Flood brought out our best

Flood of 1982
News-Sentinel photo by Mike Hanley

Flood of 1982
Former Fort Wayne resident Roger Walker carries his dog, Sadie, through flood waters on Main Street in March 1982.
By Shannon Lohrmann and Carol Tannehill of The News-Sentinel

Along the main roads leading into Fort Wayne, large painted markers remind everyone that this is a city built on three rivers. The signposts act as a boastful announcement of the geographical feature, as well as a quiet warning of the potential dangers of riverside living.

The St. Marys, St. Joseph and Maumee occasionally remind everyone of their vast power, such as the wake-up call Fort Wayne got on March 12, 1982.

Heavy winter snow, a rapid thaw and overnight thunderstorms combined to cause the city's second-worst flooding in history. The damage was severe enough for President Reagan to declare Fort Wayne a federal disaster area four days after his March 16 visit.

Floodwaters forced 9,000 people from their homes and damaged 1,820 residences and 260 businesses. Damage estimates were $56.1 million.

But a spirited volunteer army — made up mostly of teen-agers — saved 1,860 properties. While the swollen rivers did their worst, the Flood of '82 brought out the best in Fort Wayne folks. The disaster spawned heroes and helpers, good sports and good Samaritans, throughout "the City that Saved Itself."

* Frank Casagrande gained notoriety that week by keeping a local St. Patrick's Day hot spot — his O'Sullivan's Italian Pub — open and stocked with green beer for the holiday. His was the only place open in the West Main Street area that Wednesday night.

The flooding had damaged equipment in the basement and ruined cases of liquor. But, "if St. Patrick could get the snakes out of Ireland, I could get the water out of O'Sullivan's," Casagrande quipped at the time.

Officially, the neighborhood was supposed to have been evacuated. But that didn't stop a standing-room-only crowd from filling the pub and celebrating until about 1:30 a.m. They left a little drunk and very happy, Casagrande said.

* Fort Wayne resident Roger Walker and his dog, Sadie, unwittingly became nationwide symbols of the flood: An enduring and endearing photo, part of The News-Sentinel's Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage, showed Walker carrying his pit bull terrier to safety through waist-deep water on West Main Street. The image was published in The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.

Walker and Sadie moved to Alabama in 1984 to stay with his parents. Sadie died in 1986, while protecting a poodle from an attacking bear. Walker died two years later at age 36, an apparent suicide.

* Greg Miller just wanted to lend a hand, but he ended up lending his boots instead. The recipient of his soon-to-be-famous footwear was President Reagan, who stopped to survey the damage and hoist some sandbags for the cameras.

On March 16, Miller and his brother, David Brent, drove 50 miles from their Jay County home to help with the sandbagging efforts. When their pickup was loaded with sandbags and a teen-age crew, the brothers were quickly dispatched to the dike near Sherman and Herman streets on downtown Fort Wayne's western edge.

It was clear that something was about to happen: Men wearing black suits and earphones were swarming all over. Suddenly, one of the Secret Service agents approached Miller.

"The president's coming. Have you got an extra pair of boots?" the bodyguard said. As requested, Miller relinquished the boots he was wearing, and retrieved his spares from the truck.

Eventually, the president's limousine pulled up and someone handed Reagan the borrowed boots. He didn't know how to put them on, so Miller got in the limousine and helped him out.

"Looking back, President Reagan was probably the most down-to-earth man I have ever met," Miller said in a 1992 interview. "It's as if he knew me personally and cared that I was there. You can't fake that. But then, he was an actor."

* At Pemberton dike, a crumbling earthen barrier between the rising Maumee River and Lakeside neighborhood, volunteers and officials scrambled to plug numerous leaks with sandbags. If the dike gave way, officials feared the deluge would cause massive flooding.

Volunteers relayed 287,000 sandbags from truck to dike. The leaks slowed, then stopped: Lakeside was saved.

Today, more than $10 million worth of improvements help ease citizens' concerns about floods and the devastation they can create.

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