After the flood, after the plague

Main Street of Phoenicia after Hurricane Irene.

Prior to the Covid 19 pandemic, the game-changer for me and mine was Hurricane Irene. More than any other outside force, that August 28, 2011 storm left an indelible mark, ultimately enhancing my appreciation for my Phoenicia life (and for life in general), even as it altered the actual terrain of the town I call home.

Following Irene, Phoenicians were like: “We’re gonna get hit again. Just a matter of when.” We meant a weather event, of course, and it was expected long before now. But clearly, we don’t get to choose our disasters. We only choose how we respond.

As a rule, I am loath to use the phrase “silver lining,” especially regarding Covid 19, which, of course, is far, far more destructive than a hurricane that temporarily devastates a Catskills town. It’s also not over. I will, however, allow that the aftermath of Irene revealed some light. And yes, it feels premature to discuss what good may or may not come from the pandemic, but as Ulster County gradually re-opens I am nevertheless wondering. I fully realize there’s no comparison, but because Irene is my closest reference point, I return there.

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It’s not difficult to conjure traumatic memories: Irene’s winds taking down trees, destroying roofs. The Esopus swelling, raging well beyond its banks, flooding Main Street, and, for the first time in history, my own street. Our bridge totaled, railroad iron bent like licorice, multi-ton boulders slamming into each other, massive craters carved where roads had been, exposing centuries-old strata of pavement, down to cobblestones. The sound of it all – the rushing of mad, mindless water and crashing rock echoing up the mountains – was the scariest natural noise I ever hope to hear.

Irene sent my household, and most of my neighbors’, back to the nineteenth century for about ten days. No phone, electric, cable, oil/gas, certainly no Internet. We wandered daily, humbled at the destruction, avidly seeking personal contact. We lost our furnace and hot-water heater from a flooded basement, but soon learned many lost much more.

It amazes me how quickly a word-of-mouth information network arose, a chain of rumor and gossip, but also valuable data. I came away realizing even more deeply how we are a storytelling species. Stories, regardless of veracity, bind us. Internet not needed. Even telephone not needed. Stories around firelight, same as it ever was.

The Red Cross eventually showed up with food, but by that time the local Rotary Club, town supervisor Rob Stanley, and the Phoenicia Fire District had already well taken care of us, as had neighbors. The generosity of all – regardless of politics, by the way – has stayed with me. It shines still.

What will shine when Covid 19 is in the rearview? I guess that depends on how much you lose. Some losses carve room for subsequent joy, some don’t.

The veil between sickness and health, life and death, is always thinner than most realize. In disaster, it is much more so, and much more obvious, making us as chronically fearful as our Dark-Ages ancestors must have been. The sweet stream across the street threatens to engulf you and your loved ones. That nagging cough could actually asphyxiate you and/or spread lethal germs to another. Even if these things do not actually happen, you step back into normalcy with sharpened vision.

If you’re lucky – and thus far, we’ve been relatively lucky, as have most of our friends and loved ones – that sense of normalcy returns sooner than later, and when you get far enough away, you see the shape of your life post-trauma. You see what remains, and most importantly who remains. And what shines.

What will shine?

It’s too early to say. But it’s not too early to hope.

Read more installments of Village Voices by Robert Burke Warren.

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