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…]