When I realized my nephew Chris was stranded in another part of the world and could not get home to Catherine and the kids, Nicole and Paul, in Sarasota, Florida, my first thought was to jump in my truck, drive there and somehow get them out of Florida by myself.
My second thought was to check the hurricane app on my phone. It was way too late. All I could accomplish by trying to drive into it at that point would be adding one more geezer to the problem. But by then, my wife was already doing the smarter thing, getting on social media and asking for help.
Catherine had done what the people on TV were telling her to do, but the real world is never quite the way they say it is on TV. She loaded the kids into the car and drove to the big shelter they were telling everyone to go to. They said on TV the lines would be long for security reasons but everyone would get in. But when she got there, the cops told her the place was full and to keep on moving.
She had a limited amount of gas in the car. All of the early predictions had said the storm would not come to Sarasota, 40 miles south of Tampa on the Gulf Coast. By the time the storm turned, it was too late for preparations. She was afraid to drive around with the kids in the car, blindly searching for a shelter, and then run out of gas, so she went back to their two-story townhouse.
We last saw the kids at a wedding in Charleston, South Carolina, in May. Nicole, 9, is winsome, sly and super smart, enrolled in a school for talented and gifted students. Paul, 5, is a jolly elf who loves to dance and wears a Panama hat, probably from his mother’s native Colombia. Catherine is tall and graceful with a striking smile.
My own dwindling family is scattered from Dallas to Chicago to San Francisco. We texted privately, out of view of Chris, the father, knowing he was suffering the tortures of the damned, unable to get to his family.
For me and my wife, Mariana, visions of Houston were still vivid in our heads — people dying in floods, water creeping up on wheelchair-bound old people in a nursing home. Harvey had nipped close to our flesh, geographically, and now, in what seemed only another moment of time, Irma was biting at our flesh and blood.
You can’t help it. The visions come, memory and imagination. The children dancing at the wedding …
Almost instantly when Mariana got on Facebook, word poured in from people who knew where the other shelters were in Sarasota. I have no idea if any of that had one thing to do with her eventually finding one, but the next thing we knew, Catherine and the kids were safe in a school that had been turned into a shelter.
It sounded rough. For three days and two nights, they had only wet junk food to eat, limited water. The toilets stopped flushing immediately. Catherine and the children were in a classroom with a bunch of old people. The kids were scared and strung out, but if they made any noise, the old people got mad.
The words of support became a flood from all over this country and Colombia. Someone Mariana knows offered free use of a condo in Atlanta if the family needed it after the storm. There were many prayers in English and Spanish.
Catherine was conserving cell power in the shelter, but Chris sent us all his heartfelt thanks several times, thanking everyone for their attention and concern. He said it was helping him and helping Catherine to know that so many people were thinking about them.
When she got home, their house was dry. She cooked the children eggs on the gas grill. They were among the very few who had their electricity restored that day, but I don’t know if it stayed on.
At least I know they are at home, relatively safe and not surrounded by crabby old people — a type I know from the mirror. I wondered how they would feel if I pulled up about now in my mud-caked pickup truck with fish swimming around my nose and said, “Hey, I’m here to help!”
“Oh, look, children, it’s Tio Jim. Put your clothes back on. We have to take Tio Jim to the shelter now.”
You know what they say: It’s the thought that counts.
A day or two later, David Brooks had a column in The New York Times about flooding and the Noah story. I’m a total sucker for anything like that because I love Brooks at his most Talmudic and because I have my own Episcopal Talmudic streak — somewhat less well tutored.
First, Brooks beats up on Noah pretty harshly for just putting his head down, for never asking God what he has in mind and for going along numbly like a Bozo and meekly doing as he is told. Brooks also brings up the embarrassing story about Noah getting drunk after he gets off the ark, passing out and lying there naked in the mud until his sons find him and cover him up.
I wish Brooks hadn’t brought up that part of the story. I have always considered that part to be a private matter within the Noah family that should never have made it into the Bible in the first place. But that’s the Episcopal talking.
Brooks argues that floods present a fundamental challenge to our spiritual core both as individuals and as members of a community. Floods require us to act, as Noah acted, but they also require us also to challenge authority, as Noah did not, and, finally, they challenge us to link arms in a web of social trust. Brooks says we have trouble with all of that in our time:
“That’s because we have trouble thinking about authority. Everybody seems to have an outsider mentality. Social distrust is at record highs. Many seem to swerve between cheap, antiestablishment cynicism, on the one hand, and a lemming-like partisan obedience on the other.”
Years ago in our own debate over the Trinity River project in Dallas, I found myself engaged in a way-off-the-record conversation with a top flood scientist in Washington who was a frequent consultant to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. We were talking about levees, dams, reservoirs, canals — all of the massive public works that our federal, state and county governments have erected at enormous public expense since the early 19th century.
The consultant confirmed my impression of a major federal study I had just read about the nation’s flood-control efforts. He said I was correct: The study, usually called "The Galloway Report," published in 1994, argued that public-works projects for flood control had had the perverse effect of luring more development into the path of floods.
The new development had the effect of increasing rainwater runoff. The increased runoff gradually defeated the protective value of the public works. When the public works were overwhelmed and new floods came, more people and more properties were in the path of harm. In the long run, more lives and more properties were lost than if the public works had never been built. (Think: those two overwhelmed reservoirs in Houston.)
Everybody in the universe of flood control has known all of that for a half century. Dutch national policy, called Living with Water, is based on the recognition that man cannot vanquish nature. The only safety we can achieve is to be found in a compromise with nature, not a war.
But my conversation with the consultant had to be deep-throat, way off the record, in exchange for my blood oath never to name him. Why? Because of what he said next.
At this point, I can’t quote him by word, but I remember his meaning clearly. He said that the only effective means of flood control is tough national land-use control.
It’s what the Dutch do. Their laws forbid development in wide swaths of the land so that those areas can be set aside to act as permeable sponges to soak up the rain.
The science is simple, the consultant told me. The vast preponderance of rainfall must be absorbed into the soil and taken down to the water table. Streams and rivers are mere overflow mechanisms. The only solution to flooding — driven by climate change or not — will be the kind of land-use law that shelters vast areas of soil from development.
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And as he assured me, if his name ever appeared in print associated with that idea, he would never have lunch in Washington again. His simple assertion — that the only solution is land-use control — flew straight in the face of American history, culture, politics and commerce.
To turn all of that around and create in its place a communal compromise with nature would require an enormous amount of social trust. And maybe if we only watch TV, that seems impossible. But the rich flood of support I saw on social media, flowing in to embrace my relatives in Sarasota, tells me it’s out there somewhere, inchoate and potential but broad and deep. We just have to find a new way to corral it.
Brooks has it right. He says in his piece, “Floods are invitations to re-create the world. That only happens successfully when strong individuals are willing to yoke themselves to collective institutions.”
As opposed to just driving around in your pickup.