A Patchwork of Memories

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Charlsie B. Briggs was born in Altus, Oklahoma, August 5, 1923. After living in Oklahoma, Texas, California, Kansas, Florida and New York, she moved back to Tulsa in 1972 when she became a widow. During those years away from Oklahoma, she was a housewife with three children and did much volunteer work. <complete>


By: Charlsie B. Briggs

It was June 16, 1972 when tropical storm Agnes was born near the Yucatan Peninsula in the southwestern Gulf of Mexico. By the time she reached land over Georgia, USA, she was a full fledged hurricane.

I had been in a hurricane in Florida in 1949 before hurricanes were named. It in no way prepared me for the size, strength and devastation of Agnes. So it was just another routine day when I took my husband Bob to the airport to catch a plane for Louisville, Kentucky for a business trip. It was Thursday, June 22, 1972.

Our dream had been to sail from Seneca Lake in New York down the inland waterway to Florida and perhaps even down the Mississippi to New Orleans. Little did we know the day we christened our new boat the "Charlsie Belle", that she would become our haven in the storm, as we were to live aboard her for three months after Hurricane Agnes. In our town of Corning, N.Y, population 20,000, 22 people were to die from drowning and many more from indirect causes. Agnes left broken hearts and broken dreams as we were to suffer her wrath.

The Tioga, Canisteo and Conhocton Rivers empty into the Chemung River which runs through the center of Corning. We lived in Houghton Plot with the river on one side and a creek on the other. The river dikes ran along either side at this point. The evening newspaper assured us that the dikes would hold and that there was no immediate danger. However, I am a very practical and realistic person and felt this whole crazy situation warranted watching. I kept checking the river three or four times that evening, along with many other skeptics.

I tried to deliver a wedding present to a friend's house but couldn't get there because of the flooding. Already firemen were pumping furiously to keep the water away from the homes. I crossed the bridge to our house at four in the afternoon with the water almost to the top, it looked awesome.

At this time, I was more concerned about the news of the Finger Lakes Area to the Northwest. So I made a 20 mile trip to Seneca Lake to check on our boat at the Marina. The rising water was six inches above the dock. Our friends John and Charlie were watching the boats and fishing out huge logs that had washed down the lake, They reassured me the boats were well tied and everything was under control.

Returning to Corning I drove to the river again. It looked like it might explode at any minute. My oldest daughter, Victoria was home from college and Deborah, my twelve year old was looking forward to the last day of school on Friday. My son Bob, Jr. was away in Florida.

I made the decision to evacuate at 11:30. I must have had a premonition of things to come. Before leaving the house, I made several long distance phone calls to those people who might be concerned about our safety. None of them had a notion why I was calling, for they knew nothing about the flooding in New York. My husband called to say that he could not get into the Chemung County Airport because of the weather. He would go to Syracuse, rent a car and drive home.

I packed the car with a bit of food, a change of clothing for my daughters and myself, blankets, pillows and a telephone directory. Wonder who I was going to call? As I was going out the door I picked up my genuine hand made Spanish guitar that I had such fun buying in Granada, Spain. Vickie said, "Mom why are you taking that guitar, you won't ever play it in front of anyone"? I felt we would be imposing enough without taking the dog, so Schultzie was left in the upstairs bedroom. We left for Hickey's home on Denmark Hill, not far from our house. I could reach their place by way of the creek bridge.

We arrived at Hickey's at about twelve mid-night, the first of a long line of strangers seeking the safety of the hill. We ranged in age from the Hickey's two year old grand daughter to an elderly man in his 80's, who said he would give a reward of $100.00 to anyone who would rescue his dog. Eventually thirty people crowded into the small three bedroom house. All the other houses on the hill were also filled with people with the exception of one where everyone was turned away. Some families had to stay in their cars. We slept little that night, as the water kept rising and we kept watch. God said, he would never again destroy the world by flood, but as I stood on the hill in the dark that long night, I must confess I began to wonder if he would really keep his promise.

Soon we had no electricity, gas, water or telephone and no communication with anyone except those on the hill. Finally the river crested at about dawn Friday, June 23. As we watched from the hill we could hear people calling for help. Everything imaginable was going down the river. The water was up to the second story windows and buildings were falling apart. We could see only the sign on top of the building that housed the "Leader" the local newspaper.

We watched as helicopters, boats and army personnel began appearing to aid in the rescue of those who were stranded. A man was brought to us with not a stitch of clothes on. People were rescued from trees, off roof tops, and out of second story windows. One man had clung to his chimney all night while all the houses on the street were destroyed. There was lots of emotion amongst us. Some laughed and some cried. We were cold, wet, hungry and tired, with very little food and water. We used the water in the bath tub for flushing as long as it lasted. We rationed the drinking water we saved in pots and pans. Finally the National Guard men brought us army C rations by boat. Some of the World War II veterans amongst us thought the C rations were rather fancy, they had napkins. Not so during the war.

Friday was to have been graduation day for East High seniors. It didn't come off; except on our hill. We held a mock graduation ceremony, with one teacher and several graduates present.

By Saturday, June 24, in the afternoon the river had receded enough for us to leave. A friend managed to drive our car across the creek at the bottom of the bridge while we waded across. We drove the distance to our home not knowing what to expect. Vickie's volkswagen sat on the street where she had parked it; while our neighbor's house had washed off the foundation and down the alley. Our house was still in its proper place, but the porch was half torn off, the garage flattened, the yard light was on the ground and many large and small objects from far away places littered the yard; a rack of tires to name one.

We were afraid we would find Schultzie dead in the bedroom. Much to our surprise we could hear him barking. He must have climbed on a chair and onto the bed. If dogs could talk Schultzie would have quite a tale to tell.

We pushed, kicked and pried trying to open the door of the house. Inside it looked like a nightmare. Everything wet, mud covered and not one thing was standing upright. The refrigerator was on its back on the kitchen floor with contents strewn over the entire house. The thread from my sewing box was scattered from the attic to the basement with the brightly colored thread wildly decorating everything. Sadly large holes had been knocked in the walls by floating objects, the wooden furniture in pieces and the drapes on the floor. I did not know then that I would never live in this house again. There were a few tears, but we didn't have time for that. I was the first to evacuate and the first to return, but not for long. We had the feeling we had to get out in a hurry, like a criminal fleeing the scene of .a crime. As we drove away I picked up a hbachi grill from the street; I might need it.

By now Corning was like an armed camp, military personnel stood guard with fixed bayonets on bulletless rifles. They directed us to the only route out of town which happened to be the way we wanted to go. Our destination was Seneca Lake and our boat at Watkins Glen. It was wonderful to see three beautiful untouched church steeples as we entered town and to see Bob waiting for us at the marina. He had had no news from us since Thursday when he could not get home. It was a tearful reunion but we were happy to be safe.

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