Losses and blessings: Still recovering from the 2017 flood

The soaring new Irwin Cudworth Bridge over the North Fork of the White River reopened less than six months after (below) an historic April 29, 2017, flood destroyed the previous bridge at the site adjoining the North Fork Recreation Area of Mark Twain National Forest (known locally as Hammond Campground). Ozark County Presiding Commissioner John Turner said Monday it was “unheard-of” for such big bridges (the Cudworth Bridge on CC Highway as well as James Bridge, farther downstream on PP Highway near Dawt) to be built in such a short length of time. MoDOT’s quick work is counted by many as one of the unexpected “blessings” that occurred after the devastating flood.

On April 29, 2017, Lake Norfork at Tecumseh rose to the roofline of the Christopherson family’s home north of the Corps of Engineers park at Tecumseh. The family of seven had moved to the home 40 days earlier from Fargo, North Dakota.

Derek and Jen Christopherson took this family photo on Easter Sunday, April 16, 2017, about two weeks before the devastating flood. The children, then ranging in age from 3 to 12, are, from left: Eli, Luke, Faith, Samuel and Alex.

A truck stands submerged in Lick Creek on Main Street near the low-water bridge in Gainesville on Sunday, April 30, 2017. The future of the Ozark County Christian Thrift Store, housed in the former church building at right, was in doubt. But manager Lori Carter White eventually became the business owner and moved it to a new location two blocks south – another unexpected blessing that the business didn’t have to close.

Ozark County Commissioners at their meeting Monday acknowledged that they were meeting exactly two years after an historic flood wreaked havoc on the county, washing away homes and bridges and devastating many of the 750-plus miles of county-owned roads.

Work to repair the damage began immediately – and is still continuing, the commissioners said. 

A contractor last week finished installing new guardrails on the County Road 503 bridge over Lick Creek just south of the junction of Highways 160 and 5 north in Gainesville. (The bridge is known locally as the Cheese Plant Bridge.) After the meeting Monday, Ozark County Presiding Commissioner John Turner recalled the incredible scene when the original guard rails washed away two years ago. 

The waters of Lick Creek had risen quickly, knocking the guardrails loose and sending other debris onto the bridge deck, he said. “The bridge was blocked, and [White River Valley Electric Co-op] couldn’t get out to fix the power lines,” Turner said, referring to the WRVEC office on the south side of the bridge. “We had to get a motor grader – Todd Luna got on the motor grader and pushed the guard rail off the road to let the White River guys out. I had to OK that.”

Turner said that, during the weekend of April 29-30, 2017, and the days following, he was in frequent contact with eastern district commissioner Gary Collins and western district commissioner Greg Donley, who were taking constant calls from residents reporting washed-out roads and low-water crossings.


‘We didn’t wait for nothing’

Recalling that weekend, Donley said Monday, “It rained and rained and rained.”Like many Ozark Countians that weekend, Donley and his wife Rachel and their kids were trapped in their home, unable to drive out due to flooded and/or washed-out low-water crossings. “I couldn’t believe what I seen and heard,” he said, “all the bridges washing out. It was like it was unreal.” 

When he did make it out, Donley found the roads “the worst I’d ever seen.” The 2017 flood was the worst of seven declared disasters Donley had experienced during his years as commissioner, and the “2017 flood was by far the worst disaster I’ve worked,” he said.

Repairing the flood-damaged western-district roadways continues, Donley said. “We’ve replaced a dozen low-water crossings, and we’re not done yet,” he said.  

Eastern district commissioner Gary Collins agreed with his fellow commissioners that the 2017 flood was a true disaster. “It was terrible. I’m sorry for the people who lost their homes. It’s been an ordeal, but as the good Lord says, ‘Life goes on,’” he said. 

Collins was sitting in his house, watching the rain on April 29, 2017. Then the phone started ringing. “It washed out roads and culverts. There were big ditches everywhere and no bridges left. It was a devastating time for everybody. I hated it, but I couldn’t stop it. I didn’t think it was ever going to stop raining,” Collins said.

As much as 25 inches of rain fell during the weekend. “Unheard-of,” Turner said. “Can you imagine if you’d had a forecast that said, ‘In 12 hours, it’s going to rain 25 inches’? But that’s what happened.”

Turner said he and his fellow commissioners “pulled out all the stops” in responding to the crisis. “I said, ‘Hire anyone with a backhoe or dozer or front-end loader and get them out there and get started.’ We didn’t wait for nothing. People were stuck. They were stranded. We didn’t say, ‘Hold on. We’ll get a county grader over there when we can.’ We told people, ‘If you have a bulldozer, a backhoe or loader, go to this road and fix it where people can get in and out. Start building temporary roads, and we’ll fix them later. We didn’t say, ‘We can’t afford it.’ We said, ‘Bill us later.’ We knew we had to do it,” Turner said.

The bills did come in later – and the county paid them, Turner said. It was a challenge, because the first FEMA funds – a small amount compared with what the commission hopes is coming – didn’t arrive until December 2018. 

