Wednesday, September 16, 2009

When Everybody Was Wrecked on Main Street

I had almost forgotten about it until I saw the stories in the newspapers this past Sunday: Floyd. It was in fact a decade ago, during this very week in September when a great deal of water snuck NTSG and damn near destroyed our home, Margaret, the kids and me.

In the middle of September '99 Hurricane Floyd barreled up the Eastern seaboard and beat the living hell out of Central New Jersey. At the time we lived on 3rd Street - across Route 28 from the high school. I did not know when we moved there several years earlier that we lived on the "low side" of town - although my eyes were opened more than a bit when our mortgage company required us to purchase flood insurance. While I do not remember the day it hit specifically, I believe that Floyd first began exacting a toll on the good folks of Middlesex, Manville and Bound Brook (each of which was ravaged on a scale that thankfully we were spared) on Thursday, September 16. And once it set up shop in our neck of the woods, it remained there, destroying property and taking several lives.

Fire is visually more spectacular than flood water but, candidly, having lived through the latter I think I would rather have to tangle with the former. At least it can be seen and heard. Flood water is relentless. And it is silent. You can - as flood waters rise around you - watch the water level rise while being completely disarmed by the amount of sound that accompanies it. Often it takes on a Chaplinesque quality - as if you watching a silent movie. It is the silence that might in fact be its most sinister quality. One reasonably expects something that moves that quickly, that relentlessly and with that level of murderous efficiency to make a little noise. One is inevitably surprised and disappointed.

And almost worse than its greeting is its good-bye. The water that occupied every square inch of our little ranch house on a slab from the crawlspace beneath it to three and one-half feet up the walls inside of it left behind mud, sludge, waste and worse. I do not know how long it took us to get our home clean. I know that our effort was aided in large part by the fact that Floyd's damage to our home was so severe that we essentially had all of the floors torn up and had the home rebuilt from the floors up - to a spot about four feet high throughout the entire home. By removing that which had been there before - and had been rendered useless by the flood waters - we in an odd way had a leg up on a number of our neighbors. We simply ripped out that which was there and started over.

It has indeed been ten years and while those few days rival the longest of my life, not all of my memories associated with Floyd are negative ones. On the "night after", Rob and I were working side-by-side in our living room on what can only be described as an "Idiot Project". When I was young my father used to believe a great deal in his children working for the sake of working, which meant we spent long hours every summer performing silly tasks. Kara, Jill and I took to calling them "Idiot Projects" - an homage both to the visionary who created them and the worker bees who performed them.

Well, less than twenty-four hours after water had invaded what used to be our home, I have my then-thirteen year-old son working with me in our living room, using a couple of wet/dry vacs to suck up the water from the carpet. Set aside for a second the fact that while the flood waters had vacated our living space, the crawl space was packed to its tip-top with water. The water was still in the street - up to my waist - and yet there we were, wasting energy (both electrical and kinetic) on a fool's errand.

In the middle of this insanity, Rob asked me to shut off my vacuum. Over the roar of both of our engines, he heard a most welcome sound - the sound of our tomcat, Milo. When we had bugged out of the home twenty-four hours earlier Milo had been nowhere to be found. I feared that he had drowned. He did not. Once Rob heard him meow, he grabbed a flashlight and started aiming it towards the sound. Ultimately he found Milo on the front steps of the house....directly across the street from ours. Milo sat there making noise in the flashlight's glow as I made the slow journey across scank water to get him.

I know how deep the water was because I was in it, up to my waist, carrying a large, fully clawed and completely terrified cat back across a street that was likely not more than 35 feet wide but felt as if it was at least a mile. The smile on Rob's face - and those that matched it on Suzanne's and Margaret's - when Milo jumped down out of my arms and into our squishy living room - was enough to offset the feeling of lightheadedness brought about by the blood loss I suffered when he disengaged his claws from my chest. I still do not know how that old son of a gun survived but he did then....and he does still, having just peeled year #17 off of the calendar.

My other most fond memory of Floyd is the way in which my kids and my wife were absolute warriors through the whole thing. For months after the waters receded, we lived like refugees in our own home. Suz's dresser was in the kitchen, Rob's was in the dining room and their personal belongings - including all of the stuff they needed for school - was scattered and crammed and jammed and stowed wherever we could put it. We lived in, essentially, an active construction site for quite a bit of time after the flood. But it became a point of honor for us: we were not giving up our home. It was not much - but it was what the four of us had. And we fought like hell to hang onto it. And we did.

.......and the following Spring, Margaret declared that she had had enough. We slapped a "For Sale"sign on it, packed up and moved away.......all the way over to the "high" side of town. Still 'neath the snow globe (as if we could ever leave) but on the uphill side - away from the water.

Still thinking about all we lost - and found - in the flood.


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