My name is Carol, and I'm an ACND. Don't worry, Joe, and the other acronym-challenged among you, I don't think there's actually a support group called "ACND" -- I made it up. It stands for "Adult Child of a Natural Disaster," and it refers to the fact that when I was seven years old, my family lost our home and nearly everything in it to a flood caused by Hurricane Agnes. I had just finished first grade. My family lived about one block away from the Susquehanna River, on the other side of a large levee. The levee (okay, we always called it "the dike," but ever since I saw "Good Morning, Viet Nam," I just can't bring myself to call it that*) was around 36 feet high. Pretty big f*cking dike.
One morning, my mom took my brother and me for a walk on the top of the levee. It was a popular place to walk dogs, but I wasn't allowed to go anywhere near it alone so this outing seemed exotic to me. We walked along the top of the berm. Looking down on the other side, I was shocked to see the water, angry and brown and so close I felt I could reach down and touch it. (I probably could have.) I understood that this was weird, and that all the adults around me were worried, and that something bad might be about to happen, but I didn't really understand the significance or scope of what was about to happen. Which was probably a good thing.
The rain came down and the water came up and at about three a.m. the next morning, I woke to the sound of police cars driving through my neighborhood with their lights and sirens on, the cops yelling through bullhorns "Evacuate immediately!" I remember my mom telling me to get my little suitcase, the one my Grandma Jessie had given me, and pack some clothes to take with me to go to my other grandmother's. I also remember packing what was, in retrospect, the most absurd collection of clothing to take with me: five undershirts (no, I hadn't gotten my boobies yet), a couple of turtlenecks (real helpful in June), and some random other items. I vividly remember taking my beloved teddy bear, Teddy, that I'd had since I was an infant. [What happened to Teddy in later years is another story, and a hate crime.] In what was perhaps perfect poetic justice, my father was away at the time -- being physically and emotionally unavailable is his defining characteristic as a father -- and so my mom, my brother and I climbed into our little car and drove to my grandmother's house. She lived on the other side of town, still close to the Susquehanna River but on higher ground in no danger of flooding. The whole way there, I looked out the back window, expecting to see a tidal wave of river water rushing behind us.
I remember waking up the next morning to a surreal world. There was quiet all around, hardly any traffic on what was usually a pretty busy street, more rain, and a sense of waiting. Waiting, waiting, waiting. We heard on the news that men were filling sandbags at particularly vulnerable points of the levees; calls came for more men, more sand and more burlap bags. It was to no avail. At around two o'clock that afternoon, sirens blew throughout the city. The river had breached all efforts to hold it back and flooded the city.
They drove boats over our house and we were told the emergency workers could just reach out to touch the peak of the roof.
We stayed at my grandparents' house for about two or three months while my parents mucked out the house as best they could. I was allowed to go back to the house only once or twice, after all the wreckage of our furniture and clothing and other personal effects had been thrown to the curb for the National Guard to haul away. The entire world seemed covered with a haze of sickly olive-brown, like you were looking at it through a piece of tinted glass. (I wonder if this is why olive greens and browns don't appeal to me even today.) There was a musty smell and a powder we called "flood mud." I saw detritus -- warped records, waterlogged school papers, random things -- laying all around that people hadn't gotten around to cleaning up yet. The rats were the size of jackrabbits. In August, we scored a trailer from HUD that was set up in our backyard. By then, my parents had cleaned out the shell of our house and the neighborhood was starting to come back to life.
I often think about The Flood [growing up, we measured time by reference to The Flood, a kind of rough BC/AD thing: "Oh, that was a long time ago, before The Flood."] this time of year -- it happened almost exactly 34 years ago. But the memories have special resonance this year. I called my mom yesterday and I heard the local news blaring in the background. They're on a flood watch. Although the levees have been raised and reinforced more than once since 1972, occasionally a bout of heavy rain combined with runoff from the north causes the Susquehanna to rise to dangerous levels again. Global warming -- if the Republican party can be disbelieved -- seems certain to create more of these close scares. My mom and dad have packed a few things, gathered up their important documents and photographs, and now are waiting. The river is supposed to crest sometime Thursday, so I guess the next 24 hours are going to be rough ones.
Keep your fingers crossed the sirens don't blow.
*In which the Robin Williams character begins reading the news this way: "The Mississippi River broke through a protective dike today. What is a protective dike? Is it a large woman that says "Don't go near there! But Betty- Don't go near there! Don't go down by the river!"... No, we can't say "dyke" on the air, we can't even say "lesbian" anymore, it's "women in comfortable shoes."
UPDATE: Local authorities in my parents' town ordered a mandatory evacuation beginning Wednesday evening. However, revised estimates for the river suggest that it will crest earlier and lower than originally feared, so we hope this will end up being a close call.