Thursday, July 26, 2007

Shhh . . . Don't Say "Flood" Too Loud

It is common knowledge in our circle of family, friends, and neighbors that a certain phenomena follows the Jackson family. It is beyond coincidence and into the realm of scary. I will never forget the first time our mystery was exposed.

Shortly after we married in 1995 we moved from our home state of Montana to the beautiful Oregon. We settled into a basement apartment in the Willamette Valley and were proud to call it our very own home. We had not lived there a year when my husband had to leave me for the first time (Feb 1996). It is no doubt that I married a genius and he was called upon to show off his talents at a competition in Las Vegas. Many other circumstances revolved around this trip which bode ill fortune, but what we awoke to on the morning of his departure sealed not only the fate of his trip, but that of the world (Sometimes I wonder if being melodramatic is an integral part of my existence). My husband sat up in bed, stretched, and when he stood up was momentarily frozen to his spot. Something in the sound of my husbands feet hitting the carpet floor did not register as normal and as he briskly walked towards the light switch I could tell I was not the only one in the room with an odd sense that something was out of place: the river! When he flipped on the light each of his foot prints in the carpet was clearly defined as they gradually filled with water. The level was low, resting just below the level of our carpet, but how long would it stay this low. There was one spot in our apartment that did not yet have water so we quickly moved all of our furniture there and started piling a pyramid of valuable belongings. A call to our landlord led to the discovery that it was not just our apartment which was flooding but the entire valley, preventing him from traveling to our aid as each road in or out of the city was becoming impassable. This, however, did not prevent my husband from traveling to the airport, though he was likely the last truck through.

I was left with a tower of furniture, a wet vac, and an ever present companion: water. Three college girls lived in the ground floor apartment above us and one of them came down for a visit. I was soaking wet with either sweat or flood water, probably a good mix of both, from trying to keep up with the flow of incoming water with the wet vac and racing each full bucket up the basement stairs to dump it in our backyard. But she didn't come down to help, she came down she was visibly shaken and told me they had just spotted a peeping tom peeking through their window and I had better watch myself. Oh, great! All windows and doors had to remain open and there wasn't a minute I could spare for the water was rising just as fast as I could vacuum. I was alone and feeling desperate for more reasons than one, so I found our pistol, placed it on a chair in the middle of the barren living room floor and vacuumed with one eye on the open front door. Our best friend came to call on me in the midst of my labors and when he spotted the gun and my frenzied demeanor he rescued me out of the flooding apartment and into their dry one. From their apartment we watched the waters rise over the next several days and watched the news of rescues and deaths. I'd always wanted to live through a natural disaster. Of course, I had preferred an earthquake or a tornado, but the flood turned out to be exciting enough for me.

Click here for more images of the city I was stranded in.

Then it happened again the next year and, in the meantime, Montana was suffering a draught to beat the records. Our family back home teased us that we'd taken their rain to where it wasn't welcome.

We moved to Minnesota during the midst of Montana's first year of serious wildfires in 2000. My husband set up his computer in his new office with continuous satellite feed of the fires spreading Photo by John McColganthroughout our home state and encroaching on our childhood and family homes. It was this move which made us question our existence on planet earth. Two more floods followed our move. The banks of the Mississippi overflowed the banks in the twin cities and flash floods took out power lines and various objects all around us. To us it seemed like just another rainy season, but our new neighbors were in a state of distress. We no longer took pictures of the flooded parks, homes, streets; we'd seen it all before.

Then our friends from Oregon started reporting a draught. That was just impossible; even though Oregon is just a state above the drying state of California, it still caught as much rainfall as it's northern neighboring state, Washington, keeping it practically a rainforest. Yet, Minnesota flooded again and Oregon began battling wildfires due to draught.

