As a long-time resident of the Texas Gulf Coast, I’ve been through four or five hurricanes and more tropical storms than I have fingers to count on. Thanks to all of this delicious experience, I know how to read the forecasts, I know how to interpret what the meterologists are saying, and based on that, I know approximately what to expect. I know how to plan for these things in general, and more than that, I know that when you get named storms in the picture, you will be getting things for which you cannot plan. That said, I have been in even more floods than I’ve been in named storms, and I know about all the nasty stuff that floods mean. I’ve never really understood the pictures that every newspaper seems to run of some flower child happily tripping through knee-high water with an umbrella and a giggle.
Some of this is because I am from Texas, and Texas floods tend to have really nasty stuff in them, like alligators, big swarmely balls of fire ants, and pods of angry water moccasins. Deadly things. And after that, the list goes on to gasoline, chemicals, raw sewage, broken glass, sharp bits of metal that have been torn off of other things, and busted concrete with sharp edges. And floods are always the color of hot chocolate, meaning that you don’t actually see any of that stuff, at least not until it bites/stings/slices your skin open…at which point you can compound whatever other misery you are experiencing as a result of the flood and the event that caused the flood with nasty infections from the raw sewage, or poisoning from the chemicals that were released when the flood hit the nearest refinery.
So yes, the flood-happy flower-child has always been a complete mystery to me. One of the very earliest things that children learn in Texas – right after “do not walk or stand on a patch of grass because the fire ants will swarm you” is “do not go into flood waters, ever. Do not wade in them, do not play in them, do not take your boat/canoe/innertube/raft/kayak in them. Leave Them Alone.” This is added to later in life, by those who wish to live to an age where they can successfully reproduce, “If You Cannot See The Curb, Do NOT Drive Through Water On The Road.” I actually had cause to do some research into this, and Texas, in a truly Darwinistic sense, leads the nation in Deaths By Flood, with nearly twice the deaths of the second runner-up, California. It is some 620 over a 30 year period, and the results were annotated to indicate that most of these deaths involved a vehicle (i.e., people driving through water over the road).
As I mentioned in my earlier post, the aftermath of Irene here is troubling for me because of my deep personal attachment to Vermont. I find it’s always harder to regard visions of damage when they pertain to areas with which I am familiar. Images of the wildfires in west Texas and mudslides in California and tornado and flood destruction in Missouri and North Dakota are very troubling, but they don’t possess the…immediacy…that personal contact…that images of destruction from Katrina, Ike, and Irene have for me. For some reason, it’s harder for me to look at these things when I recognize the shops, and the roads, and when I’ve got a face to attach. I stayed at a hotel in New Orleans in January 2005, and got to bring my cat Buster along. The deal was that I had to cage him or hold onto him while the room was being cleaned, which is only fair. I thus got to know the maid, a very little, and what I remember about her was that she was afraid of cats, but her name was Kitty, and she found this amusing. And eight months later when I watched the city be savaged, I kept thinking of her, and knowing that she was not likely to have had a ride out of town, and was probably in the hellhole that the Superdome became. And as hard as it was to see the pure physical devastation, that little contact doubled the grief I had then.
This action in Vermont is no different. The pictures you’re seeing come out of the state – I know those roads. I know those hills. I’ve eaten at those restaurants. People who taught me to ski are in there, probably stranded, and definitely hurting. People who made my beds, who cooked my food, who sold me t-shirts and sunglasses, and skis. People I chatted up on a lift. People I had a beer with afterwards. I don’t know those people well, I don’t know that I could pick them out of a line-up, but we are connected, and that makes this all the more difficult to watch.
These are the parts that never get easier:
The advance notice. Yes, I deeply appreciate the opportunity to plan, to take whatever action I can…but at a certain point, I’ve done all the planning and taken all the action I can, and the only thing left is to watch the trainwreck start to happen, and to wait for the pain, because that is surely coming. While this is agonizing, I wouldn’t trade it for the incredible uncertainty that people who live in earthquake zones face – I can’t think of anything more terrifying than being jolted out of a hard sleep to find the house collapsing around my ears with no notice at all. Even tornadoes – you may not know for sure that a tornado is going to come rip up your neighborhood, but in the places where tornadoes are common, there is usually quite a lot of warning that potentially severe weather is coming, and if you live in those areas, you get to recognize the Signs. You may be awakened by the siren, but in all likelihood, you went to bed with your clothes on and your shoes nearby because you knew the sirens could well go off. So while the advance notice is agonizing, it is my preference over the alternatives.
