Bert Roughton Jr: The seven stages of flooding.
Shock and Denial.
Sometime that afternoon, the first trickle slipped under the door.
Our old life ended.
Hurricane Irma brought the water from God knows where and filled our swollen marshes at high tide.
The marsh channel across the street from our home – called with no irony Scenic Waterway – was dug decades ago to drain water from the island into the marsh. The island has changed much; the channel, if anything, is clogged with branches, debris and decades of silt.
We bought this small house 10 years ago. We have spent years making it our dream home and gardens. My wife, who works in Glynn County in search of solutions to its poor inhabitants many problems, already lives there. I commute.
The water spilled over the channel’s banks and crept up the outside walls. Inside, carpets soaked, sofa fabric darkened and water rose up the baseboards. Wood floors bloated; the sheetrock became a sponge. Only 6 or 7 inches; but plenty.
During it all, we waited in Atlanta, desperate for news. Meanwhile on the island, the electricity was gone; the sewer pumps stopped. Local officials closed the island.
By and by, some lifelong friends returned first. They entered our home to find dank air, terrible smells and soppy carpets.
From afar, I embraced denial. My wife envisioned the Nile.
Pain and guilt.
The abstract idea of being flood victims sinks in slowly We had been forced into a kind of club – the key codicil of its charter being shared misery. We are junior members of this club’s vast membership, which is swollen with the newly initiated from this season’s crushing series of storms. It wasn’t that much water, but it was enough.
Before we departed the island for Atlanta when Irma was still a an angry red pinwheel menacing Florida, we stacked bags of topsoil at each door. Sandbags were nowhere to be found.
But did we do enough? Could we have picked up the rugs, done more to seal the doors? Were we lulled into complacency because St. Simons seems to always dodge the bullet?
When we returned, the house was unlivable. But we were lucky enough to have a place to stay. At 3 a.m. on the first night, I was awakened by what a dear friend calls “monkey brain,” an alarming condition that sends wild thoughts bouncing and racing through my mind.
Do we really have flood insurance?
“Well, of course we do, go back to sleep,” my normal self responded. The monkey was unconvinced.
So with our two dogs staring in expectation of fresh fun, I opened my laptop on the kitchen table and frantically searched for any proof that we had insurance. Eventually, the Internet yielded our account numbers - but it flooded Google with just how bad things could be. I immediately filed flood insurance claims online. I filed a futile claim on my homeowners policy. And in the final act of submission to the new way of things, I filed claims with FEMA.
Anger and bargaining.
Six or seven inches. How bad could it be?
Wiser folks – my wife at the lead of that pack – rolled their eyes.
Google doesn’t lie. Search floods and damage to see what I mean.
Google: “You’re screwed. You are about to spend a ton of money.”
How much money, Google?
But can’t we just clean up and move on?
“Hah, hah, hah.”
Maybe we can get one of those companies that dry things out.
Depression, reflection, loneliness
Hopelessness. Vulnerability. Guilt. Frustration. Exhaustion. Sleeplessness.
The occupying forces of each took turns seizing our minds.
We knew we were better off than most. We had a place to sleep. We had resources and support. And we had each other. This is all very sad and exhausting, but I advise against going through it alone.
The upward turn
Meet the Flooding Industrial Complex.
In the days after the flooding, they descend, the army of adjusters, remediators, engineers, contractors and others. In a week, the baby-faced and cheerful flood adjuster arrived with digital camera and clipboard. He wandered through, measuring rooms, pausing here and there to take stock with quiet confidence. He was a veteran of Sandy and Harvey and seemed unfazed by Irma. He was generous with his assessment – it was terrible in a good way — but sphinx-like on the matter of payment.
You hear of people making out like bandits with their insurance claims. I would be lying to suggest that I didn’t tingle once or twice at the prospect of this being a moneymaker. Yet, in reality, we wanted no more than to again imagine a future of having a home, paying our son’s university tuition and avoiding cat food in our diet.
And then came Servpro. These folks take no half measures. If we had sent them to Vietnam, things would have been different. To them a wet house must be scourged into health. They are efficient, merciless and determined. In a dizzying, methodical flurry, they reduced our house to a wooden skeleton. They moved on, leaving only rubble heaps and a staggering invoice to bear witness.
Here’s the moment when the limitations of flood insurance become crystal clear. They will replace lower cabinets but not uppers. Want matching cabinets? Sorry. They will paint only the new sheetrock – 4 feet up from the floor - assuming you’re just fine with two-tone walls. They’ll pay for damaged furniture, but not the full price of replacing it.
You get the idea.
Reconstruction and working through
Back in our own antediluvian days, we hired a contractor to add a nice master bath, bigger closet and laundry room. So, we had the rare good fortune of having a trusted hand in place when disaster struck. As well as holding a wealth of knowledge, he can actually do stuff. He is setting a course to restoration. (Sadly, he will want to be paid for all this.)
And unlike thousands of our neighbors, we have insurance (remember the monkey brain moment). While coping - or not - with our new challenges my wife has constantly been on the phone seeking help for people who had nothing to build on.
While so many can’t see a way forward, we can. This feels like a sinful luxury.
Acceptance and hope
We are screwed. We accept that. Two major hurricanes called on us in one year - so we’re batting 50/50. It will take a while to find peace with that math. It is hard to imagine a life without dread when the winds and rain visit again.
But we’ll manage. The other evening we sat sipping wine on the porch of our very good friends. We watched in silence as the red sun set over the golden marsh.
Summer’s heat had broken. Humming birds attacked the bright red firespike blossoms in the garden. Tree frogs sang.
Ever so briefly, it all made sense.