Midwest Hit Hard by Severe Storms, Flooding

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Tornadoes and torrential rainstorms struck the Midwest over the weekend. Pat Batcheller, a reporter for WDET in Detroit, Mich., describes the damage, and Columbus, Ind., resident Sheri Brown talks about how people are coping with the extreme weather.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

NEAL CONAN, host:

People in many parts of the country are suffering from extreme weather, but nowhere worse than the Midwest. There were a few tornadoes, severe storms. Many places were hit by wind and lightning and torrential rains followed by floods. At least seven people died in weather-related incidents over the weekend. In Michigan alone, two delivery workers drowned in their truck, and two people were killed by falling trees. Weather damaged many buildings and hundreds of people have been forced to vacate their homes.

Earlier we asked you for emails. We got this from Beth, who writes, hello from Waukesha, Wisconsin, about 20 miles west of Milwaukee. We have the Fox River rising steadily in our downtown area. Bridges are closed as water is rushing under them. In one case, the water is lapping and crashing against the bottom of the bridge, a foot or two below the street surface. The water is dark brown and moving very swiftly.

One can see steps, railings and park benches partially submerged. Many swallows and redwing blackbirds are flying around frantically, which makes me wonder if nests and babies have been washed away. Other areas of the city have large areas of water where there used to be none. I heard this morning that the Fox River is due to crest at about noon on Tuesday. I'm thankful that our sump pump is keeping our basement dry, as we have standing water in our backyard.

Well, call and tell us your story or send us email. The phone number is 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, what happened to you? You can also share your experience on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation. With us now by phone from his office at WDET in Detroit, our member station there, is reporter Pat Batcheller. Pat, nice to have you on the program today.

PAT BATCHELLER: Thank you, Neal. Good to be here.

CONAN: Well, how bad is it?

BATCHELLER: Well, it was pretty bad. I mean, the worst of the storms came through yesterday with winds, some of them, estimated up to around 80 miles an hour. So I went out and surveyed some of the damage this afternoon, and saw a number of toppled trees, talked with some residents who were without power.

We've got about an estimated, across the lower half of Michigan, about 200 to 250,000 people still without power right now. And I talked to some folks who were using generators, some who didn't, who weren't fortunate enough to have a generator, which is too bad, because it's 90 degrees outside. So we're trying to keep cool without power. Of course, this is a difficult proposition.

CONAN: And I assume humidity is also pretty high, too.

BATCHELLER: Yeah. We've got - it is pretty humid out there. I think the last check I had from the National Weather Service Office was, it's somewhere in the neighborhood of about maybe 50 percent or so. I'm not...

CONAN: Ah, you should come east. It's horrible here. But we're not having the storms.

BATCHELLER: Yeah, forty-seven percent humidity at the city airport in Detroit. And we have a severe thunderstorm watch in effect right now, too, for most of Metro Detroit, until about eight o'clock. So we could get hit again.

CONAN: And that would, obviously, redouble the damage. And it's been so wet this spring. I assume the ground is well-soaked already. So any additional water is going to be a real problem.

BATCHELLER: Well, we've been lucky here in this part of the state, where we haven't had any flood warnings. It's been worse on the west side of Michigan, where most of those fatalities happened yesterday, a lot of torrential rains with the storms that hit west and southwest Michigan especially. We got a fair amount of rain the last couple of days. But it's been so hot here that it hadn't had much trouble evaporating

CONAN: Well, a good thing it just boils off then, yeah.

BATCHELLER: Right.

CONAN: Pat, thanks for joining us today.

BATCHELLER: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Pat Batcheller, a reporter for WDET, our member station in Detroit. And he joined us from his office there. Let's talk with Richard. And Richard's calling us from Brighton in Michigan.

RICHARD (Caller): Hi there.

CONAN: Hi there. What's happening to you?

RICHARD: Well I'm driving home from work. I teach in Livonia, but I live up in Williamston, which is a small town outside of East Lansing. We had three nights of high winds and rain, and I would turn my air conditioning to kind of teach my kids what it used to be like. And so we're living with it, and they are getting used to it, but when you wake up at one in the morning, you've got rain coming in the window sideways, it's time to close things up.

