Down in the Flood
If you go down in the flood, it's gonna be your fault. —Dylan
No one we knew was killed by wind. That in itself seems a wonder, since for five or six howling hours the wind felt almost solid, a thing of physical and deadly substance. An eighty- to ninety-mile-an-hour wind, with gusts up to one-ten—it blows the breath from your body, it crashes and pushes against the side of your house like monster surf. Carried in such a wind were all manner of objects suited to dismemberment, decapitation: shards of plate glass, aluminum highway signs, sheets of galvanized roofing, tree limbs sharp as spears. In town a thousand trees went down; they stabbed through roofs, crushed cars, cut power lines; an airborne oak branch skewered the cupola of the courthouse. On television we watched the 100-year-old steeple of the First Baptist Church, which had survived Hazel and Fran and a half-dozen hurricanes from the days before names, sheer off and shatter into the intersection below, where it lay across Third and Elm like some giant kid’s tossed-aside toy.
But no one in our county was killed by wind. We hid, we stayed off the streets, even the cops and fire-fighters, and when the wind blew itself out and the sky cleared and we again opened our doors and windows, waved at our neighbors, walked the disheveled streets, we thought we’d gotten off lucky. That wasn’t so bad, we said; but few of us knew then to watch the water. “Hide from wind, run from water,” Claudette says, “everybody knows that. We hid fine. But some of us ran the wrong way.”
Wearing a pair of my blue flannel boxers, Claudette sits at my Mac writing email to Lloyd, explaining, I assume, where she is and how she came to be here, writing email because none of her phone calls has made it through.
“If his phone is out, he can’t access his email,” I remind her.
She keeps typing. The house shudders as a low helicopter floats over, headed for the high school.
During the storm we had fourteen-and-a-half inches of rain in a little over twenty-four hours. Before the storm it had rained for fifteen of the previous nineteen days. In three weeks, then, we had accumulated not quite 26 inches of rainfall—over half our annual average. Two nights after the storm, the river, still rising, was sixteen feet above flood stage. Flood stage is thirteen feet.
At sixteen feet above floodstage, our airport, built on drained wetlands, became a lake. The terminal flooded. Every inch of runway was submerged. Pipers and Cessnas and a Lear Jet belonging to the phosphate plant CEO floated off their chocks and bumped and bounced into and off of each other like rubber ducks in a bathtub.
At sixteen feet, the sandbag retaining wall around the Utilities Commission’s main substation gave way, and they powered down before the transformers could go under. The entire county went off the grid and under curfew. We stood on our decks and dry driveways in the perfect darkness, gazing into the most brilliant night sky we had seen in years.
At sixteen feet, they closed the bridges. We have three bridges here. The two new ones, concrete and asphalt, lie low over the river, and they flooded. The third is an old-style steel-and-cable arch, and it stayed dry, just barely, but the approach ramp on the north side flooded, so they closed it too.
Which was how Claudette got stranded on my side of town. She had dropped by to return some of my things—a couple of Dylan CDs, a nonstick wok, a bottle of jojoba massage oil I’d left at her house once—and I convinced her to stay for supper. It was the first meal we’d shared since the breakup, and we portaged the awkward passages pretty well, I thought. At the door she’d kissed my cheek, told me to take care. Two hours later, after the blackout, she was back, despondent and frightened, asking me to take her in. The state patrol had turned her away at every bridge; every highway and backroad she could reach was flooded. “And then they pulled me over and told me I was breaking curfew. They said at least a half-dozen people had drowned tonight trying to drive through high water.” She wouldn’t look at me; she looked everywhere but. “I tried for an hour to get Lloyd on my cell phone,” she said.
That night in bed she pummeled my chest with both fists and damned me for living on the wrong side of the river.
