A Flood Essay

afeyAs the water continued to spread, we hefted furniture up on stacks of bricks our freezer atop coolers. We carried dripping boxes of Christmas decorations and childhood treasures to drier areas of the basement. Within three. and a half hours, the flood water, some of which was sewage backup, would rise to a height of more than a metre.

When our kids woke, I left Todd to the moving and hoisting and escaped with the kids to McDonald’s for breakfast. The sun was coming up now and I could see that the flood was everywhere. Stalled cars, some up to their axles in water, littered the roadway. After breakfast, I drove to the day care before heading home again. Leaving my children in the raging wind and rain – and in the too recent aftermath of Sept. 11 – was intensely unsettling. But how could I keep them at home?

Back in the basement, Todd continued. “It’s coming in everywhere, every opening, every drain,” he said. We heard frequent gurglings and then splashes as bottles and boxes and jars first floated, then capsized and sank. We watched in despair as the spilled contents of our freezer bobbed around the oil furnace. I helped Todd tie our floating freezer to a bracket on the wall to prevent it from ramming the furnace and causing even more damage.

The phone lines were down. At 10:30 a.m., the power failed. I was standing in water high enough to flow over the top of my knee-high rubber boots. I waded across what used to be our basement and tried to remove the most valuable items from the sea of possessions. Feeling like a traitor, I watched my children’s toys float past while I struggled with books, computer diskettes and office supplies.

When the water crested at the hem of my shorts, I gave up. I retreated upstairs and used my cellphone to call my mother, two provinces away. For the first time, I cried. I cried for all the irreplaceable items we’d lost and because I was scared. But mostly, I cried because I felt overwhelmed. (I didn’t even know at that point that we had no insurance coverage. “Flooding,” the company man would tell me later that afternoon, “is not a standard insurable risk.”)

At about 6 p.m., the water stopped rising. Our basement was a swamp and our home – the one in which we’d hosted so many fine dinner parties and renovated so painstakingly over the past two years – smelled like a sewer. What were we supposed to do next?

It took three days and two nights before we could actually start measuring our losses. The children were safe at my mother-in-law’s house and we tried to move everything from the basement upstairs and then, when the sun reappeared, we toted the sopping boxes outside to dry in the sunshine.

That day, as I stood in the backyard, sifting through photo albums and family heirlooms, the depth of my sadness dismayed me. I cried at the shots of my best friend who died of cancer when we were 13 and at me wearing blue eyeshadow as McDonald’s “crew person of the month.” The dolls I had saved for my children could never be properly cleaned and decontaminated. I drew the line, though, at the travel diaries from our carefree backpacking adventures. I refused to throw those out. I hung them on the line beside the sour-smelling hockey equipment that was too expensive to discard hut hadn’t yet been washed. Todd and I consoled each other. “We’re all alive and safe,” we said. And “this is only stuff”

So, why, two days after the water receded, when I opened my childhood tickle trunk and found all 52 of my prized-but-forgotten Nancy Drew books soaked and beginning to smell, did I burst into tears? Even as I opened the covers to reveal an eight-year-old’s signature, I tried to comfort myself, thinking, “I don’t even have daughters. Ben and Andrew wouldn’t want to read these anyway,” but it didn’t help. At the time, despite the game-faced words, “it could have been worse,” I felt cheated, angry and sad.

So soon after the attacks on the World Trade Center, a little bit of flood water should only have served as a reminder of how good we’ve really got it, right? But sometimes stuff means more than just material wealth. Sometimes that stuff is the physical incarnation of our spiritual wealth, our memories, our past. And the keepsakes that you’ve cherished and preserved are intended not only to commemorate your past, but to illuminate your future, when you or your children or your grandchildren can hold them and be transported back to another time. Having these things violated feels not only like an affront to your memories, but like a blow to your future too.

As my husband said, “You really don’t know what you’ve got until you see it float.”

Eventually, the events of Sept. 19 would find a more comfortable resting place in my memory, one that would put our losses into some perspective. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, this began during the flooding when a neighbour asked to borrow my cellphone. His wife needed to call to find out if her doctor’s appointment had been cancelled.

