truck driver was unsuccessful in trying to rescue Steve. The truck driver shouted to Steve, a Cummins, Inc. employee and father of three, to stay put in the cab until help arrived.

But when Steve disregarded the advice and got out of his truck, the flooded Haw Creek current eventually carried him away.

The dump truck driver was so emotionally distraught that he could not respond when questioned about the accidental drowning, Dale said.

The next day was Sunday, June 8. The water level had dropped enough that Steve’s submerged truck was finally found about 300 yards off the road. But when the truck cab was found empty and search boats returned without survivors, “we knew that the writing was pretty much on the wall,” Dale said.

The next day, Dale went to work at Cummins Inc. in an effort to escape his grief, he said. But at 5 p.m., he received a text from Clifford Fire Chief Ed Stone that Steve’s body had been found near County Road 450N, about two miles downstream from where his truck was found.

“I was older than him, so I never thought about Steve leaving this earth before I did,” Dale said. “ I wished I could have talked over more things with him. I just always thought he was going to be there. But it didn’t happen.”

Riding it out in ‘The Lagoons’

On the night of the flood, local artist Marilyn Brackney and her husband had just left their home in The Lagoons and were walking toward Noblitt Park. As they made their way down the street, Brackney suddenly heard a noise behind her.

“I turned around, and it was the river,” she said. “It was coming down the street.”

The Brackneys rushed to get back to their house, which she estimated is only about 50 feet from the Flatrock River.

The couple initially expected to be flooded and worked to save what they could. However, they soon found that homes along the river were not affected due to being built six inches higher than those on the lakes — which had water up the ceiling in their lower levels.

The Monday after the flood, local architect Louis Joyner asked the city to help The Lagoons neighborhood, said Brackney. Fire trucks were sent to pump water back into the river, and Joyner also rented pumps.

Larry Brackney, Ben Downing and other individuals kept the pumps fueled and running, with the eight machines working day and night for over a week. Marilyn Brackney said that when all was said and done, over 40 million gallons of water had been returned to the river.

“What happened in our neighborhood was remarkable,” she said in a reflection written shortly after the flood. “People knew that to save their homes, they had to take charge and work fast. Everyone pitched in to help each other, saving belongings, cleaning, bringing food, or just offering words of encouragement.”

For at least two weeks after the flood, the neighborhood was “very deserted,” with people who had lost power and sustained major damage leaving their homes, Brackney said.

She recalled that it was a scary time for those who stayed, with looters being among their concerns. However, they were relieved to see police officers patrolling the area at night. As a gesture of gratitude, the Brackneys set up a card table in front of their garage with water, tea, soft drinks and other treats for officers.

“After going to bed one night, our outdoor lights kept coming off and on, so we went to the window to peek out,” Brackney said. “Word about the drinks and treats must have gotten out, because many officers were enjoying them and congregating in the street in front of our house! We were amazed to learn that they weren’t just from Columbus. Officers from as far away as Bloomington would come over to patrol the neighborhood, and many were from neighboring counties, too. We’ll never forget the summer of 2008, and we hope to never experience anything like it again.”

Republic Assistant Managing Editor Dave Stafford, and reporters Jana Wiersema and Mark Webber contributed to this story.