The power is out for 32 hours, a day and two nights during which Claudette can’t call Lloyd because my cordless phones are dead. Now and then she pops next door to Darren’s house, where there’s a plug-in phone, but We’re sorry, all circuits are busy now; will you please try your call again later. I burn out three sets of batteries on a CD Walkman, mostly listening to a Dylan song called “Down in the Flood” on track repeat. When I get bored I hand the headphones to Claudette and she switches over to an AM radio station that’s carrying TV 6 as a simulcast. We listen in shifts. They describe the aerial video; they read the road closings. Every school in the county is out for the rest of the week. “Welcome to Fall Break,” I tell Claudette. The Montessori school where she teaches is flooded; the high school where I teach is being used as a homeless shelter. Claudette calls the anchorwoman a “bimbo” for mispronouncing Montessori. “She’s new,” I say, “cut her some slack.” “I know her fiancee,” Claudette says. “She’s dumb as ditchwater.” “For those of you watching us on the radio,” the bimbo says; and over the next four days, she says it more than once.
Claudette sits me down to explain that she’s with Lloyd now, that just because of last night’s momentary lapse in judgment I shouldn’t get my hopes up. I remind her that by nature I’m a hopeful kind of guy. “It doesn’t mean anything,” she says, stroking my cheek; “I just want you to understand that.” I tell her that if it doesnt mean anything, then what’s the harm in doing it again, but this time with a little more tenderness?
Later, I help Darren uncrate his unused Y2K generator and strap it to a red wheelbarrow glazed with rain. We tank it up with gas siphoned from his Bronco, then Darren trundles it from house to house, a mobile power station, running it an hour here, two hours there, just long enough to heat some water or re-freeze the icebox, long enough to watch a few minutes of TV news. Right neighborly of you, people tell him.
When the power comes back on—with a sudden lurch like an old truck starting up, and audible cheers from houses all down the block—we begin to get the TV versions of our eleven flood deaths.
A woman trying to coax her SUV across a flooded creek is swept away, presumed drowned.
A brother and sister playing in their flooded backyard are electrocuted by a downed powerline.
A family of migrant workers, none of whom can swim, is trapped by rising water and drowns together when their mobile home floats off its cinder-block foundation and fills with water.
A man cleaning out his flooded bedroom dies of multiple snakebite wounds when he disturbs a nest of water moccasins.
A boy and his father are drowned trying to rescue some of their cows. Details are sketchy.
And one of the veteran camera operators for Channel 6, videotaping along the edge of the river east of town, is swept away when the muddy bank underfoot suddenly crumbles and he slides, camera, battery pack, and all, into the brown water.
Announcing this last death, the prime-time news anchor, a former theater major who still does Shakespeare In The Park cameos here every summer, quotes with tears in his eyes from one of the Henry plays, he can’t remember which: “By water shall he die and take his end.”
“Ah, God,” Claudette says; she’s crying too. I take her hand.
The TV people are troupers. Trained to read from teleprompters six-minute news segments, they now work live, no commercials, ad-libbing, reading handwritten bulletins, in eight-hour shifts. They announce ad infinitum the business and factory closings, the impassable roads and possible detours, the revised health advisories (boil all water, update your tetanus shots). They grow testy and snappish, they get punchy and silly. Groping for filler, they advise and caution and speculate. Someone calls to complain of their blatant rumor-mongering. This inspires a reactionary backlash: People call and get patched into the broadcast to say what a fine job the station is doing; people driving by the station drop off burgers, pizzas, flowers. The anchors, shored up by this show of support, spin the phrase “rumor-monger” into subsequent stories, arching ironic eyebrows.
To buy time and fill dead air, they interview anyone who comes by. They do bits with the FEMA agent, the hospital’s assistant director of operations, a retired traffic engineer. They bring in the buck-toothed Spanish professor from the community college to translate the latest updates for the Latino community. A maintenance man from a nearby apartment complex drops in to explain how to shut off your power at the fusebox, how to reset your hot water heater, how to test your phone line. It is the first time any of us can remember seeing someone in a tee-shirt behind the anchor desk. A woman from the water plant pleads for us to flush only when necessary: “If it’s yellow, let it mellow; if it’s brown. . . .” The blonde weekend anchor, the one Claudette calls bimbo, refers to it as “bad water,” hunches her shoulders, pushes her stack of papers away, palms face out. Her partner, smirking, pats the back of her hand with two fingers; she half-turns toward him with a panicked smile.
“Check it out!” Darren does a little dance in front of his Magnavox. “What did I tell you?”
“She has a fiancee, Darren,” Claudette says. “She’s getting married in June. It was in the paper.”