CONAN: And what about your neighbors?

RICHARD: You know, I'd say we're all faring well in Williamston. Again, we've lost quite a few trees, again, limbs, and we had a tornado in the fall. So this is, I think, bothering a lot of the residents who are still rebuilding, and we've lost so many trees in a very small town. And I think about half the town is without power right now. Now, where I live, I've got power, but, like, my in-laws have no power. So I may be taking my motor-home generator to their house this evening.

CONAN: It sounds like neighbors and families are pitching together to help everybody else get by.

RICHARD: It's small-town Midwest. That's what you do out here.

CONAN: Richard, thanks very much for the call. Good luck.

RICHARD: You take care. Bye-bye.

CONAN: Joining us now from her restaurant in Columbus, Indiana, is Sheri Brown. She's the owner and manager of Abigail's, and Sheri, nice to have you on the program.

Ms. SHERI BROWN (Owner, Abigail's, Columbus, Indiana): Well, thank you.

CONAN: And what does the street in front of your restaurant look like?

Ms. BROWN: It's pretty muddy right now. All the water has gone down.

CONAN: And I understand it, that's a street with any number of restaurants on it.

Ms. BROWN: Yes. Oh, yeah, there's quite a few restaurants on the street. Two of them have opened back up, that includes us and Denny's. Bob Evans is still closed. Wendy's is still closed. There's a couple others up the road a little bit that, I believe, has opened up. I believe Taco Bell is open.

CONAN: You must have very loyal customers to get through that mud and come to Abigail's.

Ms. BROWN: Oh, yeah. Yeah.

CONAN: What are they saying about what they are going through?

Ms. BROWN: All the same thing, they couldn't get anywhere. There's a lot of people that are just totally flooded out. It's the same really everywhere.

CONAN: And is it likely to get worse before it gets better?

Ms. BROWN: They are talking about three inches tonight, so we don't know we don't know if it's going to affect us or not.

CONAN: And what about your employees? I mean, people must have a hard time getting to work.

Ms. BROWN: Yeah, we had quite a few that couldn't get to work. But then again, we had a few that could.

CONAN: And it's OK getting food deliveries?

Ms. BROWN: We won't get a delivery until Wednesday, so we won't know.

CONAN: So you're going to be out of the blue-plate special before too long.

Ms. BROWN: Oh, yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Sheri Brown, good luck.

Ms. BROWN: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Sheri Brown, the owner and manager of Abigail's, with us from her office in Columbia - Columbus, excuse me, Indiana. This is from Suzanne in West Grove, Oklahoma. My partner and I live in Oklahoma and are getting used to the almost weekly tornado warnings, that when it's time to take cover, she grabs her hard drive, the dogs, the cats and me, in that order. Again that from Suzanne in Grove, Oklahoma.

Here's an email from Karen in Rose Township, in Michigan. That's a small rather rural area about 20 miles south of Flint. She writes, unfortunately, or fortunately, it's over 80 degrees, so I don't have to worry about pipes freezing or trying to stay warm. I like to read and have a book light, so that's no problem. I'm in the library with my laptop, so I'm still connected to the rest of the world.

The worst part is not having any water. Because I'm in a rural area, I don't have city water. No electricity means no well pump, and that means filling up water bottles to brush my teeth and taking showers at the gym. The other inconvenience is trying to find enough ice to keep the beer cold. Here's to hot showers and to cold beer. Karen, P.S., the storm also knocked out WFUN, the Flint NPR station.

So we'll find out what's going there and see if we can find out what's on. Joining us now from his office in Trego County, Kansas, is Sheriff Richard Schneider, and Sheriff, it's nice to have you on the program today.

Sheriff RICHARD SCHNEIDER (Trego County, Kansas): Thank you.

CONAN: And how are things in Trego County?

Sheriff SCHNEIDER: Quiet today.

CONAN: But it's not been that way in the last couple of weeks, though.

Sheriff SCHNEIDER: No, it hasn't.

CONAN: How many storms would you say you've had?

