13 September 2013


We live in an area where the Chenango and Susquehanna rivers merge. The latter carries onward, winding its way back and forth over the New York and Pennsylvania border before finding its way through PA and into Maryland where it becomes Chesapeake Bay.

Confluence Park in Binghamton where both Susquehanna and Chenango rivers meet. 

I have grown up around both rivers. My first grade school sat next to the Susquehanna. There was a nature trail off in the woods that led to the rocky banks of the river and, just downstream from there the old railroad trestle where the more daring high school kids would jump from. The water was murky and I, being less adventurous than most, never got into it. Ever. I did love to sit by it though and watch the faster current outpace the water closer to me, or see a fish quickly hit the surface and disappear again.

When we moved into town our house was quite literally on the Chenango River. The view was probably the main reason my parents bought the house. From the back deck we had a full array of wildlife and amusement: ducks, herons, blue cranes, the occasional bald eagle. The ducks would start their laughter-like calls in the very early hours of the morning and if we were particularly patient we could see the water-weasels doing their thing on the banks.

Rivers are a part of the background noise that makes up my life - even though I don't rely on them for transportation, or for inundating fields with nutrients (though honestly, no one relies on that anymore), or anything like that, they are a part of this natural landscape that I keep returning to.

It is the times that the rivers become the feature of the landscape, when they overflow and break the bounds of their banks and tidy little walls, that mark the beginning of September here. In the last decade our area has seen three major flooding events inadequately described as 100 year, 500 year, 1000 year floods - each progressively more catastrophic than before.

The streams making their way to the river caused a lot of damage as well.
The road becomes a river.

I am the kind of person who goes through her private journal on anniversaries of significant dates and tries to get a pulse for what happened then and what has changed since for me. In this case, I had written about another friends wedding just a couple days before the flooding and remarked that I was looking forward to the upcoming rains. I like to pretend that I have the heart of a poor poet and appreciate the wet, gray days (part of the reason I was so at home in West Cork, Ireland). It stood out and I could feel my breath catch in the way that one doesn't know what is right around the corner will change everything and challenge even the staunchest of hearts.

the bridge I cross daily to get to and from work, one of multiple bridges in town. 

Two years ago yesterday I was helping friends dig out from the mud, sludge, and slurry that invaded their apartment when the flooding crested. The water came, the water receded and in its wake left a mess that as a community we are still cleaning up from. From entire neighborhoods being wiped out to a school just down the road from us being closed and pending a completely new building, the flooding was disruptive and catastrophic.

In the time since the flooding the response by the community to any further flood mitigation or preparation has been disappointing to say the least. On the whole, we are not prepared. The flood walls just barely contained the last flood. Homes were abandoned and the ones that could sell have to the lowest denomination of out-of-town landlords, something that strikes fear into any homeowner.

Courtesy of Bill Walsh/NOAA

And now when steady rains come there is a tangible bracing: What if this is like that storm? What if we're cut off again? Even this week we've had 'normal' flooding in low lying areas. Pictures of parking lots under water, roads that dip under railroad passes unpassable (with the obligatory person who really thought they could make it and didn't).

Personally, the best thing I can do is make sure we're prepared. We've talked about getting a small generator - something to run the fridge and freezer (ok, and the coffee pot) if/when the power goes out. This is mainly learning from another friend's experience of losing everything in her freezer twice over. Anyone who has a spare freezer knows that you can fill it rather full and replacing everything in it is a costly endeavor. We are lucky enough to be out of the flood zone, even being closer to the river than we were at our old apartment so our home can be opened to others who need the space in an emergency. In some cases, friends who didn't flood at all ended up losing their water and just needed a place to do laundry and shower.

I am hoping, like everyone else who has been near tragedy or immersed in it, that we don't ever have to deal with this kind of destruction again. Hoping, but not convinced. The politics surrounding the flood maps is enough to make me furious and now that we're two years out, most people - the people who didn't lose everything of course - have moved on with their lives. Mitigation now means taxes and no one wants a raise in taxes. It's frustrating to say the least.

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