Wednesday, January 7, 2009

We All Live Downstream

That was a pretty smart, a pretty hip, a pretty 'green' announcement back in my 'environmental' days.















Last night at about 8:30 I was going through the final edit of an article I had drafted for a bicycling publication. The phone rang and it was my neighbor. His wife is on the city council and she had just received a call from the Mayor who had let her know that Oakville will once again experience a flood sometime in the next 36 hours or so. Something about the call, about Troy’s voice, the incessant din of rain on the roof, it all combined to shake me in my skin. He had to say it twice; I wasn’t reacting as I should.


You know that feeling you get when you have just had a very close call in a motor vehicle, or maybe when you actually have been in an accident? That sense of a body blow when someone you thought loved you said, “not any more”? I had that: The rapid acceleration of pulse, the bounding heart rate, the sound of wind in your ears (as the heart ramps up) the tightness in the chest, the tingling sensation on the skin on your back, dry mouth? I guess an ‘official pronouncement” was the trigger.

But it is different this time. Even though someone had actually shined a light on the elephant in the room, my feet are still dry, the lights still worked, physically nothing has changed, but my whole, fragile little world has changed.

But from my days of working in the woods of the Cascade Mountains, (not to mention the flood we had just 13 months ago) I have a very good understanding of how these events develop and ultimately present: I know that the rain falling up stream, on the snow that accumulated over the last couple weeks, driven by an insistent 50 degree warm wind, combined with all those paved parking lots, all those storm water management projects, and all those new housing developments, all upstream conspire to send that rolling crest of water downstream, to me, here along Arla Court in the aged little burg of Oakville. I know that sometime in the next day or so, the water that now runs out in the lane will eventually come into the yard, sidle up to the new porch, slither into the garage, pry at the door of the shop and attempt, against the laws of nature, to creep up the four new steps that separate our new porch from the old walkway.

Our new porch, attached to our house now suspended about 2 feet above where the house squatted those 13 months ago when the water had a free hand to come on in and make itself at home. Then it will move on downstream, to someone else’s barn, full of hay and goats, or some curio shop filled with old lace and antique photos. Taking memories and leaving water stains and mold.

It is so frustrating to know that somewhere, 60 miles upstream, a million drops of rain, driven into four foot snow banks by an incessant 50 degree breeze are collecting to join at the head waters of the Chehalis River on the beginning of a journey that will temporarily swirl at my door step and test the wisdom of my best guess about how high to raise this house that long year ago. “How high do you plan to raise the house?” they asked. “I don’t know, how high will the next flood be?” I would respond.

Not that I want to get it over with, but this interminable waiting is beyond nerve wracking. Sitting in the chair, waiting for the oral surgeon to insert the three foot long needle seems absolutely devine by comparison. It’s very likely that the crest will come rolling down the lane sometime late at night or possibly in the very early hours, but almost certainly under the cover of darkness. Not that I could do anything more, or better in daylight but the deviousness, the disingenuousness of coming under cover of darkness is just that one more bit of insidious disrespect.

I hate the waiting. We’ve done all we can to prepare for this assault. So much better prepared than a year ago. But too, so much more traumatized having gone through this so recently, having spent the months after trying to both repair the damage and accept the losses that could neither be repaired or replaced. Of course you think about the elevation of the door threshold. Were those tens of thousands of dollars well spent, or should we have gone up just a few more inches? Will the insulation under the house clear the deluge? How about those shiny new heating ducts? There is only one way to know. And so we wait.

We wait for night to fall, and for the wind to pick up, cutting the power and thus thrusting us into the real dark. The dark with no drone of the weather channel, no tap tapping of the computer keys, just the blinding light and inky black contrast that only a Coleman lantern can cast, accompanied only by that loud hiss as the fuel gasifies and turns the fragile gray mantle into the sun bright glowing ember that forces you to look away. Look away from the light or you won’t be able to see anything but the glowing ember, wherever you look, eyes open or closed.

So we wait. I splash around the neighbors, checking on their progress. We are all so much better at this now than we were 13 months ago. We’ve learned our lessons well. Everything is in plastic tubs now. The braided area rugs are rolled and neatly balanced on the backs of the sofas; the bottom drawers are removed wholesale and placed on the tops of the dressers. The curtains are tucked up on the sconces or window sills, off the floors. The freezer out in the garage is a white monolith balancing on plastic milk crates, and anything that floats has been removed from the yard; boxed, tethered, or otherwise restrained so that you won’t have to go retrieve an errant treated 4X4 fence post, or a green garden hose or a black plastic bag full of lawn clippings. We wait for what we hope we won’t see, what we don't want to feel, what we hope against hope we won’t experience again.


Everyone seems to be well prepared, and fronting the requisite stiff upper lip and gallows humor: A thin translucent veneer not quite disguizing the anxiety and despair. We are the only ones on the lane who raised our house. Everyone said they would have, but for money. “Aren’t you glad you raised your house now?" I feel incredibly self-conscious: Like the goof with a suit and tie at a party populated with Bermuda shorts and surfer shirts. “Ask me next Monday.” I say in return. The fact that the house hovers a couple feet above where it used to recline is only expensive, and no assurance at this point. The only way you know if a life raft is going to work is to undergo a test you never want to experience. And what if it doesn’t work? What if the house should have been raised a few more inches, or another foot? What if my house is just as wet, just as soppy, and just as ruined as everyone else’s, only it costs me those extra tens of thousands of dollars out of pocket. Just one more of the incentives that come with … waiting.

I’m not hopeful. I was hopeful after we put our house back together and moved in last April. Now I just feel very tired, a little sick to my stomach, my toes a little cold in my wet socks, the taste of coffee on my singed toounge, and very much smothered with dread.


No matter what, it will be better tomorrow, when the daylight has come back to reveal the full extent of this ‘visit’ from up river.

From the NWS:

WAC027-080700-/O.EXT.KSEW.FL.W.0024.090107T2142Z-000000T0000Z//CRPW1.3.ER.090107T2142Z.090110T0000Z.000000T0000Z.NR/149 PM PST WED JAN 07 2009THE FLOOD WARNING CONTINUES FOR THE CHEHALIS RIVER AT PORTER* FROM 2 PM WEDNESDAY UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE.* AT 11:00 AM WEDNESDAY THE STAGE WAS 20.8 FEET.* FLOOD STAGE IS 21.0 FEET.* NEAR RECORD FLOODING IS FORECAST.* FORECAST...THE RIVER WILL RISE ABOVE FLOOD STAGE AROUND 2 PM WEDNESDAY AND CREST NEAR 25.1 FEET AROUND 4 PM FRIDAY.* IMPACT...AT 25.0 FEET...THE CHEHALIS RIVER IN GRAYS HARBOR WILL CAUSE MAJOR NEAR RECORD FLOODING FROM OAKVILLE DOWNSTREAM TO GRAYS HARBOR. DEEP AND SWIFT FLOOD WATERS WILL INUNDATE NUMEROUS FARMS AND ROADS...INCLUDING SR 12. HIGH TIDAL LEVELS AT ABERDEEN WILL WORSEN FLOODING ALONG THE LOWER REACHES. FLOODING WILL OCCUR ALL ALONG THE RIVER INCLUDING HEADWATERS...TRIBUTARIES...AND OTHER STREAMS WITHIN AND NEAR THE CHEHALIS RIVER BASIN.

So looks like my little crest will arrive at the door step around 4 PM Friday, about 48 hours off. This will be a long 2 days.

Stay tuned.