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Digging the Learning Curve: Water, by Deirdre Sinnott - Deirdre on reading, writing and living

Jun. 21st, 2007 10:44 am Digging the Learning Curve: Water, by Deirdre Sinnott

Yesterday a flash flood tore apart a road near my house in the Catskills. Several people are still missing and presumed dead. There have been four devastating floods in this area in four years. I wrote a piece about water last year after the third flood.

Here it is:

Water, by Deirdre Sinnott

Water, can't live without it. Of course if there's too much then it's: water, can't control it. Last week there was too much water. It began with a few days of rain, mostly in the afternoon. One of the websites I check obsessively is Weather.com and they predicted heavy rain all week. I could see the bands of green, dark green, yellow and red percolating on their map. Some tropical moisture or something was being pushed, ever so slowly, up the east coast. Devastation followed in its wake.

The beginning of the week I read about Washington, DC and the flooding that shut down the government for a day. Weather.com's "ten day" outlook seemed pretty dismal, but I still hoped things might clear up by the end of the week. For the first time in three years my sister planned to visit the house. I wanted to be able to clear the garden of the hundreds of developing weeds. It's not that my sister, Kelly, cares about that sort of thing, but it seems that I do.

For more than four days the rain just kept coming. It eased up on Monday for a while. Enough time for me to run out to check the garden and discover three streams had developed. One track was right through the arbor and over the stone wall into my eggplant and pumpkin plants. Small sticks, mud, and debris washed down from the neighbor's yard and gathered near the stalks, almost knocking them over. On the side of the house I discovered a running river had reappeared. My new river ran along the periphery of the lawn and took a sharp right turn, across an open space and into the lower half flower bed. And thirdly, a babbling brook bubbled happily from under the rock outcropping. It looked like it wanted to go right into my basement. Luckily my cement patio, installed last summer diverted the water away from the house. I smiled because that was its original purpose. The side benefit was having the perfect place to sit in the afternoons for reading and bird watching.

Since the ground was absolutely saturated everything simply ran down the hill our house sits on, taking particles of topsoil, leaves, small plants, and rubble with it. At the bottom of the hill runs a calm creek called the Willowemoc. It joins with the Beaverkill at the edge of town forming a swirling haven for trout and the people who want to catch them called the Junction Pool. It's said that the trout can't decide which path to follow, up the two rivers or down with the current and a much stronger Beaverkill. So the trout linger, weighing the pros and cons of each choice. And that's one of the places that the fishermen linger as well.

All of the rain, with all that it carried along its path drained into these two creeks transforming them from beautiful, clear, occasionally lazy threads of moving water to raging, brown, debris-filled agents of destruction. They swept over roads, pulled trailers off their foundations, delivered large trees to people doorsteps, filled the village's only Laundromat with five feet of muddy water, soaked hundreds of books in the small library. In the grocery store water destroyed refrigerators full of food, and pulled up vinyl tiles. The homes at the center of town suffered through soaked carpets, dampened furniture, and destroyed plasterboard. The rising rivers drowned the center of town in brown water.

Pieces of the asphalt roads were picked up like giant pancakes and spun downstream. Small streams that normally are just trickles of water raged far beyond their banks catching lawn furniture and toys in their torrent. Bridges were breached and north of us, beyond two towns that spent a day submerged, two truck drivers traveling in opposite directions on Route 88 plunged to their deaths when the roadway disappeared under their wheels.

In the next town the creek grabbed an entire home, smashing it. A 15-year old girl was killed inside the house. It seems she ran to the safest place she knew in the world, her bedroom. Her body was located days later downriver.
As the water moved downstream it picked up speed and additional strength. Each town and city in its wake had to endure greater and greater quantities until the ocean absorbed it all.


Similar floods occurred in September 2004 and then again in spring 2005. For some reason Charles and I found ourselves in Roscoe each time. After listening to details of the first flood, on the area's water-powered radio station WJFF, we wandered down to the town to find that the intersection at Roscoe's only stoplight was impassable. Curious, we decided to drive in the opposite direction, trying to see if the way out of town and toward New York City was open. We were soon turned back. Floodwaters were rushing over the banks of the creek and washing away parts of the road.

Somehow the experience awakened a not-too-deeply-buried need to stockpile food. I always looked with envy at the bygone days of a well-stocked bomb shelter. I never saw one, but there were hundreds on the TV shows. Rows of bottled water and enormous cans of beans suited my be-ready-for-any-eventuality personality. I took the mantra "be prepared" personally. But what I began with enthusiasm, usually end ended with procrastination. I have enough food for four or five days. I even have a few sterno cans in both New York and Roscoe, but hunkering down for the nuclear winter? Not quite.