Then there was a woman who lived across the street and a few doors down. While the rain poured and water collected in our basements, most neighbours scurried about their houses and yards feverishly; she watched helplessly from behind her closed door. Confined to a wheelchair, this single mother of a five-year-old daughter sat patiently and frightened as her finished basement was submerged. I only learned about her a few days later, but when I did, I couldn’t help but feel humbled by her courage and grace. “I know that whatever happened was for a reason,” she told me.

The water wasn’t our only obstacle. Until an information package from the provincial government arrived on our doorsteps a week later, we had no information on proper cleanup and nobody told us that almost everything the flood water touched was contaminated and would have to be thrown out. Nobody told us that without proper disinfection, our homes would breed toxic moulds that cause a litany of air-quality and health problems. We knew the world’s gaze was locked on the rubble of the twin towers, but surely to God, our local authorities would pay attention. Yet, the civic officials and politicians at all levels seemed stuck in an unfathomable state of denial.

Tired of waiting for assistance, tired of hearing, “Someone should organize a meeting,” I took it on. I gathered a small committee of residents interested in putting pressure on the government. We booked St. Mark’s Anglican Church hall and invited any flood victims who had no insurance. The night of the meeting — nine days after the flood — we set out 100 chairs. Nearly 500 people showed up.

Notably absent were representatives from the Emergency Measures Organization (EMO) — the department supposedly co-ordinating the relief effort with the federal government. Despite my pleas that they attend our meeting to provide critical information, the EMO stayed away. Prime Minister Jean Chretien did not comment on the situation when he attended a $500-a-plate Liberal party fund-raiser in St. John’s. Industry Minister Brian Tobin – who had very recently been Newfoundland’s pre-mier – ignored our invitation. Only the mayor, Andy Wells, tried to answer questions, but all he could offer was reassurance and a promise that the municipality would – gratis – cart away our drywall, carpets and millions of dollars’ worth of personal belongings.

Where, we wondered, was the government assistance? Where were the aid agencies that so promptly and commendably cared for the thousands of American airline passengers stranded in St. John’s only a week earlier?

We were going to have to do it ourselves. Thus began my role as unofficial flood lobbyist. What followed was a barrage of phone calls, e-mails and faxes to all levels of government. I told our story to anyone who would listen, sending out news releases and doing media interviews. More than anything else, though, I fielded calls from affected residents. Some were offering to help with the campaign for flood relief. Most just needed a sympathetic ear. We drew strength from sharing our stories.

I came to learn that our family was among the more fortunate. Not only was our house repairable, six weeks after the flood, our insurance company agreed to cover $10,000 of our $36,ooo loss. Many of our neighbours still haven’t collected a cent.

Two months after the flood, we got a call from the EMO. The federal government was coming through with the promised funding, but the program was bureaucratic, slow and sorely inadequate. Only the essentials were paid for and receipts had to be provided up front. You had to spend the money to get anything back. If you couldn’t, you’d have to settle for 70 per cent of the claim. Families with access to a large line of credit could live with the restrictions. Most got the 70 per cent.

Six months after the flood, our trauma has dwindled to the inconvenience of plaster dust, hardware-store bills and an overcrowded upper floor. Even as my husband and I nattered at each other, betraying the stress we still felt, we always knew our family would be fine. Our house would be restored and we’d move on. We would even mature a bit in the process. I came to realize that my self-perception as a harried mother of two young children is no excuse for not taking responsibility within my community. I will always be a harried something-or-other, but I will still feel a sense of responsibility toward the place where I live and the people who share it with me.

Perhaps more surprising, I’ve faced the fact that my material possessions are important to me. I’m not embarrassed to say that I value the things I’ve worked to own. This doesn’t mean I’m materialistic. Indeed, since the events of Sept. 19, I’ve never been more aware of my good fortune. I simply think that now, I’m just honest about it and I’ll never again try to comfort someone who’s experienced a loss with “Don’t worry, it’s only stuff.”

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