Flood hits Delaware hard

Jack and Terry O'Donnell have lived in this small community for 46 years. And what happened to them on Sept. 15 was unlike anything they ever experienced.

BY TRAVIS DUNN | GLENVILLE, Del. | September 29, 2003

"They'll never be able to afford a decent house unless they're bought out."

—Tracey O'Donnell

Jack and Terry O'Donnell have lived in this small community for 46 years. And what happened to them on Sept. 15 was unlike anything they ever experienced.

For Glenville, Del., Hurricane Isabel didn't present much of a problem. It was the remnants of Hurricane Henri that caused unprecedented destruction in their community causing a record overflow of the Red Clay Creek that damaged 195 homes and left a large majority of them uninhabitable.

The O'Donnell's home is one of them. The water line on the first story stands 14 inches above the floor.

"They pretty much lost everything this time," said the O'Donnell's daughter, Tracey.

A similar surge of flooding hit the community during Hurricane Floyd in 1999, but the O'Donnells say that flooding was nothing compared to what happened Sept. 15.

The O'Donnell's house is wrecked, and they're moving out.

"They're not coming back here," said the O'Donnell's daughter Tracey. "They're 70 years old. They worked their whole lives. They'll never be able to afford a decent house unless they're bought out."

A government buyout is one thing about which most of the homeowners in Glenville agree. Last week, 200 people from the community marched on the New Castle County commissioners meeting as well as the Delaware legislature in order to personally demand a buyout of a community that has suffered through two major floods in just four years.

The O'Donnells, however, live more than 100 yards from Red Clay Creek. Some of the homeowners who live closer saw even more severe damage.

Sorden Davis and his family were lucky. Their backyard slides down to the creek bed, but they saw a mere six feet of water fill their basement. The first floor was untouched. Still, everything Davis had stored there was ruined, and his shed out back was washed hundreds of yards downstream.

That's enough for him.

"I'm not waiting any more," he said. "Next time someone might lose their life."

One of his neighbors just packed up after the flood and left.

"They just locked it up and said the hell with it," Davis said. "I haven't seen them since."

Two houses down, the Knight family was hit even harder. The basement wall facing the creek collapsed inward, destroying everything inside.

Bruce Knight owns the house, where his son and grandchildren live.

"I never saw anything like it. It was a wall of water," Knight said. "I grew up in Niagara Falls, and it sounded just like being up there."

Knight's grandson, nine-year-old Wyatt, lost most of his toys to the flood, but managed to save his GameBoy and a bucket of toy cars.

Despite the loss of his toys, Wyatt was happy that the wolf spider that nested in the basement apparently went on a little rafting trip.

"Yea! I hate spiders," Wyatt yelled.

"Well, at least something good came out of it," his grandfather laughed.

"His sister Brooke won't even come back here," Knight said. "She starts screaming. She was the one who saw it happen."

In the creek bed behind Knight's house, the detritus from the flood still sticks in the mud. A dumpster. Further downstream, the tail end of a pickup truck one of dozens that washed away from two car dealerships upstream. And right behind the fence in the backyard a Pointer Sisters cassette tape, a pair of moldy swim trunks, a colander, part of a coffee maker.

Marshallton also sees serious damage

Some of these objects may have come from Marshallton, another town upstream that saw damage comparable in severity to what happened in Glenville, but on a smaller scale.

Sheldon Smith and Brian and Robert Taggart were at work Standard Technologies when the Red Clay Creek began to rise.

They didn't think much of it. They didn't see any need to evacuate. During Hurricane Floyd, they watched the creek come out of its banks, but only a few inches of water washed into their building. It made a mess, but there lives weren't threatened. This time was completely different.

As for a warning, they had "none whatsoever," Smith said.

"At 11 o'clock it was coming out of its banks," Brian Taggart said. "By 11:35 we were running for our lives."

"If I hadn't been here, I wouldn't have believed it," Smith said. "It was just incredible."

In addition to all the trash deposited all over their property, they also saw about 100 chemical drums from nearby Ametek Industries (a company that manufactures "heat exchangers of teflon and high temperature textiles") go floating downstream. The barrels, when recovered, were all empty.

"If you're in a market to buy a building, would you want to buy one of these?" asked Robert Taggart. " I don't think so."

Taggart, the owner of Advanced Technologies, doesn't see anything amusing about the situation. Granted he's insured, but was more concerned that either he or one of his employees could have been killed in the forceful floodwaters.

Taggart is convinced that the flood was anything but a natural occurrence. His business has been located near the creek since 1953, and the only time it flooded was in Hurricane Floyd.

All three men blamed Hoops Reservoir, which lies upstream, for the flooding. They believe that water was discharged from the dam.

But 18-year-old David Blunt, who had to be rescued from his porch roof, has other ideas about what caused the flooding.

"At first I thought Hoops Reservoir had blown up," he said. "I knew a flood could come through here. I knew it was likely. But I didn't know it could be that bad. It's just insane."

Blunt said he thinks that discharges from Pennsylvania mineshafts may be responsible. But he has no hard evidence, and he wants someone official to give him some official answers.

"All I want is an answer," he said.

But there are a few things he knows for sure: all of his possessions were blown out the back door of his house, and none of those things were covered by insurance.

And he knows that Ametek Industries is just a few yards from his front door.

"My ground is saturated with all kinds of chemicals," Blunt said.

The Rev. Shane Moran, a United Methodist pastor, who lives in Glenville, refuses to play the blame game. Moran, unlike many disgruntled flood victims, isn't looking for a scapegoat. He blames a gradual phenomenon, for which he says everyone from Delaware to Pennsylvania has responsibility: over-development and the conversion of wetlands into parking lots.

By taking away natural drainage systems swamps the Red Clay Creek has become less and less able to handle serious rainfall. Went Henri came to Delaware, the ground was already completely saturated with above-average rainfall for the year. All that water had nowhere to go except Glenville and Marshallton.

"People come up to me and say, 'Pastor, why did God do this?'" Moran said. "I say, 'God didn't do this. Man did this.'"

But the general explanation of over-development doesn't satisfy Taggart and Blunt.

"That was not just development," Blunt said. "That had to be a larger water source."

"Now you can't tell those of us who have lived here 30 years that this was Mother Nature at work," Taggart said. "This is not a picturesque creek anymore. It's a drainage ditch."

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