We didn't have to mention our secret curse for our children to pick up on it. Soon they were having their own nightmares about floods and they voiced their fear whenever they had a chance. Just the other day Squirrel Monkey was pronouncing her love for all things as she has gotten into the habit of doing. She'll say things like, "Mommy, I love you! I love you like a rose, as much as the sun goes around our Earth, and even when you go to heaven and come back again." Only this time she exclaimed, "I love everywhere! I love Montana and Minnesota and the Netherlands and every planet. Well, every planet except for the ones that flood." With every lightning storm or downpour the girls tremble and ask in fear, "Is it going to flood, Mommy?" I swear I have not instilled this fear in my children! As naive as this may sound I have grown not to fear floods so much and therefore rarely mention them, but I must admit living in the land below sea level has raised my eyebrow a bit.

After we moved here, even the slightest mention of the word "flood" to any of my newfound Dutch friends would spark an instant rebuke and overly confident reassurances that the Dutch would never let their land flood! "It's impossible for the Netherlands to flood." If I hadn't been much concerned before, their blind confidence in the system now sent me questioning. Visions of the Titanic sinking in the frozen waters of the Atlantic vividly came to mind. I questioned why/how those pictures of flooded streets and desperate faces of stranded victims were posted along the town hall walls. I walked the dikes and wondered at their makers and design. Finally, I found a man whose passion is the history of this region and displayed bookshelves lined with books from the earliest eras of the Netherlands to it's windmills and it's current affairs. Taking note of my sincere curiosity, he sent me home with a bag of them to peruse. Through these I learned just how the Dutch made the Netherlands and how, at times, nature changed her mind on them. All it took is for one dike to break and a whole section of their land would be filled in with water, which in turn could create a break in another dike, and spreading like a domino effect would flood the next section of land. Some of those sections were aware of the encroaching danger and were warned, enabling them to pack their cart, maybe even hitch their horse, and hightail it out of the lowland. Though, the ones in the first sections were not warned and suffered tragic losses. There was no question as to whether or not the land would be under water once the dike broke; it was that dike which was keeping the water above it's normal habitation, what had likely been a lake in it's previous life, and would rush into the now farmland to create the lake once more.

Yerseke, Kruiningen en ’s-Gravendeel.

The Dutch are lucky that there have not been more floods than the those they've experienced, but are they wise to think they are immune to them? Many of the dikes are old, and as it has been seen before, it was these old ones which could not stand the added pressure of a previously broken dikes charge. Still, I hold faith that the Dutch will continue to keep their plots of land dry, even with all this rain we seem not to have outrun even by hopping across an ocean. The river Thames has broken its banks and the same rain that hits England finds its way across the channel and dumps on the Netherlands as well. It's been wet! We haven't seen a dry day for over a month now. Well, some days may end up dry, but the clouds still roll over our heads and threaten to dump some more on us. On one of these days we decided to risk the weather and go for a walk along the dike. I was surprised to see level of the water it was holding back. Nowadays the Dutch no longer use the unreliable power of the wind to pump water from the polders (dried lower lands) into the canals; they use electric pumps. One of these pumps I would pass on my daily walks, and even in the rainy winter months the drainage pipe was always well above the canals water level, but this time the water level covered the mouth of the pipe. I could tell the pump was working because I could hear it, which I always viewed as a 1953 floodtreat to see as it was quite rare to actually see it working. When I ran over to the edge of the canal, instead of seeing a steady stream of water spilling from the end of the drainage pipe, I saw a turmoil of water bubbling up from well under the surface of the canal edge.

As the UK is battling the effects of numerous floods, with the Dutch withstand our curse? Will they regulate the waters with only the precise skill the Dutch possess? I trust that they will, but do I ever feel sorry for those neighboring countries around us!

External Links:

BBC current news: Battling Floods

How the Dutch Windmill actually worked: Archimedes' Screw

Wikipedia's list of ALL 35+ Dutch floods and how they happened.

How the Dutch guarantee a flood free land: Deltaworks

BBC Article: US learns from Dutch flood dykes

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