“The emergency people, the sheriff’s departament, the volunteer fire departments and their first responders, they were working hard, checking on people, delivering meals and medicine. They pulled out all the stops too,” Turner said. “The water patrol was doing the swift-water rescues. They and individuals on James Lane (along the North Fork River), they were doing fantastic, risking their lives for people and dogs. And MoDOT rebuilding those bridges [James Bridge on PP Highway and the Irwin Cudworth Bridge on CC Highway, which reopened in Ocober, less than six months after they fell into the North Fork River] – it’s unheard-of for two big bridges to be done in that length of time.” 


Lessons and blessings

The flood was devastating – that’s the word repeatedly used to describe it. But amid the destruction, there were also lessons and blessings. 

“I think we know now that if we have a disaster, we can count on the fire departments, the sheriff’s department, the churches and volunteers – we know now we can count on them in a disaster, and we can count on the state,” Turner said. “We all hope we don’t have to, but that experience showed us we have the volunteers and the countless giving people, and we can count on each other. It was people helping people that got us through it. And that’s a nice thing to know, that when we have to we can handle it.”

Shawn Taylor and his wife, Christine, are among those who count their blessings along with their losses. The Taylors were living near James Lane on the North Fork of the White River when the flood waters swept through their finished basement that served as a bed-and-breakfast for patrons of the Taylors’ fly-fishing guide service. The water continued rising until it swirled through the newly renovated main floor of the house, including the kitchen with its brand-new, professional-grade appliances. 

They evacuated – and within a short time found a ridge-top cabin about a mile away that they could move their few undamaged belongings into. They’re still there today, and Shawn said Monday it’s one of the many blessings they’ve experienced amid the heartache – “and we’re focusing on the blessings,” he said. “We’ve learned you can live with less. We’re living our new normal now, and we absolutely love, love, love where we live now. We had 27 of the best years of our lives raising our children there [in the riverside house that flooded], but it’s time to close that chapter of our lives. 

They have restored their original home, which is for sale now through United Country Real Estate. “We gutted the basement, and that added another 10 more feet of buffer from the river,” he said. “It used to take 22 1/2 feet for the river to reach the living area. Now it takes 32 feet,” he said. 


Long-Term Recovery Committee

Taylor also wants Ozark Countians to know of another “blessing” that has come from the flood. He chairs the Ozark County Long Term Recovery Committee, which was organized after the flood “because certain government-employed people had to check certain boxes to say they had done such-and-such,” he said. 

But now that “flood people here have recovered to their new normal, we’ve changed our charter to be a standard, long-term recovery committee for people in need in Ozark County for any reason. The committee is a resource for people who truly need help,” he said. 

The committee offers assistance to victims of house fires and other personal and family emergencies. For more information, contact Shawn Taylor at 870-404-8120.


Seeking God’s purpose

Many of the homes on the North Fork that were badly damaged or destroyed by the flood were second homes or were owned by “mature” residents or families whose children were grown and living on their own. An exception was the family of Derek and Jen Christopherson, who were in the process of moving their family of five young children from Fargo, North Dakota, to Ozark County when the flood swept through their newly purchased home north of the Corps of Engineers park at Tecumseh.

In a story shared in the May 17, 2017, edition of the Times, the couple said they drained their savings and took out a mortgage to buy the house that stood on the banks of the river. The family had lived there 40 days when the flood sent river water rising to the roofline of the house. The seven family members plus their dog and cat spent the night in the Suburban parked in their driveway, which was flooded at a low spot between the house and Highway 160, trapping them on the property. 

Finally, they were rescued by a neighbor, Jimmy Fortner, who cut fences and drove through fields on a utility vehicle to get to them after being alerted by David Bushner, son of the home’s former owners, Bob and Connie Bushner.

The Christophersons, devout Christians, returned to North Dakota, but they haven’t given up on their dream of moving to Ozark County. Contacted Monday, Derek said the family has been back to the Tecumseh house “well over a dozen times.” During their last visit, a few weeks ago, they discovered that thieves had stripped the house of electrical wiring and copper. Derek called the discovery “heartbreaking.”

Asked to comment on the second anniversary of the flood, he sent an email to the Times, written in third person and stressing his unfaltering belief that somehow their experience is all part of God’s plan. “This journey, however painful it has been, are all appointed events necessary to fulfill His purpose,” he wrote, adding that each time the family returns, “they feel like they are coming home when winding through the beautiful Ozarks. Although their physical home, which was overtaken in the flood, doesn’t exactly feel welcoming. Friendships and relationships continue to deepen. The only thing worthy of discussion at this two-year anniversary is how He continues to mold us all.”

 He quoted Romans 8:16-17, that says, in part, “We suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him.”

The 2017 Times article about the Christophersons ended with Derek’s statement that “the Lord has his fingers all over this story.” In his Monday email to the Times, he repeated that belief, saying he and his family “are in awe by what He has done and what He continues to reveal. His hands are indeed clearly all over this story.” 

Ozark County Times

504 Third Steet
PO Box 188
Gainesville, MO 65655

Phone: (417) 679-4641
Fax: (417) 679-3423