or, Four Reflections On Water
or, An Incomplete List
The forest closes above and around us like a tunnel in a canyonside. Even though this is just a modestly sized patch of trees in a modestly sized park, and the trees are still skeletal and budless on this Easter afternoon, it instantly becomes quieter as we cross their threshold. The sound of children playing in the park, jumping in the damp, rapidly melting April snow, fades first into muffled murmurs and quickly into silence. The three of us are alone, not five minutes from home.
“Look,” one of us (all of us) (none of us) says, pointing off the trail into the civilized wilderness. The trail, though not paved with asphalt or concrete, is better maintained than a true forest road: well graded, absent large potholes, puddles or rocks. It rises several inches above the average level of the forest floor, and in the liquefied winter we realize we are not in a forest at all but a swamp. A layer of icy water, too chaotically dirty for us to sound its depth, covers everything. In places, it looks like snow, but it is perfectly smooth and flat, better paved than the trail, and it ripples when you touch it.
“I wonder,” aloud, “if that’s just from the melt. I mean, is it just excess runoff that’ll all drain into the pond soon enough, or is this just always swampy?” No one knows. Near the bridge, my praise for the trail is misplaced. The mire has overrun its artificial banks and dribbled across our path, like a bibless baby. We cross anyway.
“It happened again,” I confess to Denny. He is unsurprised. He begins, dismissively, his usual speech: “As the rivers rise and fall…”
I was born in the flat country. Syracuse has hills, it is true, but when you have known the mountains you know the difference. I had heard the phrase, as the rivers rise and fall, I knew that this was supposed to be some kind of seasonal rhythm, like the snow, or the humidity, one more aspect of the water cycle. I may even have noticed that Meadowbrook was slightly higher in spring than in the rest of the year, and attributed this to the snowmelt. But I never understood, not until I moved to Avon, why rivers are worshipped.
I arrived home late in the evening, late in May, exhausted from the drive from Fairfield to Twin, to Snowville to Salt Lake, to Provo where I picked up a couple of French hitchers, to the non-town of Tucker where I dropped them off, to Price through the desert and desert to Junction, to Glenwood and finally up valley to home. After fifteen hours on the road and an entire audiobook entitled The Art of Racing in The Rain— it had not rained— I poured myself a martini, and went to smoke a welcome-home cigarette with my friend-sublessee Andrew on the balcony. But venturing outside, I was struck, as with a fist, by the incredible roar of what I could only take to be the impending apocalypse. “Pray for me,” I asked Andrew. “What?” he shouted back. “I can’t hear you over the river.”
The Eagle River, which I had only known in fall and winter, a rocky, bubbling stream, up to a foot deep in places but usually shallower, had evolved, metamorphosed, risen into something the likes of which I had never seen before. What had in April been a frozen ditch had become a crashing, howling juggernaut, a tornado-green monster, a swollen frenzy of whitecaps. It was neither evil nor ominous; it only impressed upon me the sheer unadulterated strength of an inorganic, unemotional nature. I would later learn that the trail through the canyon was closed near the tunnels, washed away by the force of two counties’ accumulated snowmelt.
For a moment I dared to think that it had all the power of the ocean, but I immediately realized that that was ridiculous, almost blasphemous. Nothing on Earth has the power of the ocean.
We watched the storm clouds roll in, against our mothers’ and mayor’s unequivocal orders, from the pier at the end of North 5th Street, just past Kent, right on the water. We drove there. That should give you some perspective on how unusual the situation was. We never drove anywhere.
We stayed maybe ten minutes. While we were there, it stopped raining and began pouring, the wind stopped gusting and began blowing. I had never, I realized, been outdoors in a true storm before; I had never experienced that wind-tunnel effect, that sensation of constancy, above all that sound, like God blowing in your ear. I remarked to Gabe and Brandon that the wind was blowing west here, just like it was blowing west everywhere north of the eye, thousands and thousands of square miles, it was the same wind here as in Syracuse and in Boston and in Washington, we are all under one wind.
We retreated home just as I began to be afraid.
We spent the night indoors, making pizza from scratch, drinking beer and waiting for the power to go out. It never did. We stayed up until two or three in the morning, laughing, joking, just as if the Storm Of The Century weren’t ravaging outside, hoping it would all blow over and in the morning we would all be alive. I read a little of Schrödinger’s book, What Is Life, which I had decided was my project for the days off, while we listened to records and the old tube radio.
