Non-fiction selection from the 2009 issue
Be Prepared to Evacuate
by Tara L. Masih
My simple, New England ranch home was built in the 1940s as a summer cottage. While I do live over an underground stream that runs beneath the cement foundation and exits into a culvert across the street, into another neighbor’s side yard, it is not precisely in the path of any rivers that overflow. But human progress in the form of a cul-de-sac erected on the hill above my backyard, made up of large modern houses with blank windows that overlook the smaller homes beneath them, began the problems. Developers and landscapers gave no thought to the repercussions of removing top soil and undergrowth and trees that absorb rainfall and slow down runoff.
Still, this construction and the subsequent runoff weren’t enough to cause more than a small trickle of water from 3 corners of my basement when the water table was high and the ground oversaturated from spring meltings. The early builders, who understood nature and knew how to work with it, had done their job well—a drain hole in my basement’s center, at a lower pitch than the 3 corners, took the water that naturally flowed there. During rain storms, my neighbors’ newer homes filled with inches, sometimes feet of water that had to be pumped. My old-fashioned drain did its trick, while I slept peacefully.
That’s no longer the case. It strikes me that anyone who experiences the direct effects of global warming doesn’t doubt its imminence. Farmers and gardeners who work the soil and have generations of knowledge in observing plant life know the seasons are changing, that the horticulture is confused, that crops are not being yielded in the manner in which we’ve grown accustomed. Alaskans are watching sea levels rise and threatening to drown their coastal towns that have existed for centuries. I recently read a “scientific” paper that claimed that sea levels have actually fallen, due to evaporation over the Indian Ocean, and I wonder what that scientist would say to the Alaskans who watch their homes floating away.
On a smaller scale, I’ve watched the water come faster, rise higher, and invade more frequently every year that I have lived here. Now, I dread the satellite images that predict heavy spring rainfall. I cringe at the sound of punishing rain on the roof, and run down to the basement constantly to see if the water spilling over the congested gutters is migrating beneath the topsoil that can’t hold its grip on it any longer. We are getting monsoonlike rain now in the States. These are not the fast moving thunderstorms I grew up with, the kind that passed quickly. The kind you could go out barefoot after and pretend to fish in the little puddles and running streams of clear rainwater they left behind.
These storms are slow moving and sit over your home for hours, days, seemingly endless, causing floods that are inevitably contaminated with sewage and chemicals. The kinds of rains that force animals from their underground burrows and keep pets from finding their way back home. After the last flood, we had possums temporarily move in under our tool shed, and a cat who took refuge on our back porch for a couple of days before the floods subsided. When I checked in on a neighbor, whose husband was a fireman and never home during these crises, she told me stories of people he had to rescue from stranded cars, and of homes he had to enter, full of water and raw sewage floating around. “We decided,” she said seriously, “that if that ever happened to us, if the sewage ever backed up into this little house, we would just get in the car and drive away. Never look back.”
If you’ve never had to do this, you don’t know what it’s like to keep a basement from flooding when the water is rushing in so hard that the drain fails. It’s the end of winter, so the water is still icy, the rain painfully cold. It always seems to get worse as the sun goes down and the water is at its coldest. While you try to do the basic things like eat and squeeze in a final shower (in case you lose electricity and hot water), you have to monitor the water level. Every half hour you go down the basement stairs for a look around. When you see the drain failing and the water suddenly rising (it never happens gradually), it’s a fight with the water’s schedule to save your utilities and set up the pump. The gas furnace, washer and dryer, and gas hot water heater are all up on blocks that used to be high enough, but not anymore. You lost your water heater two years ago in the flood that brought FEMA to your town. Outside, you hear the firetrucks helping neighbors, who have learned how better to cope when floods threaten, to shut off their furnaces and electricity. You have nowhere to go, so have to win this battle with the water. You find the pump and fight with the pieces in desperation and anxiety, with that damn inflexible black hose that’s like a stiff, stubborn, ornery octopus. You’re standing up to your ankles in ice water, the plastic grocery bags tied around your non-waterproof boots failing. Water is seeping into your boots, and the hose refuses to cooperate. You finally get it hooked up and somewhat straightened and take down a window screen and open the window to the searing blast outside. You hope no one will be out taking advantage of this weather, looking for easy access into homes. You have no choice but to leave yourself and your son vulnerable while you exit the hose to the street and leave the window open for days. Now you have to turn on the pump without electrocuting yourself. You are dazed and tired and it’s easy to make a mistake and do things in the wrong order. You did once and were lucky to have caught yourself before inserting the plug. Once that’s done, you have to go out in the cold rain with your wet boots and frosty feet and work to set up the hose so it flows properly into the street and eventually to the storm drain. It’s cold. Did you say that already? It’s dark, but for the little light the street lights give off behind the screen of pelting rain. You curse being a single woman and have to knock on a neighbor’s door at 11 at night. He answers in his wet gear; he is waging his own personal battle with his basement and, after a brief attempt, can’t help and has to rush back to his basement. Out of desperation you drag your 10-year-old son from his heavy youthful sleep, get him dressed and in a raincoat and snow boots, and send him out to the street while you wrestle with the pump and exit hose, yelling into and out from the storm, back and forth, “Is it working?” “No!” This goes on while the water is an inch from putting out the gas water heater. The answer is finally, blessedly, “Yes!”