“That’s yesterday’s news, girl,” Darren says. “She’s doin’ this guy. Look at ‘em. They’re playing footsie under the desk.”
Claudette is shaking her head; it’s too soap-opera. “No way.”
Darren hoots. “Way, Claudette. They’re sleeping on cots at the goddamn TV station. What do you expect? Love the one you’re with, you know?”
Exactly how Lloyd got my unlisted phone number, I don’t know. He is polite, perhaps more than the situation warrants; he identifies himself and says he’s looking for Claudette and have I seen her by any chance?
I have seen her, I tell him. In fact, she’s here. In fact, she’s in the shower just now. I ask if she can call him back.
“I’m at a pay phone,” he says, after a five-second pause. “There’s maybe twenty people behind me waiting to use this phone.” The lines to his neighborhood are still down, he explains.
I offer to take a message.
“I don’t think that will be necessary,” Lloyd says, and hangs up.
“Suit yourself,” I say to the dial tone in my ear.
When I tell Claudette that Lloyd called, she panics. What did I tell him? What did he say? Why in God’s name didn’t I keep him on the phone another minute, why didn’t I come drag her out of the shower, why didn’t he leave a message? “He did,” I tell her; “he said for you not to bother calling him.” She stares at me, wounded, then says she doesn’t believe me. I raise one eyebrow, shrug. She snatches at the phone, tries *69 but we’re sorry, the number cannot be accessed by this method, would you please hang up now. “Bastards,” Claudette screeches. She slams the bedroom door and I hear her fling herself across the futon.
A half-hour later she appears in the doorway, wearing jeans and one of my old workshirts, sleeves rolled up. “I’ve got to get out of here,” she says pathetically. “I have to try, or he’ll never forgive me. I’ve run all the gas out of my car. Will you help me?”
“You can’t be serious,” I say.
“I am. If I have to, I’ll ask Darren. I’d rather have you do it, though. Will you help me get back across the river?”
Water signs: BRIDGE OUT. HIGH WATER. DETOUR. ROAD CLOSED. DO NOT ENTER. DANGER. AUGA PELIGROSA.
“Son of a bitch,” Claudette says.
My neighborhood is in the bent crook of the river’s elbow; the river comes down from the north and dog-legs east a mile from my house. This is geographical fact, I point out to Claudette, and so it stands to reason that every single road leading south or west will be flooded. She insists that we try them anyway. We do. They’re flooded—even the four-lane is under water—and the cops have barricaded them to keep fools like us from taking our lives in our hands. Trying to the east, we find the creeks feeding into the river are over their banks too, and have washed out both highways. We go north, thinking that if we can get far enough, we’ll be able to jog west and circle back around south of the river, but we’re stymied at every turn. “Try this one,” Claudette says, pointing at the map in her lap. “Turn here.” I do. For eight or ten miles we navigate mostly dry road, swerving around downed trees, until we come to a place where water whirls across the blacktop. I stop the car and hop out.
“It doesn’t look all that deep,” Claudette says. “And there’s dry road on the other side.”
She’s right. The flooded place is maybe forty or fifty feet wide, and all the way across I can see the double yellow line glowing through the shallow water.
“Let’s go for it,” she says.
I creep the car into the stream. We make a wake, churning, roiling. Claudette rolls down her window and hangs her head out, watching the level of the water against the tires.
“Piece of cake,” she says.
We make it across.
I shift up to second, then third. Around the next bend and down a little dip we come upon a huge lake of water across the road, as far as we can see, and deep enough that it’s halfway up an S-curve sign. We park and both get out to look and Claudette curses a blue streak, but finally there’s nothing to do but turn around and go back.
“Now where?” I ask.
“That’s it,” she says. “That was the last road on the map.”
She folds the map, tosses it into the glovebox, plops her feet on the dashboard, and goes into a funk.
“Look, Claudette,” I say after a mile of silence, “we’re stuck. You’re just going to have to wait ‘til the water goes down. You’re going to have to put Lloyd on the back burner for a few days.”
“You don’t have to act so happy about it.”
“I’m not unhappy about it,” I admit after a moment. “But this is hard for me, too. I’m getting all these mixed signals.”
She rests her cheek on the window and closes her eyes.
