When I woke up at 3 in the morning on Thursday, Sept. 8, I could hear the heavy rain against the house and steady cracks of thunder but didn’t think too much of it. Hurricane Irene was a good two weeks behind us and there had been no shrill warnings on the Wednesday evening news. It was just a thunderstorm.
My wife was more curious, though. She went out to look at our street, which had in the last month become something of a seasonal stream, with flash flood waters rising above the curbs and sidewalks. On that Thursday morning, though, the stream had turned into a full-fledged river. It’s outer edge lapped at the steps of the home of my neighbors across the street.
The news got me out of bed to see for myself. Fortunately, our house is a little uphill from the street, the first floor is about 6 feet above street level. That fact took a bit of the shock out of seeing the street in front of my home turning into a channel navigable by sea craft.
I spent the next half hour or so running a Shop Vac in the basement, getting about three full containers of water before the basement puddle was manageable.
My neighbors across the street, however, were not all so lucky. The creek behind their homes had risen above its concrete flood walls, overtaking backyards and sinking cars up to their bucket seats. Garages full of tools and lawnmowers were soaked. Whole basements of furniture and other stored items were drenched as sump pumps were completely overwhelmed.
In the morning, as I walked down the street, talked to my neighbors and looked at the damage – part of my street looked like the bottom of a recently drained pond – everyone said the same thing: They had absolutely no idea that the flood was coming.
In fact all of my neighbors have been in their homes for many years and had weathered previous floods. They had typically been ready, with cars moved to higher ground, backup generators plugged in and Shop Vacs in position. Two weeks ago, as news reports continued to promise that the East Coast was facing certain doom at the hand of Irene, we all over-prepared.
My neighbors were ready for water, wind and whatever else nature might throw at them (turned out to be a pretty large tree that came down on the block and knocked out our power for more than 24 hours). Two days after the Irene was gone, everything was back to normal.
That a flash flood in an early morning thunderstorm could take the whole neighborhood and region by surprise is a real mystery to me. Why were we capable of tracking Irene from the time of its inception off the west coast of Africa, yet we were not capable of predicting that last week’s massive thunderstorm coupled with already high water levels would make things far worse than Irene had?
I can certainly appreciate the fact that divining the outcome of any weather event is tricky. I know that Irene predictions were far worse than what actually happened – except for Vermont, where massive floods took people by complete surprise. But I appreciate that. It’s better to prepare for the worst than be caught unprepared when the worst happens.
I think the same sort of warning was missing last week. My neighborhood should not have retired for the night unaware that a storm could surge creeks in the area to the highest flood levels in at least a decade.
I guess it’s just remarkable that no matter how sophisticated our weather reporting technology gets, it still can’t reliably prepare us for everything.