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The Daily Genealogist: Disasters and Our Ancestors

(A Note from the Editor) Permanent link
Betlock Lynn

Lynn Betlock

This week, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, it is hard to think of anything other than disasters. Here at NEHGS we closed down early, at 1 p.m., on Monday and remained closed on Tuesday. Various staff members experienced power outages and broken tree limbs at home but the NEHGS building was unaffected. I think we feel fortunate here in the Boston area to have escaped mostly unscathed, and our sympathies and thoughts are with those who were more directly impacted further south.

Over the weekend, as I prepared for Sandy, I thought about what disasters my ancestors might have experienced. My grandparents’ house on the Mississippi River in Little Falls, Minnesota, was flooded in July 1972, but I couldn’t recall any other major natural or man-made disasters affecting my family. Perhaps my family has been fairly lucky — or perhaps I need to do some more research!

I called my mom to get her input. When I mentioned the Flood of 1972, she put her husband, Don Kuchinski, on the line. He remembered it well. Don recalled that it just poured and poured, and over a foot of rain came down. On the local radio station, KLTF, he heard that volunteers were needed to build a sandbag dike along the Mississippi to safeguard a boat works and area homes. Don, being a good citizen and a hard worker, showed up at about 1 p.m., and started sandbagging — in water four to five feet deep! He and another man ended up rescuing a man who stumbled, fell into the water, and started going through a culvert. Don worked on until 2:30 in the morning, when he went home to milk the cows. I hadn’t heard this story before, and I think it provides a good snapshot of Don’s character. Sometimes the right questions just need to be asked in order to elicit the stories.

When I asked my husband if he had any family disaster stories, he had a vague sense that relatives were affected by the 1900 and 1915 floods in Galveston, Texas. While he didn’t have any ancestors living in Galveston, extended family members lived there and in surrounding communities. He knew a bit more about family involvement with an ammonium nitrate explosion in Texas City, Texas, in 1946. His great-aunt, Frances Loock, a dentist, answered the call for trained medical volunteers, and saw some horrific sights during her time in Texas City.

I also recall someone telling me that the Blizzard of 1978 made such an impact on her parents that they decided to move their family from New Hampshire to Florida later that year, thus altering the course of their family’s history.

Disaster stories can explain how an extraordinary event could affect a family and even profoundly alter their lives. Or a disaster story might simply illuminate an incident at one moment in time, and offer insight into the challenges our ancestors faced and how they responded. For the same reasons, our own experiences with disasters are also certainly worth recording for posterity.

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