“Did he really say not to bother calling him back?”
“He was at a pay phone, Claudette.”
After a few more miles she finds a week-old newspaper under her seat and starts reading our horoscopes aloud: hers, Lloyd’s, mine.
I point out a SILPPERY WHEN WET sign, saying it’s pretty funny, considering. She doesn’t bother to look.
“You know, babe, you and me,” she says, putting down the paper, “we were doomed from the start. I’m a Cancer. You’re Pisces. A crab and a fish. We’re too alike. We’re both water signs.”
Don’t drink the water, don’t bathe in the water, don’t brush your teeth with the water, don’t cut yourself shaving with the water, there are dead animals in the water, there is animal feces and human waste in the water, when going into a house after the water recedes, watch out for snakes. Watch out for every sort of animal, the poor crazed animals, the poor crazed packs of homeless dogs howling at the choppers overhead.
Channel 6 shows video of starving cows trapped inside a mobile home, dead cows floating downriver on their backs, pigs slipping and sliding atop cars and barn tin-roofs, med-evac choppers lifting terrified horses in rescue slings. Tens of thousands of turkeys have drowned and will have to be incinerated. Scores of deer lie dead on the road; a soggy dead deer washes up in the mayor’s backyard. We hear an unsubstantiated report of mass escapes from the flooded pens of the illegal alligator farm.
“On the TV they asked this old boy what would be the worst to find when he went back to his house to clean up,” Darren tells us, “a gator or a snake? And that ol’ boy said he reckoned either one would be pretty bad, but the flat-out worst would be a gator holding a snake.”
A state patrol cruiser is totaled when at 70 mph it collides with a vagabond emu.
On the fourth day on the south side of the river, in a parking lot outside the un-flooded mall, a Channel 6 reporter named Lashonda does live-eye standups every hour in front of a tractor-trailer truck filling up with items donated for the flood victims. Smiling volunteers form a bucket brigade, tossing toilet paper, crates of beef-o-roni, cases of processed cheese food while Lashonda, the only black person there, plays cheerleader for the camera. In return for a moment of airtime, the BMW-Mercedes-Audi dealer hands her a check for $1000, and sends Lashonda into the nearby mega-store for a buying spree. We watch her snagging twelve-packs of socks, boxes of crayons and coloring books, an entire display of red and turquoise and gold toothbrushes; she pays with the check, then rolls her buggies outside to be loaded onto the truck. The volunteers circle her, high-fiving and giving thumbs-ups to the camera.
On the fourth day on the north side of the river Claudette and I stand in line all afternoon at the high-school-cum-homeless-shelter with maybe three hundred other people, people who were rescued or evacuated from area trailer parks and migrant camps and rundown rental houses and delivered here on school buses and dump trucks, and we watch a roaring clattering Sikorsky S-80 touch down on the sodden baseball field, in shallow left-center. Before the rotors stop spinning, a squad of National Guard begins to unload and distribute boxes of drinking water. There are three gallon jugs in each box, and each family gets two boxes. Claudette and I give one of ours away. “I need me some Pampers,” a woman keeps saying, “I need me some formula and some Pampers.” Finally somebody tells her that baby supplies are due in tomorrow. At dusk it starts to drizzle. On the way home we see a huge gray Chinook chuffing low over the treetops, the whop-whop-whop of the dual rotors chopping wetly in the rain, the red taillight winking like a jewel.
Claudette gives up on calling Lloyd. She spends hours at my computer, writing email, surfing chatrooms, idly flooding the virtual streets of Sim City. I teach her chess; she teaches me backgammon. We play strip poker just for kicks, and after kicks we dress and go next door to see what Darren has to eat. Those whose larders were stocked before the storm are feeding those whose weren’t. “All we do is eat and screw and watch TV,” Claudette says. “It’s about all we can do,” I say, but we volunteer one day at the high school, passing out Red Cross boxes and helping unload choppers. In the gym, where several hundred families have bunked down on exercise mats and sleeping bags and National Guard cots, they’ve pulled out one section of bleachers to face a big-screen TV, and that’s what most people do all day: watch the flood news on TV, hoping perhaps for a glimpse of their loved ones, their flooded houses, their friends across the river. The Spanish professor with his wretched accent is especially popular among the Latinos as he stumbles over words like “inundated” and “cataclysmic.” We watch shots of swirling brown river, the President getting off a helicopter, people’s sofas and dining room tables and box-springs floating in their backyards.