When the floods hit this year, we were actually cut off for days. The grocery store was devastated, the nearest town and its grocery store were also flooded and unreachable except by authorized personnel. Even Route 17, the "Quickway" through this region, was closed. I began emptying the refrigerator, cooking all food, scraping together three meals per day.

Actually we did rather well, dining on defrosted tuna steaks and thawed jambalaya. For the first time since we bought the house, I ran out of lettuce and my cereal collection ran dangerously low. However, we never even made it into any of the canned goods. No real threat to our habit of eating. The water system on our road is independent of the town's and runs completely on gravity. I never even considered using the six gallons I have tucked away.
The minor inconvenience of problem of being grocery store-less put a dose of reality into my general paranoia. If each flood gets worse, and each time more of the banks of the rivers and creeks are moved downstream, then who's to say that three "once-in-a-lifetime" events won't become a regular occurrence in this crazy-weather epoch?

It may be overly-dramatic to say that this is a sign of global warming. I don't know and it's very hard to experience a single event and draw any scientific conclusions, particularly if you're not a scientist, but it's simply one more drop of information in the ocean.


The floods shut down several counties and numerous roads, however it didn't stop Kelly and my cousin Nick from driving 130 miles from Utica to Roscoe the day after to visit. Normally the trip takes two hours or so. I drive the route when I visit my mother. Kelly and I talked that morning on the phone. The rain stopped and, at least in Roscoe, the waters receded.

"I don't know if you should come," I said. "I'd love you to come, but I don't know if the roads are passable."

"It doesn't seem so bad around there," she said. "I can talk to Nick and see what he thinks."

"According to this website Route 8 has had a 'bridge failure' near Sydney."

"Bridge failure?" asked Kelly. "That sounds serious. Hard to get around that."

"Look maybe you could get around it," I said. "Maybe they will direct you through the village or something."

"Nick's doing the driving, so let me check with him."

Nick, a consistent optimist, was already planning alternative routes. So they tried. After four hours, and numerous detours, including a close call with a washed out bridge, they arrived. The sun shone and we sat on the patio. It was almost like the flood hadn't happened. But it had. After a few hours of visiting they turned around and went back to Utica, shaving the trip down to three hours.


Since that day we haven't had much rain. Ironically for the last week I had to haul water up to my plants to my garden. Last night a loud thunderstorm passed over our house. I heard rain in my dream. The soft hum of water hitting leaves reminded me of wire brush quivering over a cymbal. As more water fell from the sky I rose from my dream into an uneasy wakefulness. Lighting lit up the bedroom. One of my cats, Noodles, slept near my head and kept one eye open, ever watchful of me. I tried to count the seconds between light and sound, but lost track, overwhelmed by the frequency of both.

A bright bolt and an instant explosion shook me. I screamed involuntarily, something primitive vibrated in my brain as fear grabbed my heart. Charles moved quickly to press up against me, holding me. His warm body acted like a calming pond of warm water, draining the tension from my flesh. A second clap and I started again. I struggled to calm my breathing. Logical thoughts progressed rationally thought my head. I don't fear lighting. I don't fear thunder. I'm safe in my bed. The storm is passing. It must be passed by now. More flashed filled the room, but always with a slight delay before the thunder rolled across the sky.

When a third close bolt renewed my shivering I said, "I don't know why I'm afraid."

"Because it's scary," said Charles. "I'm going down to the porch, want to come?"

From the porch we could see that the storm had passed. The show continued for another ten minutes. Both cats joined us as we watched the trees light up with an eerie white-blue glow.

"Don't you know you're supposed to be scared," Charles said to Vera, our small black cat.

"Too silly," I said. My eyes searched the walkway, expecting a bear or a man to be illuminated in the next flash, but there was nothing there.
We returned to the bedroom, slipping between the still-warm sheets. My heart began to return to a normal speed. I listened to the rain and thought about how each plant conducts water to its base, leaves acting as funnels and stems providing a path for the flow. Economy of resources. The rain could boost my garden, invigorating tender shafts to continue their reach to the sun. The birds outside our window began their pre-dawn routine, chirping, waking each other from nest to branch until the entire chorus sang.

Water still fell. I knew that it wasn't the deluge this time, but the replenishment we needed. Finally I slept, without dreams, until the sun demanded my attention.

Xposted to: Blog, Gardening, Creative Writer

Current Location: Catskills
Current Mood: anxiousanxious

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