Floods are a strange form of disaster. Unlike tornadoes or hurricanes or fires, it’s completely safe to go outside during a flood provided you’re not walking into any moving water. As long as there’s no lightning at the moment and you don’t mind getting wet, there’s no need to stay huddled indoors. During my own excursion, I passed at least two groups of drunken college students shouting and laughing and enjoying the whole phenomenon. After all, classes are cancelled, so why not?
Knowing that your town is experiencing a natural disaster is a strange thing. Disasters belong on television. Even the fires that plague Colorado every summer – they’ve come close to Boulder in the past, I’ve seen the smoke and the orange glow behind the mountains – they’ve never made it into town. My town. Now there are news photos of the terrible disaster taking place in my town. A disaster that’s killed people. People are texting asking if I’m okay. My boss, based in Brooklyn, keeps telling me to stay safe.
Fortunately, I’ve been safe, and our house has not suffered any property damage. We live in an ideal location, it turns out – too far uphill to worry about the creek and too far from the mountains to worry about mudslides. Still, I walked past a flooding street only four blocks from where I live, water gushing out of a nearby creek, the flow six inches deep when it first spills onto the road, two feet deep by the base of the hill where people had built walls out of sandbags and plywood to keep it from snaking into an apartment building.
As I stood at the top near a house surrounded by the flow, I tried to imagine if this were my house. I lived so close after all. I couldn’t. Our house is safe. It is where I feel safe. It could never be flooded like this.
If it were, though, there’d be nothing we could do about it.
Because that’s the other thing about natural disasters: they can’t be stopped. They can’t be controlled. They can’t be negotiated. You work around them, not the other way around.
There is something immensely humbling about watching water gush down the street and realize that there is really nothing in the world right now that could make it stop. About standing on a bridge over the swollen Boulder Creek – a bridge that used to be ten feet above the water and now is less than two – and realize that if a wall of water came down, you and all the other people standing here would probably die. And there is nothing that will change that.
It’s humbling, but it’s also somehow invigorating, inspiring, energizing. Everyone smiles when you talk to them, even the people whose basements are flooding and whose houses have water damage. Being out in the rain, water gushing all around, the normal business of the world halted by the power of Mother Nature, it gets under your skin. You are standing in the middle of something powerful, something unstoppable.
And yet life goes on. We still make dinner and do the laundry and feed the dog. In some ways, everything has been disrupted, but inside our fortunately unscathed house, everything is normal. We lost power for an evening, and my mother had a terrible time getting back into Boulder after work, but other than that, nothing much is different inside our house.
Combined, these tow things create a contradiction that cannot be reconciled. We are in the midst of a natural disaster and also we are not.
Driving through town today after the rain has (temporarily?) abated and the worst seems to have passed, seeing the parking lots turned to giant puddles and the roads clogged with silt and rocks washed up from the Creek and the expanse of lake that once was the high school soccer field – it’s all strange and beautiful. It is my town and it is also not my town. It has been changed, and it also has not been changed.
Life will resume its normal rhythm here, eventually. If I have learned anything from this disaster, it is that. Disasters are not what you see on the TV. They don’t come on for three minutes of intensity and then disappear. You live your life as they happen, sometimes dealing with them (hopefully by choice), and sometimes not.
Yet when you get close to them, they change all the rules. They make people with flooded basements smile and marvel at how incredible all this is. They give bike riders goofy grins as they speed through the chill rain. They transform the familiar landscapes and make once unremarkable places into opportunities for wonder. The patterns are broken, normalcy is shifted, and even if just for a little while, the world as you know it is taken away and something else is put in its place.
And after it all, the sun comes out.