Monday, October 10, 2016

Watching the Ants at the Water's Edge

On Saturday, Hurricane Matthew ripped its way up the Atlantic Coast, dumping gallons of water across the Eastern United States, from Florida to Virginia. Here in my little corner of the world, small town Tarboro, North Carolina, 12 inches of rain fell in a matter of hours, bringing new meaning to the word "torrential." At times it felt like we were under the thundering deluge of a waterfall. The rain actually roared.

We were "lucky." Hurricane Matthew didn't actually come crashing ashore in North Carolina. In what must have been a show of mercy on a state that had already seen more early autumn rainfall than usual, Matthew headed out into the Atlantic, just skirting the Outer Banks. It could have been much worse. Which really is small consolation for those whose lives are upside down.

After a tenuous night full of flash flooding and leaking roofs, falling trees and lost power, my neighbors and I awoke to beautiful Carolina Blue skies. Sunday morning was clear in a way we haven't seen yet this season. Bright and crisp, the weather was gorgeous. The sunshine was almost blinding and it gave everything an edge, the corners of everything seemed sharp, like you could almost cut yourself if you weren't careful. Everyone emerged blinking from the holes we had crawled into, nestled overnight with family in soft candlelight glows, hunkering down to ride out the worst, while the chaos of the storm thundered just outside our windows.

But it wasn't the worst. Not yet.

It's hard to imagine with the sun shining bright white brilliance, the world so perfectly clear, the sky so blindingly blue, that Hurricane Matthew wasn't quite finished with Eastern North Carolina. The children and I ambled down to the river. On Sunday morning it still seemed rather harmless. River Road was closed. My youngest stood on the lowest rung of the road gate, right next to the "Road Closed" sign. We could see the water's edge still some fifty yards down the road.

"Where will the deer go?" she wondered aloud, thinking of the deer we sometimes spook in the evenings when we walk down River Road. They snort and flick white tails when they see us before bounding to the safety of wooded edges.

"I don't know." An honest answer.

In the afternoon, we made our way to the bridge that heads east out of our small town. We passed a family steadily hauling belongings from their home. They stuffed lamps and boxes and wadded up clumps of clothing into the back seat of their car, working steadily but not frantically. At the bridge we counted the vehicles leaving the low lying town of Princeville, our neighbors just across the river, their rear windows obscured with hastily packed belongings. They followed each other like a train of conestoga wagons headed for better days. They reminded me of ants streaming along the sidewalk in single file lines.

Transfer of information is fast these days. With the town basically shut down there wasn't much to do. We scrolled through pictures, assessing other people's storm damage, hearing through internet gossip that roads had been washed away, that dams were breaking. We gawked at the pictures from flooded Lumberton and the stories of rooftop rescues out of Fayetteville.

Photo credit: Hannah Webb
By Sunday evening we were tired of the news stories and the flashing cyberspace pictures of people who had lost everything. We made our way back to the banks of the swelling Tar River. The flood waters were rising. We were informed of a mandatory evacuation of Princeville. We could no longer walk to the gate at River Road, the "Road Closed" sign was only half visible. We stared at the water that seemed almost still at the edges. We could actually see it creeping its way up the asphalt, like it came clinging to each tiny stone, crawling toward family homes and small businesses. If we stared we could see the water's edge moving, the river widening as streams and drainage dumped thousands more gallons, the water making its way through our tiny town on its way to the ocean some 95 miles downstream.

We tucked ourselves into bed, watched the livestream of the evening news broadcast from flooding towns up and down rivers all over eastern North Carolina. County schools were closed for Monday, and probably the rest of the week. Princeville was deserted in anticipation of the river climbing the levy.

Today, we woke again to see the world all bright and clear. Matthew is long gone. So are the residents of Princeville. So is the homeless man who lives under the Princeville bridge. At River Road there's no sign of the gate. Or the road.

Around the water's edge there are a million ants, pacing back and forth, worrying, stranded from their homes.They seem lost. Confused. I watch them scramble, switch directions, dance right up to the water's edge like they might dive in, then shuffle away again. It's fascinating watching them. I don't exactly know why.

Photo credit: Hannah Webb
The Princeville bridge is closed. So are most of the roads into and out of Tarboro. We are left here, waterlocked like an island, isolated, just watching, waiting to see what the river will do with us. We gather on the bridge, watching the water rise inch by slow inch. There is almost a party atmosphere as neighbors greet neighbors and compare stories. We haven't seen this kind of flooding since Hurricane Floyd. That was only seventeen short years ago, not the five hundred the meteorologists and environmental scientists and climatologists promised us.

Photo credit: Hannah Webb
There are so many news vans and helicopters circling overhead. They are watching us like I watched the ants. Like I watched the stream of refugees from Princeville. Like I gawked as I scrolled through pictures posted of flood waters and submerged houses in nearby towns. We are all tourists to other people's tragedy. We don't really want to visit. We don't want to walk a mile in their rubber galoshes. Humans are funny like that, gaping at misfortune, peddling it on the evening news.


Tonight the roads are closed as the water still creeps its way into neighborhoods, silent and steady in the dark, the river bubbling up through street drains in low areas, forming still pools in the middle of the street. The sun will rise tomorrow on higher water, but how high? I wonder if it will be tragedy enough for the news vans.

What happens to the ants when nobody's watching?

1 comment:

Roberta said...

Beautiful writing and powerful account of this tragedy. Thank you!

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