No one died when the three rivers overflowed their banks. The dangers posed by the spread of the novel coronavirus are far greater and the effect on everyday life is far more profound. But some of today's events strike a familiar chord. Perhaps remembering how Fort Wayne became “The City That Saved Itself” as its residents met that crisis head on 38 years ago offers a sliver of inspiration in a desperate moment.
Win Moses Jr., the mayor who led that effort, was sitting at home when I phoned him Wednesday afternoon — frustrated, like most of us, at his utter inability to do anything but watch as the vast tragedy of COVID-19 unfolds.
Still fiercely a Democrat, Moses is dismayed by the uncertain messages being sent from Washington, D.C. “There was a denial for so long,” he said. “They called it a Democratic hoax. ... Even now, you don't have confidence in what the direction is.”
Moses sympathizes with Mayor Tom Henry and those in similar roles today.
“The lowliest position in the world, I think right now, is to be a mayor of a middle-class size city, because you're not in control at all,” Moses said. “You can't really be in charge of the pace of things.”
That is in sharp contrast to the way Moses, who had been in office just two years when the floodwaters began to rise, was able to rally Fort Wayne in March 1982.
The flood was the worst to hit northeast Indiana in more than 70 years. It caused millions of dollars in devastation and drove thousands from their homes. But the city was hardly in the total shutdown mode of today.
For some residents, life went on almost as usual. Though many roads were closed, detours allowed people to reach most businesses, and most employees were still able to get to work.
There was little naysaying, though, as the mayor, seeking every pair of hands that could be found, asked the schools to close and called on high school students to join the volunteer brigades trying to hold back the floodwaters.
No one who lived through it is likely to forget the way people came together that March to fill and place an estimated 1 million sandbags throughout the city. Thousands of students and other volunteers waded into the filthy, icy waters to build dikes that saved some neighborhoods and limited the damage to others. The students “literally saved the day,” Moses recalled.
Others brought in food and sent donations for those who had been forced to leave their homes.
Politicians left partisanship at the water's edge. Moses warmly recalls how, after President Ronald Reagan visited Fort Wayne and threw a few sandbags, he visited with evacuees at Most Precious Blood Catholic School.
“They were bedraggled, they didn't have any food, and we explained that to him. I asked him, 'Can you send us money?' We were fortunate because he liked to nod. And I got him in the 'yes' nod. He came through with $6 million.”
As a young journalist, I remember driving through the Lakeside neighborhood and seeing lights on in every home at 2 in the morning as residents prepared to evacuate.
As the owner of a home on the banks of the St. Joseph River, I remember people I had never met streaming into our tiny neighborhood to help us build sandbag barriers.
And I remember seeing Mayor Moses as we arrived at the Coliseum one night to get more sandbags.
When I think of the kind of steady leadership the country hungers for now, I think of Moses standing with a microphone, calming the cacophony of that crowd of hyperenergized teenagers and weary adults whose homes were imperiled or already filled with water, urging everyone to keep at it, assuring us we would get through it.
If there were a way its citizens could help, Moses believes, Fort Wayne would respond again to a call to meet today's crisis. “The spirit to do that is still there now,” he said. “You just have to find a way to capture it.
“But it's much different than a flood, where you can all get together and throw sandbags. We aren't there yet. We're in the separation game,” Moses paused. “Maybe that's all we can do.”
Tim Harmon is an editorial writer for The Journal Gazette.