Monday, May 16, 2011

Mississippi Rising



Finally, the water covered even the highest mountains on the earth, standing more than twenty-two feet above the highest peaks. All the living things on earth died – birds, domestic animals, wild animals, all kinds of small animals, and all the people. Everything died that breathed and lived on dry land. Every living thing on the earth was wiped out – people, animals both large and small, and birds. They were all destroyed, and only Noah was left alive, along with those who were with him in the boat.

-- Genesis 7:19-23

The thought of flood terrifies me. But given its prominent role in the Bible, I don't think I'm the only one. Perhaps it is the image of homes and pets and people people brushed away in one fell swoop like a bread crumbs being dusted off a table. Perhaps it is the thought of death by drowning. The images of flood by tsunami, that which was recently faced by the Japanese just months ago, a tiny island of a country, with little room for refuge from the waters. The images of the Indonesian tsunami of 2004, with 100 feet waves, and the death of 170,000 people. Villagers, running to the tops of mountains, to no avail. And, New Orleans, after Katrina broke, stragglers fighting for dear life to break a hole through their roofs as the water closed in on their homes, filling them like fish tanks with lids sealed on. Of those who didn't evacuate either to the Superdome or out of New Orleans, the lucky ones waited on their roofs for days in the blistering sun and sweltering heat, leaving the corpses elderly and the weak inside.

So, yes, you can say I find floods terrifying.

One can live a life in New Orleans and never see the Mississippi unless you want to. You can see the beautiful, oak-lined trees of St. Charles, the charming buildings of the French Quarter, the street car buzzing by your house, without seeing a riverbank. So it wasn't until I took the Milo-dog for a run on the levee did I see the water that has been rising for the past week. Where it normally is at least a few hundred feet from the Mississippi River Trail, it was now less than twenty feet from our paws.

There are spectators today. There are also fishermen casting their lines from the bike path, hundreds of feet closer to the city than usual. College students are wearing sun hats, sipping their daiquiris as if they are sitting on an oceanside boardwalk. There is no indication on their faces that this is abnormal. There is no visible concern that the Morganza spillway floodgates have been opened up the second time in decades to relieve the water pressure of the mighty Missippi, yet still the Mississippi climbs higher and higher up the levee. There is no visible concern that there are levee police driving by constantly, inspecting for sand boils along the natural land levee where water may be surging through.



I on the other hand, calmly head back to the apartment and immediately make an evacuation plan, a list of provisions, and send out inquiries to friends who might house me and my pets on my flight away from disaster. I pick up gallons of bottled water and dozens of protein bars. In the past 15 years I've lived in Budapest, Hanoi, New York City, San Francisco, Berkeley, and Anchorage. But this is the first time I've ever prepared to evacuate my home as an adult. While I love the laid-back culture of the Big Easy, I am not so easy about this flooding issue. Maybe it's the Vietnamese deep within me bubbling to the surface, preparing for the worst. I like to think that this is a healthy instinct. Either way, there's nothing wrong with planning for what mother earth has in store for us.

The proximity to nature can be a frightening one if you forget about it. I recall an incident in my childhood in Orange County, when it was still filled with orange groves, decades before it became the overpriced tract-home spectacle, subject of cheesy melodramas on network television. As a child my sister, our neighborhood friends, and I would run wild through orchards of oranges, down into empty stone quarries, throw stones in the water, harass chickens and roosters cooped up in pens. And every fall, came the hot winds from the desert, the Santa Ana winds, rolling into town with dust and dryness, sparking wildfires amongst the suburban homes cusping the border of nature in the foothills of brush-covered hills. One of those autumns my parents calmly kept the radio on for an entire two days. My father hosed down our wooden shingle roof, and my mother packed a small suitcase for each child with only the bare necessities. They made reservations for a hotel, and my father stayed up all night, awaiting city order to evacuate.

I also recall the sound of night, sometimes filled with shrieking howling of bands of coyotes, not far in the distance, taking with them a small poodle or other pet into the untouched quarry. Tales of attacks of small children proliferated the neighborhood. It was a time when we still knew our neighbors because there weren't many of them, but enough to call it a true suburb, as if we were no longer part of nature, but instead, part of Los Angeles. And it was a time where the suburban culture Orange County is known for today had not yet accounted for wildfires, landslides, earthquakes, and wildlife that California once was.

Since then I've lived in towns tucked much further into the wilderness than Orange County, California, but for some reason, guarding against bears on a hike or shooing away moose in Anchorage seemed much less daunting then the thought of dodging coyotes in California. Perhaps it was because Anchorage was so apparently wild in comparison. In Anchorage, enormous state parks, hundreds of square miles large, are ubiquitous even within city limits and people occasionally got attacked by both bear and moose. But we knew it. We saw it, from our cabins and apartments and highways. And we knew how to deal with it because we had to everyday. Nature is in your face up in Alaska.

It is only when I forget about the presence of mother earth that I find her the most frightening. When I forget that Orange County was created not long after chaparral wilderness, mountains, and coyotes ruled the roost. When I forget that most of present-day New Orleans was a wild swamp not even 100 years ago. Or when we forget that Japan is not just a forerunner of technological and automotive advancement, but also a tiny island anchored within a powerful, daunting Pacific Ocean. It seems only then, when we forget how little we and all our things are, does the water creep towards us, threatening to put us in our places.

But the power of nature also forces us to take tally of those things most precious to us. My apartment is best described as cheap and cheerful, walls donned with paintings picked up all over the globe, a table I made myself, and various sundry items which are great for conversation but have little extrinsic value. Of my evacuation list, the only things of value that will be packed are a computer, a fiddle, and of course, my pets. In my last three out-of-state moves, these were the same items that held the most value to me in my tangible possession. The rest of my worldly goods, were and are not actually goods. Rather, my family, and my friends were there seeing me off or welcoming me back. Though I'm not thrilled at the thought of evacuation, it's a relief to know that those things I care about the most aren't large pieces of expensive furniture or unwieldy flatscreen tv's--those things of real valuable to me have legs and arms and brains and either need not be saved because they are elsewhere, or can be saved from the impending water with good planning.

My parents' home never burned down from the Santa Ana winds, but long after all the children had moved out and finished college, it was eventually taken from them by a fire caused by old electrical wiring . All told, I think they handled it reasonably well. A Buddhist monk told my mother, "You are so lucky to have those things destroyed. You now have a new beginning, with the weight of all those little things off your back." It was a bit shocking to hear at the time, but I think those well-intentioned words helped my parents get through the gauntlet of rebuilding their lives with less stuff.

Me, well for an ark I have a 1987 Toyota pickup, and for a menagerie I have two cats and a dog. So, if and when Mayor Landrieu makes the call, I shall load the furry beasts, a computer, my fiddle, some clothes, and drive towards those people who care about me and have already told me that they will provide me shelter from the storm.

My appreciation and affection goes out to all those who have called and emailed me in the past few days with concern of my well-being in these water-filled times. I will be fine.

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