Ancestral energy lives in the stars above us, the stones beneath us. Their memory gathers in oceans, rivers and seas. It hums its silent wisdom within the body of every tree.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Flooding in Binghamton, Part III

September 9, 2011:
The waters are receding.
Behind Riverside Drive.

In my city, the waters are receding. The river crested overnight, allowing me a sigh of relief. We could stop waiting for the physical swell to get worse. Roads and bridges are still closed. The police, guardsmen and emergency responders tell us that the best way we can help is to stay home- those of us whose homes are not underwater. I think I am still in shock.
Most people are already moving forward, cleaning out basements, replacing water heaters, and trying to get back to work. Some people are boiling or disinfecting water and waiting for their power to come on. A quarter of the city is still crammed into evacuation centers where they have been for over 48 hours, wondering what has become of their homes and facing the possibility they have lost everything. I have to remind myself of that… and try not to feel guilty for being spared.
It was guilt that pulled me out of my house for another walk with my friend. I walked the edges of two rivers and found the line between what was home and what was water blurred. People were crying, sitting on their porches in a state of shock, standing in small clumps, everyone making eye contact, coming out of their personal isolation and looking for connection. They wanted to know they weren’t alone. In hard times, we need to know we’re not alone.
People stood at the new shoreline, staring. They all said the same thing- I can’t believe how much water there is. An old woman cried next to me, for her two daughters, both flooded and evacuated. She told me how she had watched the water line creep up into the houses from her apartment, and pointed behind where we stood. Only then did I notice the mud in the grass and the debris line of leaves, algae and twigs behind us. Only then did I realize that the water had been six feet higher than what I was looking at, just the night before.
It’s one thing to watch the photos on the internet and news. It’s another thing to stand before a force of nature and drink it in with your own eyes. Any excitement I might have felt at the idea of that much water was sobered by its reality. Fallen trees were crossing my field of vision in mere seconds, the river was moving that fast. The sun was shining and the water was going down, but the danger was still there. The floodwater is not done yet. It’s not time for business as usual yet.
My friend and I, mindful of the pain and grief around us, spent our time contemplating what it means to be an animal in the natural world, stopping often to watch the water in motion silently. We were not people who wanted to put their lives in danger. We were pagan women who needed to see the destruction caused to our city, to remind ourselves of the awe-full power of nature. We needed to know just how lucky we were.
We overheard residents along the Susquehanna discussing how they had been looted. They were pulling rugs and furniture to the curb, trying to avoid prolonged contact with the thick, viscous and stinking mud left in the wake of the water. It’s the kind of smell you can’t imagine ever getting out of your olfactory cavities. Trust me.
I found the mummified remains of a critter in mud on the road between the old debris line and the new one. It might have been a raccoon. It could have been someone’s pet. It might have been long dead and buried elsewhere, stirred by the waters and risen again. It was a grim reminder either way. Our bodies are our bodies and mine is still walking and breathing and praying. I spoke one for the corpse, wishing its spirit peace. It’s something I do.
Backtracking home the way we came, we saw the water had dropped two feet since we started. It was a significant visual acknowledgment. The ground seemed a bit more solid beneath me. We went back, quietly up the Chenango and into the residents who were trying to go about their everyday, arguing with the very people who had been fighting the rising waters on our behalf. To keep us all safe, even the noisy people who were untouched by the flood, and for whom it was easy to forget that this just happened yesterday. Is still happening to us.
The sun is shining. The waters are retreating. The heat will bake the mud that remains, turning it back into earth.

The homes behind Riverside Drive.
You can see all the mud left behind.
The leaves in the forefront show the original flood line, before it started to retreat.
We fared better than others. This is Apalachin, and the flood line reached up the sign. Photo by Laylla Forsyth.

September 10, 2011:
What the water leaves behind.
Four days in and towns around us are still underwater. People’s lives are still in limbo. The pictures we’re seeing are worse than I could imagine. It’s not New Orleans after Katrina. It’s not Joplin. It could be worse- it could always be worse. And for us, it’s the worst we’ve seen. We stayed to the house again, watching reports for roads open and closed, or washed away. Today, people are talking. Neighbors are reaching out. Strangers are helping strangers. My people are showing their best colors.

I walked the park at sunset, escaping the sounds of the landlord pushing the last of the water from the basement. The wooded pass is still covered with fungus of varied and multiple hues and shapes, a testament to rebirth. But the smell filtering into the beautiful violet and lavender sky was of death and dank and what gets left behind. The houses along the park were flooded from oversaturated ground tables and the furniture, rugs and old Christmas trees piled on the curb reeked against a Monet-colored sky. Drunk college kids played golf in the public areas while local residents carried belongings outdoors, to be carted to the dump.
The Mayor announced that no one would have to pay a garbage fee for flood debris. For the next week the bus lines will run free of charge, with an apology that some of the roads are still inaccessible. We absolutely still have no idea the extent of the damage.

Most of the people in the areas that are underwater (again) are people who live paycheck to paycheck. And insurance companies will quibble with them (again) over whether or not it was damage due to river-water-rising flooding or ground table saturation flooding. From our perspective it doesn’t matter. Devastation is devastation. When I think about the people who were hit hard by both floods, I wonder how much horror one heart is meant to be able to hold. This is a devastation that will linger emotionally long after the garbage and debris are cleared away.
I’m suddenly starting to see just how lucky we are.

Yesterday: Part II, My city is underwater.
Tomorrow: Part IV, The fellowship of friends

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