September 2011

We took a walk back down the hill the other day. That would be the second day after the river’s terrifying invasion of our wide community. By this day, the waters were receding, and Joan and I wanted to see evidence of it.

This would be our second three-mile walk along that path. The plan was similar to the one the  day before: walk down from our neighborhood, go to the water’s edge on the road that led to the village, then back up the longer, higher hill past the Lockheed-Martin plant, eventually down the gravel road that would bring us back to our street. This was our way of getting some exercise, since the gym we use was under water.)

As we approached the flooded portion of the road, it was evident that the water level was indeed down, though the white house just beyond the old car lot was still surrounded. Traffic was still coming down the hill to the water’s edge, turning around in the car lot, and heading back. Still no barricade.

[An aside: I realize I used the word “still” in that last paragraph three times. Frankly, I’m in no mood to re-write. I think we are all going to have to get used to the still-ness. Still flooded. Still closed. Still feeling guilty.]

We noticed that a car we had seen previously abandoned on the road was still there. The license plate was “WEBO” — the call letters of the local radio station. I surmised that Dave Radigan, the station’s owner/manager, had wisely left the car there on his way into the village, grabbing alternate transportation to get to the transmitter site. But we saw another car now. It was half-submerged a couple hundred feet down the flooded road. We wondered aloud, “What kind of person doesn’t heed the multiple warnings about trying to drive through flooded streets?”

We wondered how the driver and any passengers got out of the car, and how deep the water was on the way back to dry land. As we turned around to head toward home, we saw two cars with motors running in the dealership lot. We approached two men nearby and commented on the submerged vehicle. “It wasn’t there yesterday,” I told them.

“Yes, it was,” one responded. But it was totally submerged in yesterday’s higher waters. One of the men explained that without a barricade, anyone might drive that road at night at 50 mph and plow right into the flood without warning. Apparently that’s what happened, and the driver had to open a window to crawl out and swim away. The men, a father and twenty-something son, Rick and Keith, explained that the white house was their home, and that they were charging their cell phones while their cars idled.

Rick told us that he and his son were still living on the second floor of the house, with the cat. His wife had taken the two dogs and evacuated to her mother’s home. The cat was managing nicely with the litter box upstairs, but the dogs couldn’t possibly stay in a house surrounded by flood water. Ironically, the father and son did have running water in the house, but his wife and her mother had neither water nor electricity where they were. Rick managed a sense of humor, smiling throughout much of our short conversation. “It helps,” he said. And this wasn’t their first flood.

As we moved up the hill, we saw that the Washington Gladden School shelter parking lot was full. A pick up truck went up the long drive, its bed full of gas grills. We learned later that one of them belonged to a neighbor of ours who had heard of the need.

[Pardon this colorful digression, but I couldn’t help but notice again an object we had seen along the shoulder of the road the day before. A pink condom, thankfully still rolled, as if straight from its package. Pink. There must be a story there somewhere.]

After a long, labored hike up the hill near the Lockheed plant, we made the turn onto the gravel road. As we did so, a man approached from the driveway of the house on the corner. He introduced himself as Patrick, and he told us that his elderly parents lived in that home. “But they aren’t there,” he told us. He’d driven in from Binghamton, no small feat, since the whole area was flooded and road closures meant many detours. He had brought a generator, some food, cases of water, and other supplies he thought his parents might need. “Their garage door is open, one car is gone, but the dogs are still inside, and he could find no note about where his parents might be. “Do you have any idea where they could have gone?”

“Afraid not. But you might try the shelter at Washington Gladden.” Patrick told us he had even called the hospital they usually go to, but they weren’t there. As we talked, he told us that he was a Lockheed employee, and has worked there about twenty years.

“They’ve never closed the plant since I’ve worked there,” he said. “But it’s closed now and for the next several days,” he guessed. “This is bad.”

We told him we’d keep an eye out for their car as we walked back into our neighborhood.

A few hundred feet more and we bumped into the “Buffaloes.” They are neighbors who walk by our house almost every day, just after lunch usually. In the winter time, they wear matching Buffalo Bills coats. We stopped briefly to share what we’d seen on our mid-day journey. I mentioned the submerged car, and before I added a comment about the driver’s lack of judgment, Mr. Buffalo told me it was his car! (Often, zipped lips are a good thing.) He said his son had borrowed the car to help someone else, and had driven into the water, climbed out, and gotten home. “We haven’t seen the car yet,” Mrs. Buffalo said.

After one more conversation with folks who live in an old farmhouse at the corner of that gravel road and our street, we got home, thankful once again for a home that was dry and secure. I took a pre-flood newspaper to the back porch. As I was about to fall asleep, our neighbor Len knocked at the front door, and asked us if we could help him move some relief supplies down to the church. [Next: what we found as we finally ventured out by car.]


The morning after…

The river was still rising, and all forecasts of a catastrophic flood were becoming fact. “Much worse than the 2006 flood,” voices were saying on the battery operated radio, our only link to the community in which we live, and move, and have our being. The river would crest way beyond what had become the area’s previous high water mark.  I’ve mentioned that we were merely inconvenienced by the raging waters that took peoples’ homes and livelihoods in the neighborhoods and roads below our own higher elevations. No phone, mail, newspaper, power, etc. for us. But our home was untouched. Not so with our hearts.

