Flood Zone

The fragility of a shelter from the storm

By Brian Faulkner

We got rained on big time last summer. You may remember. A gazillion gallons of water fell in our neighborhood, as much as 10 inches in 10 days, thanks to a train of tropical thunderstorms that stormed up from the Gulf and never seemed to stop. The rain was welcomed at first because things were turning brown but then became a problem when it invited itself into our basement. By the time we remembered to check, water had soaked the carpet and made its way into a raft of cardboard boxes that had been moored to the floor for decades. 

This was the basement we’d threatened to clean out since forever, the one chock-a-block with schoolwork, report cards, four kids’ worth of school drawings, countless business records, and other marginally valuable stuff. But now it was rubber-meets-the-road time.

First to go was a dozen or so second-hand kitchen cabinets we’d thought about installing in the basement. Then several bulging file cabinets had to be shoved aside to get at the waterlogged carpet underneath. Job No. 2 was cutting each carpet section out piece by heavy piece and dragging it up an incline to the driveway (work done by my son, who, as soon as he finished one nasty job, was miraculously game for another). As time went on, the moving and tossing got to be almost fun — weary bones and aching muscles aside. Our kids were far less picky than me about what to hold onto (good for them, good for us). Five energetic grandchildren spiraled in and out of things, too, making art with cast off boxes and otherwise adding their unique brand of energy to the occasion.

All told, it turned out a blessing.

This experience reminded me of a water story my mother told us growing up. She was just 20 during the Great New England Hurricane of 1938 and loved to tell how the river came sliding up her street, bubbled up through the sewer grates, ate the sidewalk, climbed the front steps and lapped at their front door. It was smelly, cloudy water, fed by a nameless hurricane that had churned up the Connecticut River Valley like nobody’s business, dumping huge amounts of rain on towns along the way.  Most of it ended up in the river and, having no other immediate plans, invaded the nearby neighborhoods. Mom’s family watched the water rise with disbelief and good bit of fascination as it inundated their new Dutch Colonial only a block and a half from the river. It filled their basement and crept “this high” on the kitchen wall, leaving a mark that got painted over many years later. My brothers and I grew up in that house and thought we were big stuff when, one by one, we grew taller than that mark; no river was going to come up over our heads — maybe the little guys down the street, but not us!

More hurricanes came rumbling up our valley during the ’50s, but the river never breached the concrete dikes constructed after 1938 to keep it at bay — at least not in our neighborhood. I can recall how delicious it felt to sit on top of the thing and watch the angry water roil below our dangling feet, just out of danger’s reach (not sure the parents ever knew us brothers had got ourselves up to that particular mischief).

Mom’s flood, which she occasionally mentioned in letters to me 40 years on, was serious business — a slow-but-sure disaster compared to the 2004 tsunami that inundated Indonesian, Sri Lankan and other South Asian coastlines in 2004. I recall the riveting TV images: people lulled into inaction by the extraordinary sight of a receding sea prior to an onslaught of water that came raging inland, leaving ruined lives in its wake. We’re wary of blowing weather and storm surges here in North Carolina and so no longer are shocked when floodwaters spawned by hurricanes with innocent sounding names like Matthew, Fran and Florence transform generations of hard work and cherished memories along our coast into so much muck-soaked junk and then, like the tsunami, turn tail and sneak back out to sea.

Our house has a stream on one side and a small lake on the other. Both are well below our level, and we tell ourselves no imaginable force could possibly cause them to rear up and knock at our doors. But nobody expected a flood in my mother’s neighborhood back in 1938 either, because up until then the river had pretty much minded its own business. Whether we make our homes near water or on a suburban high spot, the truth is that we are a fragile people on a planet subject to unpredictable forces: quakes and windstorms, mudslides, drought, flood, fire and pestilence. Last summer’s deluge may have had us thinking about gathering family close and checking the internet for Ark plans, but our rains never came close to that biblical flood from Noah’s time — or, for that matter, to the hurricane-driven flood that just about drowned my mother’s house 80 years back.

And for that we are grateful. 

Among other things (most having to do with writing or marketing), Brian Faulkner is a five-time Emmy award-winning writer and narrator of magazine-style programming on UNC-TV. He has lived in the Triad most of his life. 

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