Monday, October 17, 2016

After the Flood - What is Normal for the Ants?

(This is Part 2 of my account of the flooding of our small town after Hurricane Matthew. You can read Part 1 here.)

It's been more than a week since Hurricane Matthew skimmed the coast of North Carolina. Just a few days ago, a reporter broadcasting live from the bridge between small town Tarboro and even smaller Princeville, with a look of possibly mock concern on her face, informed the local viewing area that more than 80 percent of the buildings in Princeville were under the Tar River.

Until then, we had only been allowed to speculate what life looked like on the other side of the bridge. The town of Princeville had ordered a mandatory evacuation on Sunday in anticipation of flood waters rising. The bridge closed to vehicle traffic Monday evening. We had been able to watch the river rise from the bridge until the river began brushing the bottom, then the National Guard stepped in with armored vehicles and uniformed soldiers to keep foot traffic from possibly plummeting into the swirling water. We had heard that the water had rushed around the protective levy, filling the town up like a fish bowl.

A desperate attempt to get to the liquor store.
I suppose we had hoped for the best while expecting the worst. We knew what things looked like on this side of the bridge; entire neighborhoods underwater, our middle school completely surrounded, roads impassible as rushing creeks swelled banks and flooded into the streets. And, horror of horrors, the town's only liquor store sitting underwater at Hendrick's Creek.

It was probably that sweet, perky newscaster's first visit to Tarboro, so she didn't know. But I threatened a trip to the bridge to chat with her when she uttered the words, "Meanwhile, on this side of the bridge in Tarboro, things are pretty much back to normal."

What?

I suppose things are normal if you consider that public schools are closed for the eighth day in a row. All of the county and town offices are closed. The county courthouse is closed while gallons of water are being pumped from the basement. One of our schools is an island, while two more are crammed with hundreds of floodwater refugees. Most of our side streets were completely underwater until yesterday. And god knows when we'll be able to buy liquor again. The constant sound of machines pumping water and news station helicopters humming as they circle overhead isn't something we had thought was normal.

This is not normal.

Even now that the water has mostly receded, and families are facing a different kind of devastation as they sort through muddied possessions and family memories, life still isn't normal.

The view from my front porch just a few days ago.
The water didn't quite reach my home. At its highest, it came within inches of my front porch, wrapping around the house, flooding the driveway and the back yard. I am thankful that dear Nora Jenkins when she built this house in 1908, thought enough to perch it on the slightest of hills. The water table did rise up through our basement, flooding the hot water heater, making the sump pump work so hard that it finally couldn't handle it, giving up in an agonizing gurgle of foul water. My husband and son bailed out the basement with cups and buckets.

As the flood waters slowly retreated, they left behind a sense of immense gratitude, but also an aching sense of survivor's guilt, thick like the black mud that the river left behind in the streets. I walked through that mud yesterday, thinking about it clinging to the insides of my neighbor's houses, sticking to the walls and furniture and family pictures. I thought, "We need a good rain to wash all of this away." And then I caught myself. The last thing we need right now is rain.

When the river was highest, and we had nothing to do but watch the water, we saw some amazing things. There were dozens of islands of ants floating in the water. Fire ants will make a ball of themselves to protect the colony in high water. They cling to each other and buoy each other in the floodwaters. It's how they survive catastrophes like Hurricane Matthew, by clinging to one another, supporting one another, helping one another. No single ant is alone.

And that's another way that life isn't normal here. I've seen everyone roll up their sleeves. Skin color doesn't matter. It doesn't matter that Princeville is a town of almost entirely black citizens or that East Tarboro (where the flooding on this side of the river was highest and most destructive) is somewhere people like me wouldn't walk at night. The imaginary lines that we've drawn on a normal day were washed away in the flood waters. All I see now are neighbors helping neighbors. People feeding people who are hungry. People offering comfort to those who are hurting. People offering clean clothes and toiletries and hot showers. People sharing hugs and tears. People clinging to one another, supporting one another, helping one another. No single person is alone.

That's what community is. There are no boundaries of skin color or income or social status. Sometimes it takes a major flood to wash away the boundaries we put up, to see just how superficial those lines are. The circling helicopters can't tell us apart from their vantage point. Afterall, if you step back far enough, we all just look like a bunch of ants.

Maybe the perky blonde reporter did have it right. Maybe this is what normal is supposed to look like. I'd like to think so.


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