We learned Manhattan had lost power, and heard stories of flooding, but where we were nothing seemed out of the ordinary, except for the wind. Yet when I finally went to bed I remember wishing that I wasn’t alone. It seemed the wind would keep rising all night, rising without limit, tearing the roofs off of houses and blowing up the Con Ed building on 14th Street and knocking over that crane in Midtown and turning us into waterlogged New Orleans, killing everyone. Of course, as I’ve previously written, the storm did devastate low-lying swaths of the city, killing 71 in the state, which is not everyone, but which is 71 people. I don’t wish to revisit that here. But Williamsburg was spared.
Almost a year later, I was driving a four-wheeler on private land in Idaho when a furious storm whipped up out of nowhere, with lightning striking so close to me I could feel my hair stand on end. The two miles down hill to the farm seemed unending, and when we got back I was shaking. The inconsolable terror of thunder that some of us suffer, of being at the mercy of the elements, of the big one, must predate the invention of language. Why else would it be so hard to express?
At 10:11 in the morning on August 28, 2005, the National Weather Service in Slidell, Louisiana issued what is widely considered to be the most strongly worded weather bulletin ever promulgated by the service. It does not take much imagination to read it as a millenarian prophecy of doom. When the government makes statements that could cause panic, as this one surely could have, there is a responsibility to ensure that the statement is justified, that the benefits of warning outweigh the distributed effects of fear. Robert Ricks, the author of the copy, is said to have reread the text he had written several times, looking for anything that was too strong, anything scary that the public could be spared. He found nothing. I reproduce it here in its entirety.
000 WWUS74 KLIX 281550 NPWLIX URGENT — WEATHER MESSAGE NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE NEW ORLEANS LA 1011 AM CDT SUN AUG 28, 2005 ...DEVASTATING DAMAGE EXPECTED... HURRICANE KATRINA...A MOST POWERFUL HURRICANE WITH UNPRECEDENTED STRENGTH... RIVALING THE INTENSITY OF HURRICANE CAMILLE OF 1969. MOST OF THE AREA WILL BE UNINHABITABLE FOR WEEKS...PERHAPS LONGER. AT LEAST ONE HALF OF WELL CONSTRUCTED HOMES WILL HAVE ROOF AND WALL FAILURE. ALL GABLED ROOFS WILL FAIL...LEAVING THOSE HOMES SEVERELY DAMAGED OR DESTROYED. THE MAJORITY OF INDUSTRIAL BUILDINGS WILL BECOME NON FUNCTIONAL. PARTIAL TO COMPLETE WALL AND ROOF FAILURE IS EXPECTED. ALL WOOD FRAMED LOW RISING APARTMENT BUILDINGS WILL BE DESTROYED. CONCRETE BLOCK LOW RISE APARTMENTS WILL SUSTAIN MAJOR DAMAGE...INCLUDING SOME WALL AND ROOF FAILURE. HIGH RISE OFFICE AND APARTMENT BUILDINGS WILL SWAY DANGEROUSLY...A FEW TO THE POINT OF TOTAL COLLAPSE. ALL WINDOWS WILL BLOW OUT. AIRBORNE DEBRIS WILL BE WIDESPREAD...AND MAY INCLUDE HEAVY ITEMS SUCH AS HOUSEHOLD APPLIANCES AND EVEN LIGHT VEHICLES. SPORT UTILITY VEHICLES AND LIGHT TRUCKS WILL BE MOVED. THE BLOWN DEBRIS WILL CREATE ADDITIONAL DESTRUCTION. PERSONS...PETS...AND LIVESTOCK EXPOSED TO THE WINDS WILL FACE CERTAIN DEATH IF STRUCK. POWER OUTAGES WILL LAST FOR WEEKS...AS MOST POWER POLES WILL BE DOWN AND TRANSFORMERS DESTROYED. WATER SHORTAGES WILL MAKE HUMAN SUFFERING INCREDIBLE BY MODERN STANDARDS. THE VAST MAJORITY OF NATIVE TREES WILL BE SNAPPED OR UPROOTED. ONLY THE HEARTIEST WILL REMAIN STANDING...BUT BE TOTALLY DEFOLIATED. FEW CROPS WILL REMAIN. LIVESTOCK LEFT EXPOSED TO THE WINDS WILL BE KILLED. AN INLAND HURRICANE WIND WARNING IS ISSUED WHEN SUSTAINED WINDS NEAR HURRICANE FORCE...OR FREQUENT GUSTS AT OR ABOVE HURRICANE FORCE...ARE CERTAIN WITHIN THE NEXT 12 TO 24 HOURS. ONCE TROPICAL STORM AND HURRICANE FORCE WINDS ONSET...DO NOT VENTURE OUTSIDE!
