Originally published in The (Columbus, Ind.) Republic, June 7, 2009

By Andy Proffet

Mark Newell still was transitioning from assistant principal at Northside Middle School to principal at Columbus East when the 2008 flood struck.

He was helping displaced flood victims get settled at Northside when the call came.

“We got the calls, ‘Hey, we’re coming there because East is flooded,’” Newell recalled. “Somebody at North had a cell phone with pictures. That was the first I saw of the flooding.”

Floodwaters poured into East High School late on June 7, forcing people who had been driven from their homes again to be on the move.

The flood damaged both of East’s gyms on the south side of the building, and the water got far enough into the school to damage lockers and destroy equipment in the planetarium and TV studio.

Even that wasn’t the end of a difficult summer for those associated with East, as a fire in the weight room less than two weeks later added more to be cleaned up.

What comes first?

East athletic director Bob Gaddis had tried to get to the school the day of the flood, but roads were impassable.

“I got over here to take a look at things (a day or two later),” Gaddis said. “I was able to assess real soon the outdoors and come in here and post signs, we’re not going to have anything for a while.”

With summer school in session and several athletic teams in the middle of offseason workouts, East officials had to scramble to find places to go.

“That first week was just trying to figure out where we could put everything,” Gaddis said.

That, and trying to figure out how to clean up the mess.

“The first thought was, ‘How are we going to get all this water out of here?’” Newell recalled. “Where’s it going to go? Then once you got it out, you had mud all over the place.”

“I remember coming in every day to see how much it was receding,” Gaddis said. “Within a short time, (we were able to see) how much damage has been done, what can we salvage.”

In addition to the water in the school, flooding hit Clifty Park across the street from the school, affecting baseball and softball diamonds and the football field and track at John Stafford Field.

“Those woods across the street, they were under water for a long time. That was a health risk, really,” Gaddis said.

The work begins

As floodwaters subsided and cleanup began, daily meetings were conducted with school and construction officials to map out a plan of attack and discuss what had been accomplished the day before.

“Dr. (John) Quick’s directive to me as athletic director was, replace it. Don’t cut any corners,” Gaddis said. “And when we worked with (Steve) Forster (BCSC director of operations) here, there were no corners cut. There was no, ‘Get it done so we can save money.’”

Gaddis said the estimated costs from the flood damage to the athletic department alone were approximately $400,000 to $500,000.

Fire, flood and technology insurance plans covered many of the renovation costs.

A benefit of the flood was the improvements made to East’s TV studio.

“The TV studio was all analog, and the insurance company said it would be too expensive to go analog so go digital, so it got upgraded,” Newell said.

East’s gyms got new floors, lights and scoreboard equipment, and teams received new uniforms to replace those lost in the flood.

Although the gyms weren’t fixed in time for East’s volleyball team to play at home last fall, the team practiced in the auxiliary gym.

“What (the workers) got done in the amount of time they got it done in was just amazing,” Gaddis said. “The real heroes of putting East back together are Steve Forster and Greg Ferguson (of Dunlap Construction).

“Greg Ferguson kind of became the on-site foreman. Steve came into our morning meetings all summer.”

Newell said the custodians were another critical part of the cleanup.

“They were working around the clock,” he said.

Work crews will flood-proof the auxiliary gymnasium at Columbus East High School in an expansion already planned.

Forster said doors will be installed 2 feet higher than the 500-year-flood plain, a berm south of the gym will be built higher to impede flow and buried infrastructure will be installed to help below-ground drainage.

Lessons learned

Newell said the biggest lesson he learned from the flood was about “taking care of your people. You always have the bricks and mortar to take care of. We had to take care of our people first, then start taking care of the bricks and mortar.”

As Gaddis and the football team spent the summer helping to clean up homes around the community, it reminded them to count their blessings.

“Even though we had to come in here (to East) every day and work, we got to go home to a normal environment. We had some families, it ruined their lives as far as destroying their homes,” Gaddis said.

“You get a great appreciation for what you have. I would imagine that the people who went through it have an appreciation for how many friends they really have and what kind of a community we live in, because it’s probably not like this everywhere (where people are helping each other).

“Every place that I saw that we went in and worked on … it was amazing. You’d look around the neighborhood, and this was going on everywhere. We had a guy show up at one house, didn’t know us, just wanted to see if he could help.”