When a powerful storm had knocked out power in May, our son-in-law had arrived with a generator that fed the refrigerator and saved some food. But this time, no one could get into or out of the town. Our own neighborhood, a kind of subdivision bordering rural fields and wetlands, was cut off from the rest of Owego due to flooding, debris, and washouts. We have three roads that serve our area, and all were blocked.

That didn’t keep us from taking a walk though, a slightly longer walk than usual. We wore some rain gear, just in case, and walked from our neighborhood down a road that ordinarily led to the village. We’d gone only a mile and there was our first glimpse of the high water that stopped traffic. The river had merged with what people here call “Brick Pond” and the road was impassable. The parking lot of a long-abandoned auto dealership provided turn-around space for car after car that passed us coming down the hill only to find the road closed.

On the left-hand side of the road, there was a house surrounded by muddy water. We speculated at the damage to the basement and first floor, and our thoughts turned to the hundreds of homes, the thousands of people similarly affected by flood waters. I took two pictures, but felt guilty about it, considering ourselves little more than sightseers, recording someone else’s tragedy. As more cars came down the hill, we realized that no one had barricaded the road, something that might have been helpful at least, and maybe even life-saving at most. But the town had probably run out of barricades.

We decided to return home, but only after moving up to the old Washington Gladden School, now housing a religious day care facility and various community services. It was on a hill from which we might see more of the flood waters in the village. We saw a number of people up in the parking lot there and thought they had the same idea, seeking that higher vantage point. When we had climbed the hill, we realized that these were not sightseers. They were evacuees.

The old school was being converted into a Red Cross shelter.

As we walked back home, we thought about how our lives would change now. Flood waters recede, but the damage remains, sometimes forever. The village of Owego has an old downtown that visitors like to call quaint. Once a railroad town (the Erie RR was chartered here, I think), Owego enjoyed a “boom” of sorts when IBM built a large plant within the town limits in the early 1960s. IBM eventually left, but the plant is now a Lockheed-Martin facility. So there was some sense of vibrancy in what a national magazine’s poll had named “The Coolest Small Town in America.” The downtown has two main streets filled with small shops, restaurants, a three-story independent book store, churches, and even an aging but still alive neighborhood movie house. Well, maybe not “still alive” now. Floods ravage smaller merchants whose financial viability was marginal at best.

Our bank would be closed, we thought as we walked home. So would the super markets, Tony’s (our favorite restaurant, right on the river’s edge), and the gym we went to three days a week. What about the churches, we wondered aloud. My barber shop and Joan’s hairdresser? Even the medical facilities were on the river bank. All gone. At least for a few weeks. And, given the fragile economy, maybe forever. Who knows?

Personally, I don’t deal with change well. I like my life as it is. But we realized as we walked home that change is something we will have to cope with. Then, thinking about the people who were beginning to fill up the shelter, we realized, yet again, that we were among the fortunate folk who still had homes intact, high and dry. We still had our “stuff,” security, comfort, safety. “Change” is no big deal compared to the terrible suffering that people in Owego’s so-called (and aptly named) “flats” had to deal with. And the people of Binghamton, Endicott, Johnson City, Vestal, Endwell… all under, surrounded by, or cut off by raging rivers and creeks.

The next day, we would take another walk to see if, or how much, the waters on that road had receded. And we would meet up with people whose stories I want to tell, and remember. [More to come…]

For many years I have witnessed flooding from afar.

Yesterday, we saw it firsthand.

Our communities had little time to prepare. The recent hurricane had already passed us by, dropping some heavy rains, but not much wind, and little to worry about. But a few days later, rains returned. And like they say, with a vengeance.

At first, the forecast warned only of “flash flooding.” Not that that is anything to take lightly, but we don’t live near areas where that normally happens. But the rains were locked in place by some meteorological malfunction, and the predictions turned more dire. One guy on the radio used the word “catastrophic.”  That got our attention, as he had intended, even given the media’s love of hyperbole.

The rains came, and stayed. The river rose. And kept rising. Yesterday we heard that our Susquehanna was now carrying more water within and well beyond its banks than the mighty Mississippi. In nearby Binghamton, a city like many others built at the confluence of two rivers, flooding took over the city, turning streets into raging streams. In our little Owego, there was one less river but also landscape to overwhelm, and the river had its way with us. Between Owego and Binghamton lay my hometowns of Endicott and Vestal, and the village where I was born, Johnson City. All made one underwater neighborhood in misery.

Our home is on high ground. When the power went out in our “above it all” neighborhood, we lost touch with the tragedy. With the economic wisdom of linking our cable TV, Internet, and telephone service into one package, when one plug is pulled, everything goes. Add the suspension of newspaper and mail deliveries, and we were both literally and figuratively in the dark. (Joan’s cell phone had limited battery life. I had all the battery power in the world on my phone, but apparently my provider’s tower was powerless. So, even that link to the outside was limited.)

The neighborhood grapevine brought news of friends who lived near the river evacuating to the church. I hooked up the once-obsolete TV antenna and caught some stories off the air, the way we used to get all broadcasts. But mentions of Owego were few. As night fell that first night of the flood, we gathered some candles, collected our flashlights, and realized that it was getting too dark to do any reading. While I still had some lingering light, I used binoculars to scan the wetlands behind our home, looking for some sign that perhaps that flash flooding we had never before had to worry about might occur right there in our backyard. No, we weren’t at risk, not directly at least.

We went to bed early. And the next morning, we realized how terrible water can be. [More to come…]