The creek will rise. One day when you think you are safe, high above it all. You have plotted and planned for safety. It comes to naught. The river will swell up and overflow the banks. It will run amok and wild in the streets, crashing and tearing and scraping along. Things you love will be carried away while winds rage and waters gurgle indifferently. All your plotting and planning will look like the foolish work of a simple child.
The creek that rose a year ago for us living in New York City was the Hudson River. It came bashing and crashing over the banks. It bruised its way across city streets looking for a fight. It sped into the open mouths of subways and flooded them through and through. It drowned cars and pushed rudely into homes. It bore people away in the night and caused their deaths in a hundred nefarious and less obvious ways. It weakened foundations and knocked over heavy objects so that a young couple out walking their dog in the storm was crushed by a telephone pole.
We were on the tenth floor of our apartment building feeling high and dry and safe. Flood waters from Sandy were not scheduled to reach this high. We had lots of bottled water. But we hadn’t nearly thought it all through.
We got word our zone of the city was under mandatory evacuation. You were ordered to leave. You could always stay. No one was going door-to-door to evict you from your home. But if you stayed. Well. God have mercy on your soul. Police and fire fighters might not be able to get to you for days. So do your best to have no emergencies.
It seemed prudent to leave. If something happened while we were sitting high and dry on the tenth floor, that would be bad. Maybe you fell while walking over to the window to gawk at the rising flood waters and split your head open requiring stitches. If no one could get to you and you couldn’t get out, you weren’t flooded but you were still screwed.
We retreated with as much as we could carry to Tribeca to the 15th floor apartment of Robyn’s boss, who was out of town. If we were high and dry on the tenth floor with few worries, we were surely even more high and dry on the 15th floor a mile further uptown.
The wind came. The rain slashed. The water rose. We were cozy and calm. We watched movies and made popcorn. In the middle of the night, the storm decided 15 floors of protection wasn’t nearly enough. Power went out to half the city. Tribeca was part of that half. Then the water stopped working. We had a bathtub full of water. And some dry goods. But it was cold. And our phones were dying. We listened to my battery-powered radio. The news wasn’t good.
Morning came in a slightly lighter shade of dark than the night. “We need some milk,” my wife said. “Maybe we don’t so much,” I replied. But she gave me the look. So, I walked down 15 candlelit flights of stairs and out into the wind. It was like getting beaten by a giant fist. Small branches tumbled like tumbleweeds down the streets. My hood flapped back and forth over my head. I leaned in and made slow progress and got milk. We ate everything that would spoil. Then we packed up and headed further north. We had just moved to the North from North Carolina three months ago. This move north was shorter and more slapdash.
The Marmara Hotel around 90th Street was our home for the next three weeks. It had heat and electricity and running water. I walked around and looked at the storm damage. Giant old trees pushed over by the storm. Branches littering the sidewalks. Workers using chain saws to clear paths.
I made long expeditions south to our apartment. At a certain point, civilization weakened and then exhausted itself entirely. The lower half of Manhattan had no working stoplights. Drivers guessed at the right-of-way. Pedestrians ran for daylight through the traffic the way they had done before the power went out, only more so. I climbed up ten flights of stairs and got some warmer clothes. I passed a man with a dog on the way up. The dog’s tongue was hanging out. I had on my never-fashionable-but-always-handy miner’s headlight, which threw little beams of light against the steps ahead. Other people passed going up and down in the shadows like dim ghosts. We exchanged kind words of encouragement. You want to hear kind words in the pitch dark when people you don’t know are passing close by. You need to hear them.
Power and water were restored eventually to our apartment, and we soldiered back home. We nestled against each other in bed, all three of us. The heat was on. But we felt cold for a long time anyway. The waters pulled back and left the city shaken and humbled. In our apartment building, we went back to not talking to each other in the elevator again. I felt we had all bonded. We had. But when it was over, we were New Yorkers again, living our strange and disparate lives. Trying to avoid crazy people. Hurrying past each other. Moving on in our solitary way amid millions of strangers.