Irene, Part Three

September 13th, 2011

The call finally came on Tuesday, at a little past noon.  The lawyer who manages my work unit told me that we would be allowed into our offices briefly at 1:00, to retrieve files and other items.  Although my office was on the second floor, thus presumably safe from the water, it was good to have it confirmed that it still contained files and other items which could be retrieved.

Waterbury was an odd place, Tuesday afternoon, but not in any way I had expected.  The water had receded back within the river’s banks, just barely, but cleanup hardly had begun, so there were few obvious signs of yesterday’s inundation.  Buildings’ insides mostly were still inside them.  Entering town from I-89, I looked down the embankment to my left, into a trailer park.  I saw a man without a shirt on, standing in the open among the trailers, and some other people moving slowly about on the brown mud.  A woman later told me that the trailers had been submerged up to their roofs, so this was my first sight of people who had lost everything, surveying everything they had lost.  A tawny mist hung over South Main Street, silt dust stirred up by traffic.  It smelled like dirty gym socks and felt gritty in the back of the throat.  Not until later did I wonder what we had been breathing.  All along both sides of the street, panel trucks and vans and pickups and heavy equipment were parked, the dominant colors yellow and white, with logos of renovators and construction firms and water removal outfits.  Who knew there were so many companies specializing in drying things out?  How amazing that they’d all showed up so quickly in a little place like Waterbury!  There must be a fair amount of money in mold prevention.   With the noise of motors and generators and the solid stream of cars and trucks, it sounded like New York.

At my office, however, despite what passes for a heavy security presence here in Vermont, everything looked pretty normal.  I worked in Ladd Hall, a three story brick building at the edge of the complex farthest from the river, a few hundred yards from its banks.  Our basement had been filled, but it hadn’t reached the first floor.  All the windows had been closed on Friday, so the building smelled musty, but not much more so than usual after a long warm weekend.  My office was just as I had left it.  But it was no longer my office.  It was a space that I had spent much of the past seven years in, containing my stuff, that I had left expecting to return to, but that it now was doubtful I would return to.  As if something had happened to me, as if I had had a heart attack or had gone missing, and things had been kept the same for me, for the time being, but they did not have to remain that way. Perhaps ghosts feel like this, haunting their old places before they figure out what has happened to them. A bit of the feeling of unreality, like what I’d experienced at home in South Burlington, began to creep in.  Despite the tawny haze, the smell, the unwonted number of people and trucks and equipment in town, it was hard to see – where was the disaster? At the same time, there was the feeling it was all around us, barely visible as yet but soon to reveal itself.

A colleague, not trusting that he’d be let back in to Ladd before everything might be demolished, emptied his office of whatever he could.  I couldn’t decide whether to take the bare minimum or strip as much as I could load into my car.  My photos of my kids.  The pictures on my walls, one of which I’d inherited from my mother who had died not long ago.  My pencil case, which I’d had since elementary school.  When would I see these things again?  Would Buildings and Grounds sweep through the place and toss all it found into dumpsters, before I could return?

A little later, I stood with some colleagues on the lawn outside Ladd Hall, trying to discern clues around us as to what had occurred, reaching for knowledge as if we could ground ourselves in that.  A woman who has worked down the hall from me for several years but with whom I had rarely exchanged any words or even made eye contact, now talked with me in a relaxed, friendly manner.  We noted the line in the grass on the slight rise to the parking lot next door to Ladd, where blades dulled and flattened by silt met the brighter green of untouched vegetation, and attempted to extrapolate from this to the water level our building had experienced.  A colleague who had missed the “stay away” announcement on the computer, and who had come to work Monday, told us about the bashed-in steel doors he had seen in buildings closer to the river, where we would not now be allowed to go, and the offices flushed clear of furniture and equipment “like a grenade had gone off,” and the stories he’d heard of computer servers being hauled out of the basement by the National Guard just as water was pouring in.

As we stood there chatting, I noticed something else.  I normally am a highly self-reliant individual, a loner in fact.  There are very few activities or experiences that I consider enhanced by the presence of another human being.  I go to restaurants and movies and foreign places alone and enjoy it.  Yet, now I was hungering to bond with everyone I met.  I wanted each of them to be my friend, to talk with me, to share intimacy, and I found it irritating the few times a person would not engage on that level (an official, harried and pressured by the enormity and enormousness of her task; a friend from Moretown, distracted and stunned by the flood’s impact at home as well as at the workplace).  I am, it seems, as much a descendant of monkeys as everyone else – I wanted to be enfolded in the comfort of the pack, the tribe.  Marking this, I knew that for the first time my emotions were responding directly to what was happening.  It was a very primal sort of feeling, this yearning and gratitude for simple human contact.  The company of others was reassuring.  But it went beyond that.  It was reassuring to me that this bedrock response in the face of disaster, an almost reflexive tropism for which I cannot possibly take any personal credit, which I observed in others as well as myself, was in the direction of love.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, September 13th, 2011 at 12:40 am and is filed under Current events, Environment, Irene, Places. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

2 Responses to “Irene, Part Three”

  1. Upton O. Goode Says:

    Wow, you really nailed it. I could not have described it better. Honestly, it seems unlikely it could have been described better. Do you remember that you pictured Waterbury, along the Winooski River, in your book?

  2. Upton O. Goode Says:

    Wow. Your really got it. I don’t know if anyone could have described it better, but wonder if you remember that your book spoke about the Winooski River in Waterbury?

Leave a Reply