Sheriff SCHNEIDER: Oh, we've probably had at least 20 tornadoes since before Memorial Day weekend.

CONAN: That's a lot - that can cause a lot of damage.

Sheriff SCHNEIDER: Yeah, we've had quite a little bit of damage. Just two storms caused the damage. Then we had more hail and wind the other night here, I think it was Friday night. We had a lot of hail in Collyer. It's a small community just to the west of us.

CONAN: And of course, the hail and the wind could be much more of a problem after the tornado has taken your roof off.

Sheriff SCHNEIDER: Yes, it can.

CONAN: How are people dealing with this?

Sheriff SCHNEIDER: I don't how to answer that. How do you deal with the threat of one minute everything is nice and the next minute you don't have anything? There's no good answer to that, I don't think.

CONAN: I wonder if people don't constantly keep looking to the sky to see if something threatening is coming.

Sheriff SCHNEIDER: You do. This time of the year, you know that it could be ugly.

CONAN: And are there warning sirens there for tornadoes?

Sheriff SCHNEIDER: In the cities there are, in our towns, yes, but out in the rural areas, no.

CONAN: And what kinds of calls does the sheriff get under such circumstances?

Sheriff SCHNEIDER: Mainly we go check on victims after the storm has hit them. We get in storm spot. We try to help the fire department storm spot. We're just here to do whatever we can to help people.

CONAN: And do you find that most people are also trying to help? Or they are - are there people trying to take advantage of the situation?

Sheriff SCHNEIDER: Well, you've got that everywhere you go, but luckily, it's not too bad here.

CONAN: Well, take care of yourself.

Sheriff SCHNEIDER: You bet.

CONAN: Sheriff Schneider, Richard Schneider joined us from Trego County in Kansas. Let's see if we can get another email. This from Charlotte in Charles City, Iowa. I'm a long-time resident of Charles City, Iowa. Our town lost our historic suspension bridge last night at 11 p.m., due to the record-breaking flooding of the Cedar River, which flows directly through the center of the city. The only thing left of the bridge is some twisted metal near the riverbanks.

I've heard it is hung up on the Main Street dam, and if it breaks loose, could take out the Main Street Bridge, which is now closed to traffic, as well as Brantingham Bridge, virtually cutting the city in two, allowing no avenue to get from north to south. The suspension bridge was over 100 years old and listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. It's truly a major loss to Charles City to lose something so closely tied to its identity. Again that from Charlotte, calling us from Charles City in Iowa.

And let's see if we can now go to Ellen. Ellen is with us from Milwaukee in Wisconsin.

ELLEN (Caller): Hi there. My family and I have a general contractor who specializes in insurance-restoration work and we have been all through the weekend and still all day today, from six o'clock in the morning all the way to 10 o'clock at night, fielding calls from people calling. I'd say the average inches of water in people's basements has been about eight inches. But one person with it all the way to the ceiling, because they got an air pocket between their eight-foot wall and the outside filled up with water and burst their foundation.

CONAN: Wow.

ELLEN: And now it's filled with mud. There's been a lot of sewer backup, which, you know, can be very unhealthy.

CONAN: Among other things, yes.

ELLEN: Yeah, and I have to say one thing about people. For the most part, people have been gracious and pretty decent through all of this. A lot of people have been helping each other out. But you know, when somebody comes - some people call, terribly distressed and, you know, can be a little cranky, but you know, once you kind of talk with them a little bit, and you know, if you can get them to realize that OK, that there's is just water from the rain as opposed to sewage, they are like, oh, thank God.

And it's been amazing, because we have been having beautiful sunshine and lovely breeze and 15 minutes of torrential downpour, and then it just rains and rains and rains and rains, and then the sun is out. But not today. It's staying overcast, and I mean, we are just expecting more of it. It's been kind of awesome and pretty awful all at the same time.

CONAN: Yeah, it's amazing to watch, and then you realize the suffering it's causing so many people. Thank very much for the call, Ellen.

ELLEN: Sure.