The feature of this text I find the most interesting is not the sentence, “water shortages will make human suffering incredible by modern standards.” Of course, many have remarked on the irony of dying of thirst on a boat, and I have little to add to the analysis of that tragedy. Rather, it is the repeated use of the word, “all.” All gabled roofs will fail. All wood framed apartment buildings will be destroyed. All windows will blow out. You cannot win. It doesn’t matter if you think you are safe. You are not. You cannot win. You can only run. Drop everything and run. That is the power of the ocean.
The bulletin, notably, does not mention flooding; it does not mention the possibility of the levees breaking. We did not yet know how incredible the human suffering would in fact turn out to be.
I have been thinking a lot, maybe I have been thinking too much, about Rob.
You do not remember Rob. I did not remember Rob until a few days ago, when the first soft cries were coming out of Tacloban, when the city was in shock and didn’t even know how to scream yet. Of course the city is probably still in shock. How could I know? How could I even pretend?
I wrote about Rob fifty-one weeks ago. I have not seen him since then, or heard from him, or heard anything of him, or in fact mentioned him to anyone at all, not even Brandon who was there and might remember. I never knew Rob’s last name and have absolutely no way of looking him up. I do not remember where he lives, except that it is— it was, damn, it was a year ago— in Belle Harbor; I couldn’t find the house, not like the house on Beach 133, that house I’ll always be able to find as long as it is standing…
And yet I find myself turning this story over in my mind when I am trying to fall asleep, when I am cutting tomatoes, when I am shaving, and I find my hands are unsteady and my tear ducts weak. I had helped Rob move a few crates full of pieces of his basement out into the street, it had taken less than fifteen minutes, and later that day he had thought I looked cold, and offered to run upstairs to get me something warm for the half-mile back to wherever we were parked:
Rob has lost the whole basement of his house, I said as we got in the car, he owes fifteen grand to the contractors who haven’t done anything yet and his papers are all gone and he is probably going to have to move out and his neighborhood is in shambles and the Harbor Light still smells like smoke and he probably knows someone who drowned and he wants to give me a goddamn coat and I can’t even finish this fucking sentence. (11/18/12)
I have been thinking about Belle Harbor a lot in the last couple of days, not just Rob, thinking about the devastation and the loss and the piles of sand taller than a house and how we don’t know anything at all because instead of piles of sand in Tacloban they are piling up corpses so high that one of the biggest problems in the city, right now, is the smell.
That’s not fair, one part of me is saying, that’s not right: the suffering over there, no matter how awful, doesn’t diminish the suffering over here, although it helps to give you some perspective. Doesn’t there come a point, in that blurry, waterlogged scale of terror, where there’s no way to compare any more, there’s no point in comparing any more? Or is thinking that the privilege of those on the lower end?
In New York after Sandy there was almost no looting, there was some but it wasn’t widespread, there was no breakdown of law and order like there is in Tacloban, and the inescapable conclusion is that in fact the scale does go higher, it goes a lot higher, it gets to the point where a shopkeeper will point a loaded and cocked pistol at kids taking rice and the kids will take the rice anyway: God, we don’t know anything at all.
And I guess this is why I am thinking about Rob. Because in the middle of it all, in the middle of the worst devastation I had ever personally seen, there was still a guy who was willing to give me one of maybe two coats he had left as the sun was setting and December was nearing, just because he thought it was the right thing to do; and I’ve got to believe, I’ve got to believe that if the grim scale of devastation and pain and death goes so much higher than I have ever seen, then so does the scale of goodness, there is just so much we don’t know. I’ve got to believe that there are Robs in the Philippines, there are self-sacrificers and there are workers and there are people who are just plain kind, who are doing whatever they can to mitigate the horror, to keep a kid warm, to shovel out their neighbor’s house, to share their dwindling supply of coffee or gasoline. We hear about the hopelessness but if I learned anything at all from Sandy it was to remember the hope.
At least that is what I am telling myself.
Brandon was in Tacloban this summer for several months. I called him as soon as I heard. I just can’t imagine, I said, I just can’t imagine. I wish I could do something, you know, like when we went out to Rockaway, when we actually got our hands dirty and blistery, but the Philippines isn’t a 45-minute ride out “past the end of Eastern Parkway” but 7,600 miles across an ocean and they don’t even have an airport. He had two words for me:
It feels strange to end a post like this with an appeal for money, but it would feel stranger not to, given the circumstances. I’m posting the link here to the fundraising page for GoAbroad, Brandon’s company, which is collecting donations to rebuild and support local staff, but of course there are also standard international channels like the Red Cross or UNICEF. Please, if like me, you slept under a roof last night, remember those who didn’t.