This is not the end of the story. It goes on. You can’t sleep while a stream runs beneath your bed. Rising every hour in a state of disoriented half-wakefulness you make sure the pump is working. Cold wet boots turn colder, as your body temperature plummets in the night. The hose will stop working several times, and you will have to make the trek back and forth yourself between the basement and the exit hose till you are screaming at the heavens to STOP. Stop making so much rain, stop it from coming, from invading your home and your sleep and your life. It feels as if that whole chunk of Indian Ocean that supposedly evaporated into the atmosphere has migrated West and dumped its vast expanse of water on your town. It feels like it is raining an ocean.
This goes on for 3 days. You shiver with cold and sleeplessness and ragged nerves for three days. You yell instead of speak to your anxious son. You have nothing to give him right now, no patience for anything. The pump works till it clogs with debris and dies, and then you resort to sweeping the water to the drain that is starting to recover. You sweep the water every 20 minutes or so, but as you sweep, more just comes in. You can’t get anyone to come dry up your home. All the services are booked and the priority is to the larger homes that will pay more. You’re on your own. A friend from New Orleans tells you to use fans and white vinegar to get rid of the smell. The fans work. You throw out the waterlogged, stinking boots.
And a few weeks later, the torrential rains come again. And again.
I’ve heard that in just 6 inches of rapidly moving water, you can be swept away. And that flood deaths tend to occur because people try to outrun them, rather than move to higher ground. I can’t fathom being in the path of a tsunami or a Katrina storm surge. Or dealing with flooding like that which took place in March 2008, spreading across the nation’s heartland from Texas to Ohio, sending all the rivers over their banks by record levels for hundreds of square miles. I’ve only seen our parks and roads and intersections impassable. But there has always been some route out, some open road that allows for escape to higher ground. For a week, we had to go to another town for food, because our town’s supermarket was flooded. We felt odd, out of place in just the next town over.
But this is nothing. Nothing compared to what the folks in New Orleans experienced, and are still dealing with. That flood left environmental refugees by the score. They are still living in trailers, now contaminated by the very walls made to provide refuge. There are homeless people, like you and me with jobs, living in parks and under highways. Yes, they have jobs but are still unable to afford rent or housing. They are there, right now, in the shadow of the Mayor’s office.
I still have a home. But as global warming continues and these extreme weather patterns increase, besides first worrying about our planet and wildlife and our physical beings, I worry that our economy will never be the same again. I’m sure that part of the housing collapse and bank failures have to do with the fallout from the insurance payoffs to Katrina applicants. Millions of dollars have had to go to cleaning up disaster after disaster—hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis, earthquakes—and millions will continue to be needed for future ones. Countries—people—cannot be productive when they are working at simple survival, one reason the Western world is ahead of Third World countries. Even food prices are skyrocketing because of the rain’s effect on crops—flour is up 4 times in price, because wheat crops are poor, causing a trickle-down effect on the prices of baked goods and driving small bakers out of business. Maybe the economy is what will eventually wake up lethargic politicians, rather than images of drowning polar bear pups or human beings. Maybe as more of our citizens’ lifestyles become more like that of Third World citizens, we will speak up.
Everything is connected.
It’s not enough to stand at the edge of a precipice or canyon and watch a mountain stream roar its way down to flatland to be able to understand the powerful, incessant nature of water. You can only conceptualize it through sight and auditory impact. To understand the destruction of water and to finally feel the powerlessness of human beings to stop its obsession with reaching lower plains, you have to be in its path. You have to be trying to stop it or trying to outrun it to recognize—you can’t.