The storm itself. There’s really nothing like seeing the wind pick up and the breeze frisk around, and knowing that you are in for twenty hours of howling winds, lashing rain, and that at any time you may lose your roof, everything you own, and possibly your life. It’s like Playing Chicken with God. Leaving is an option for some – and is mandatory for others – but most people who go through these experiences aren’t in the kind of Super Awesome Number One Danger Zones where evacuations are ordered, nor can we afford to simply hop on a jet and take a vacation until it’s over. Most of us have to hunker down and do our best. Listening to the wind scream for three or four minutes is a delightfully chilling thrill, like riding a roller coaster. Just try it. Listening to it for thirty minutes, or thirty hours, is an entirely different thing. Listening to that noise, and wondering every time you hear something go BANG whether it’s the roof starting to peel off, or a transformer exploding and starting a fire, or the car starting to float in the floodwaters and slam against the frame of the house, is not fun even once, let alone for thirty hours. Doing all of this in the pitch dark, because the power has long gone out, is even more thrilling, in a Bad Way.
The aftermath of the storm. Floods are disgusting. Nothing, and I mean not even a junkyard or a refinery, smells worse than the nasty mud that a flood leaves behind. And that mud is damned near impossible to get off of anything. And floods usually screw up the water supply, so good luck on finding clean water to wash that manky crap off of everything you own. I am so grateful that I have not had the horrifying experience of having flood waters invade my home, and that my experiences of this strictly involve other people’s property. It is the most absolutely disgusting thing you can imagine. There is almost no way that you can get all that mud off before it dries, and when it does dry, it turns into this revolting skin that peels and flakes everywhere. I really hate floods. And that is even before we get to the other issues of what floods can do to the infrastructure. Look at the pictures from Vermont! Those flood waters peeled the asphalt off the roads in huge chunks. Consider what it takes to bust up an entire road into 10-foot squares and then move those squares and leave them in piles. This is ugly, ugly stuff. And, of course, there are always people who lost some part of their roofs, people who weren’t insured, people who died, it’s just absolutely horrible.
I can’t stop looking at the pictures from Vermont. Partly because I’m still trying to take in the scope of the situation, partly because I have maybe a small, but not zero, frame of reference for what they’re going through. Partly I have a superstitious feeling that there is some finite amount of trouble, woe, aggravation, and grief in the system, and that if I take a little of that, it means that other people have to have less of it.
But mostly? I can’t stop looking at these pictures because that should have been me. Every forecast until that storm was wailing on New Jersey called for the 10 inches of rain that created this devastation in Vermont to fall on the Connecticut River Valley in Massachusetts. Where I live. I prepared for three days, expecting that it would be me who had feet of water in the house and no prayer in hell for power in the foreseeable future. I expected that it would be me who was going to have to go through the wringer with contractors and insurance parties, and to live in grubby squalor for lack of clean water and eat cold food when I could get it. I cannot shake this sensation, because I understood at the time what the risks were. It should have been our streets in Northampton, not the streets of Brattleboro, that turned into a raging river. It should have been us. Yes, we dodged the bullet in a huge way. But they didn’t, and they couldn’t. It’s not that I feel guilty, but I do feel like there’s some kind of cosmic debt. There’s a credit on my balance sheet. And so, I look at the pictures, and I make donations to the Red Cross, and I grieve their losses. It somehow feels like the least I can do.
Here, then, is my Shout Out to Windham County, Vermont. This time will come to an end, and the beauty and harmony will be restored.This may not be the year we can drive up to enjoy the splendors of your autumn, but we will be back as soon as the roads will permit. In the meantime, here is what I am holding in my memory and heart for you:*