The area's latest fight against the Mississippi River appeared to be nearing an end.
The river had crested at 27.17 feet in mid-April, forcing temporary closing of the Quincy Memorial Bridge. Quincy had been dealing with a deluge of rain throughout the spring, and one year after a summerlong drought, the city eventually received more than 25 inches of rain in a five-month span.
One afternoon, in the midst of what seemed like a flood-story-a-day run, a message was left on my desk. A woman from North Carolina had called, offering a chance for a reporter to visit with a family who owned land near the break in the Indian Grave levee in 2008.
The land was the subject of an aerial photo taken on the morning of June 19, 2008, by Herald-Whig Staff Photographer Steve Bohnstedt, showing the Mississippi River water rushing over trees, buildings and silos. The photo was seen on websites and newspapers throughout the world.
Whose land was it? No one had ever bothered to ask. All of the other Herald-Whig reporters had been writing flood stories for several weeks, so for me to chip in, now was the perfect time to tell their story.
On May 3, a rainy, gloomy morning, Bohnstedt and I visited the home of Duke and Carol Lyter. The address said North Bottom Road, but the home they've lived in since 1988 actually is way up on the bluffs.
Within minutes, it's obvious there's a story here.
Duke's family came to Quincy in 1847, and he owns 425 acres of land in the river bottoms. He and his wife watched the devastation of the 2008 flood from their living room in the house on the bluff. His first flood was in 1944, and subsequent floods came in 1947, 1951, 1965, 1973, 1993 and 2008. Once, Duke says, there were 55 homes in the river bottom. Now he says there are only four, but at age 88, Duke calls his battles with the river a "fourth generation fight."
"We've been here too long," he said. "It's too hard to quit now."
Duke and Carol had been married for 63 years, and they had raised their six children in a home built in 1954 that was a stone's throw from the river. They eventually moved out, but their oldest son, Luke, had lived there since 2005. The house was built on a 10-foot concrete foundation and then surrounded with an approximately 10-foot high mound of dirt. The river levels got as high as the doorknobs in 2008, and plenty of shop tools and machinery were lost, but the family just cleaned up and moved on.
"You just go with the flow ... so to speak," Carol says.
"I remember following it all on the news, and I just kept thinking, ‘God, I hope the levee doesn't break,' " says Sara Lyter, one of Duke and Carol's six kids and the one who called in the news tip. "I look at Steve's picture, and it still makes me sick to this day."
She keeps trying to convince her parents to sell the land and give up the fight, all to no avail.
"I think you get stupider as it goes along," Duke says.
After a short visit in the home, Duke takes the two visitors on a tour of his land, showing the scour hole that was left where the levee broke. Perfectly good farmland was covered in layers of sand.
"All I can do now is rent it out to my friends for duck hunting," Duke says.
He drives us by the house, and we get a chance to meet with Luke, who continues to farm the family land.
"It's still home," he says, standing inside a shed while the rain pelts the metal roof. "It's really annoying that the river can come in and mess up everything you've got here, but it's still home. And you've got to be ready to get out of the way."
Yep, there's a story here. After about a two-hour visit with the family, it was time to dry off and write about the Lyter family's resilience while recognizing the five-year anniversary of the levee break.
A month later, there was still time. The anniversary was nearing.
Another month later, the anniversary passed. Work got in the way. Other stories had cropped up. The note with Sara Lyter's phone number stared back at me from my desk.
Now, as we wrap up the stories of the year, I think to myself ...
Maybe I'll eventually get around to writing their story.