On Saturday I taught some wonderful children about nature. On Sunday I built a dam in my garden. On Monday I picked dead fish out of my yard.
Sunday afternoon. We (my parents, brother and I) were playing a dice game by candlelight because the power was out. This was nothing out of the ordinary, it usually happened during thunderstorms or windy days. We were in the dining room. Then my mother looked out the window at a car slowing down, and said “Oh my god, there’s a river running through your yard.”
There was. Between my two stately Sugar Maples was a torrent, twenty feet wide, muddy, debris laden, and roaring. In my favorite pink pants (yes, you read that correctly, pink) and tank top I flew out the door and flung my hands in the air and cried, “That’s my garden!” I proceeded to crash through the water in my bare feet and knee deep in roiling runoff. Roar. That’s all I could hear.
A tributary of Akeley Run had backed up – too much water in too short a time. A flash flood. In Cable Hollow? Are you kidding me? No, not in the least. It went around my neighbor’s and made a beeline for the back of my house. Remember that brand new patio I mentioned a few articles ago? Underwater. My garden fence? The water snapped the PVC pipe poles right off. Leftover granite from patio, my dad, brother and a shovel all were instantly enrolled in a crash course about water diversion.
We built makeshift dams to prevent the water from barreling into the house. We dug ditches to divert it toward the creek and not the tomato plants. And then it was over.
The sun came out before the last trickles of water hit the creek. It was like some sort of bad dream. We cleaned up the mess, my family went home, and I exchanged stories with the neighbors, many of whom said, “Oh it gets worse. In ’92 it was bank to bank. Took us a week to clean up.” Great. At least the power was back on.
Neighbors were out in the road, talking, comparing, helping each other, and cleaning up. Those who had left came back, those that stayed shared the play-by-play. Everyone sought some comfort in the company of others in the same situation.
The next storm rolled in at 12:24 am. I waited by the window, wondering what I would possibly do about it all in the dark. No flood that night, but I didn’t sleep.
Monday morning. Of course it was raining. The sump pump had kicked off its hose, there were 14 inches of water in the basement, already over my boots. Great. Donning tools, sandals and work clothes, I headed for the basement. As I was fussing with the pump in freezing cold ground water, I heard the water start the run through the walls. The creek was overflowing again. Roar.
I arrived upstairs in time to watch the wall of water surge across the neighbor’s lawn. Again. Adrenalin is powerful, and I was able to lift massive pieces of granite to rebuild the dams from the day before. I grabbed logs from yesterday that had washed into the yard. I took my two folding eight foot tables and used them as dams. Eventually my two tier dam diverted most of the water from the house. This run was worse than the previous one.
Now there were two feet of water in the basement and it was licking at the furnace. Two trees were down on the phone lines. The road was caving in. I called in reinforcements. I dug the ditches deeper. I built a third tier on the dam for next time. I was lucky.
Water is awesome. I thought that for the first time a decade or so ago watching a documentary on floods. Watching the small, babbling brooks around my house eat mature ash trees and asphalt roads and scare the living daylights out of me reminded me that water is awesome. I respect it more, I fear it a little more. I am more resilient for the humbling I experienced standing in it as it sought its own path rather than the culverts and bridges that we laid out for it.
I watched trees, full blown too-big-to-wrap-your-arms-around trees, wash through my other neighbor’s yard. They lost eight feet of bank and their driveway. Refrigerators, freezers, fifty gallon barrels were among the flotsam careening down Akeley Run. The force of the water started eating the road, and soon it looked at if some starving creek monster had risen and taken a big bite out of it.
Later, I picked up my yard – shingles, tires, logs, hemlock branches, dead crayfish, dead fish, living salamanders and frightened mice and voles. I staked the dams in place, not betting on the forecast of sunshine. The basement reached three feet and the furnace now needs some first aid. I watched two sump pumps pump 4000 gallons of water an hour out of my basement for 11 hours. I am grateful.
I am fine (I feel like I’ve been beat with a 2×4 but I’m fine.) I have my house, with power, gas. My animals are safe. My possessions are intact and undamaged, for the most part. My garden, well, the garden is apparently quite tenacious.
Others are worse off. I understand flash floods better. I respect nature more, especially water. Thunderstorms will probably scare me more now. I’m going to build some stone walls on the east side of my house. I have to rake some rocks and plant some grass and build a new fence. I’ll help the neighbors first, though.
Sarah Hatfield is a naturalist at Audubon (which also saw an awful lot of water) and is still a bit stunned at the events of the weekend. This article was originally written in 2009.