The water coming out of our faucets is brown. Claudette and I share a shower anyway. I soap her back, her breasts, under her arms. She rinses off, then suddenly takes hold of me, says, “Excuse me, officer, is this your emu?”
These TV people are crazy for stats. They seek to insulate us from the world by building a wall of numbers. They enunciate precisely, carefully, as if giving out secret equations or passing code. There have been over 200 helicopter rescues per day since noon on Sunday. Across the region some 115,000 people are without power. Some 300 highways, state roads, and secondary roads are closed. The National Guard has deployed over 5,000 troops to control looting. An hour ago the river was at 17.5 feet above flood stage. The river will crest between nine AM and noon Tuesday at 28.25 feet. “Who in the fuck is out there measuring the quarter-inches?” Darren wants to know. In Oakboro the mayor has ordered 200 body bags in anticipation of what they’ll find when the water goes down. Correction: In Oakboro the mayor has denied that he ordered 200 body bags in anticipation of what they’ll find when the water goes down. The Corps of Engineers has used over twelve thousand sandbags in three days. The President’s plane will land in another 28 minutes. The 100-year flood plain will need to be revised. This is a 500-year flood. This is a millennium flood. The prime-time male anchor gets into a tiff with one of the reporters who misidentifies a helicopter: It’s not a Sikorsky, it’s a Huey UH-1. County-wide damage estimates now top $250 million. Statistically speaking, were beyond disaster and into cataclysm. These are just numbers, the weekend male anchor says, just numbers and they can’t begin to tell you anything qualitative about this experience. The bimbo, wearing too much makeup in an attempt to hide her exhaustion, stumbles over numbers. She gets dyslexic; she reads them backwards; she says there’s nineteen thousand dollars damage to her Honda when she means nineteen hundred. “Go home and go to bed,” Claudette tells the TV.
In the five days and six nights Claudette is here, we make love eleven times.
Claudette tells me her nightmare: she was lost in a huge house, she could hear children crying, there was a one-eyed man following her and laughing horribly every time she said something, and then she was naked. “And then you woke me up,” she murmurs.
“You were crying,” I say, stroking her hair.
She stares at the ceiling. “Just a dream.”
We let a moment go by. It’s getting light out.
“I still love you, Claudette,” I say. “Stupid as it sounds. After all that’s happened.”
She kisses my shoulder, says she loves me too, but that it doesn’t matter. She says we’ve had our chance and now she needs to try to work things out with Lloyd, if he’ll take her back. She says I have to let her go. “You know that, don’t you?” she asks me.
The curtains turn milky with morning light. We’re holding each other, hardly breathing, it seems to me.
Then Claudette says, “Listen.”
I can’t hear anything. Birdsong, maybe.
“Hear it?” she says.
She rolls over on top of me. “Silence,” she says. “No choppers. For the first time in five days, no choppers.”
She puts both hands on my shoulders and presses herself down on me, hard. After a minute she says, “That means the bridge is open.”
Two months later I see the bimbo bumping a buggy through the Food Lion, working her grocery list with a purple pen. We’re navigating in opposite directions, so we meet head-on in every aisle. I almost didn’t recognize you, I think of saying—she’s in disguise: a sweatshirt, no makeup, and a ponytail—but before I can speak she treats me to a please-don’t-say-anything-stupid-to-me smile, so I don’t say anything at all. On the next row her co-anchor, in jeans and an untucked flannel shirt, comes around the corner toting a loaf of pumpernickel and a shiny foil bag of salt-&-vinegar chips. He off-loads his loot, looks around, then with one hand pats her fanny fondly. The last I see of them, they’re reading ingredients on a jar of garlic-stuffed olives. The bottom rack of their buggy is stacked with sixpacks of Evian.
"Down in the Flood" is the title story from Luke Whisnant's collection Down in the Flood (Iris Press 2006). It was originally published in the journal Arts and Letters. The story is based on events in Pitt County, NC, during the aftermath of Hurricane Floyd, in 1999.