CONAN: We're talking to people in the Midwest who are suffering through some terrible weather in places like Michigan, Oklahoma, Kansas, and you just heard, in Wisconsin, Iowa, too. If you're there, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org, and this is Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

This from Michelle in Coon Valley, Wisconsin. We had about 10 inches of rain in Midwestern Wisconsin from midday Saturday to Sunday night, causing massive flooding and crop damage. We had similar flooding here in Coon Valley, Wisconsin, in August 2007. People were just trying to restore the damage from last year's floods when we were hit with another one. People said last year was the flood of the century. We're checking out the true damage today with tears in our eyes.

Let's go now to Charlie. Charlie is with us now in south central Kansas.

CHARLIE (Caller): Hi, yes. I don't pretend to be a farmer but I've been watching the reports on TV. We've had so much rain, and this is historically the time we harvest the wheat.

CONAN: The first run of the crop, yeah.

CHARLIE: Yeah and they are finding - they are finding it difficult to find enough dry land to put a combine on, for one thing, and then there's been a lot of hail damage, too. We've had hail as large as softball sized. Up in Manhattan, several car dealerships lost their entire inventories just to softball-sized hail last week. We've had trees uprooted here over the weekend, in the little towns east of here, roof damage and so forth.

And fortunately, though, we here in Wichita, we have a great - what we call the Valley Center Wichita Flood Project, which is a big canal around town, because historically, the city used to get flooded every year or two, and since they installed that back in the '50s, the city has probably saved billions of dollars worth of flood damage. Even though the river will get extremely high coming through town, at least it's controlled.

CONAN: There's a vote for infrastructure.

CHARLIE: Exactly, and we are in desperate need to have that all of over the country out here.

CONAN: So I've heard. Charlie, thanks very much for the call. Stay dry, if you can. Let's see if we can go to Rich, and Rich is with us from Manchester in Michigan.

RICH (Caller): hello.

CONAN: Hi.

RICH: Yeah, I'm a volunteer firefighter here in rural Michigan, and I guess my take on it is, when the weather gets bad, we have to go out into it in our trucks and sit there and wait for stuff to happen, which happened last night, in fact.

CONAN: And what happened?

RICH: Well, there was a lightning strike at a house in our area that luckily did not damage the house too much. The homeowner got to it in time with a fire extinguisher, but it set fire to their pickup truck in the driveway, which was quite exciting, especially when it got to the fuel tank, blew up and let go with a fireball of smoke and flames.

CONAN: Yeah, that sounds pretty exciting, even more exciting than the storm itself.

RICH: Yeah, in fact, we get a lot of fires during these type of storms. People don't realize with the rain and the water, you would think there wouldn't be such, but house fires transform into pole fires all the time.

CONAN: And so these must have been some of the busiest days of your life.

RICH: Yeah. When you listen to the open channel for the county, it's almost amazing the volume of calls that come in, and you can hear it coming from the west side of the county. And as it starts to hit the different townships, it's, like, you know it's getting closer, because you recognize the number that represents each township, and as the combine sweeps across the county, you know when you are about to get hit.

CONAN: An again, as you look at it, it must be awesome at the same time it's scary.

RICH: Oh, yeah, it's a lot of fun. But at the same time, you're nervous, too, because you never know if you're going to be right there when the big one hits.

CONAN: Rich, take care of yourself as you take care of others.

RICH: OK, will do. Thanks.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Here's an email from Nathan in Oklahoma. My name is Nathan and I'm a senior at Oklahoma State University. I'm very appreciative of your show. The worst part is the wind, not just tornadoes every other week but the constant wind encountered in everyday driving. It seems at times your car will be blown onto the shoulder or right off the road. I know there are no natural barriers to the wind, but it seems this is the most powerful the winds have ever been. Today, there are flood warnings on the radio. Tomorrow, there will probably be another tornado.

And we'll end with this from Alex in Dakota City, Iowa. I'd say something about the weather but I don't have the time, because I'm vacuuming water out of the basement carpet. That from Alex in Dakota City in Iowa.

Stay tuned to NPR News for more on the weather that's afflicting the Midwest. It's just hot and beastly here in Washington, D.C. I'm Neal Conan. NPR News.

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