My Crow's Nest

In our UIMA e-newsletter that went out Tuesday, we put out a call for flood stories. Below is our first response, from Shanti Roundtree, an editor with the local publishing company Buckle Down. When I asked Shanti if I could post her story, which she wrote shortly after the flood in June, she wanted to make sure we knew that her home managed to avoid floodwaters -- though she did have to evacuate for about a week to avoid living on an island cut off from the rest of the city. She considers herself VERY lucky.

The flood was extremely hard for us all. Having such a birds-eye view of the river was, for me, especially troubling. Every otherwise normal thing felt so much more ominous, so foreboding. A lifelong lover of storms and showers, for a long time after the flooding, I was literally mortified at the mere touch of a raindrop. I've never felt more helpless as when I realized that, instead of surf and river rapids, I was beginning to see furniture and debris wend its way downstream with regularity. These effects were once a part of people's homes and intimate lives. The river made me into a voyeur. Transfixed, as much as it bothered me, I could not force myself to turn away. Part of my vigil was to make sure that the flotsam remained, outside of trees and carcasses of fish, ever inanimate...If I can name it as such, perhaps that proximity to the river is where my writing passion derived from...

I live off of Riverside Drive and from my porch I have a clear view of the Dairy Queen, the Jail, and the Iowa River that divides them. In June, the river sought to join them.

I'm still amazed at people's reactions to the crisis. Hundreds of Iowa residents can access their normal routes, limited as they already might have been: to the mall, to their gas station, their jobs. Their homes are 'on a hill', high and far away from the University. They are not intimate with the rivers or creeks, save the occasional treat trip to a downtown festival or an anniversary dinner at Verde's. To these, far east or far west-siders, the flood begins and ends each night with a pop of pixels on a screen.

In my own circle of friends, many sentiments echo the same tone, "We knew You'd be O.K." Initially, the thought was nearly universal that I'd be okay.

As a result, people fell on either side of the spectrum. A precious and appreciated few people lent significant moral support, offered me plane tickets, places to stay, resources, sandbag help, and other tangibles.

Before leaving home, I watched the waters continue to rise and flow, carrying with it chairs, oils, branches, and other flotsam. I witnessed the depth of the falls minimize by the day: once a frothy prolonged drop turned to a distance it takes to pour a cup of coffee. The violence of the river astounds me still. Having spent many Sunday afternoons near the underside of the bridge, reaching in with my lure to pluck wipers and pumpkin seeds from the current, I felt I knew the river. Musky salt-licked air and the 'choffing' sound of surf against mossed rock always soothed me and steeled me against the impending work week.

Now churning, swirling, eddying--the flow turned unreliable. Unpredictable and unfamiliar to me as an inferno would be, oxygen-fed and kindling-lit.

On June 13th, a Friday, The Iowa River first burst forth on the east side of its banks and roved closer to the university community. From my porch vantage, I saw the brackish waters pool, then push toward parked Cambuses, gas pumps, the city jail. Sandbag after sandbag, slumped one on top the other, seemed a feeble border to keep the surge out. Yet, hopeful, stolid, and soon to be sun-reddened, the Iowans persisted. Citizens lopped bags, end over end, through many sizes of waiting hands. Volunteers, quite tenderly cradling each with the prayer that it would do its part and then tossing the bag on, in timed rhythm, toward the growing wythe. Thrown bags, the size of 9 month-olds, huddled in anticipation, with sweat as the mortar.

From my porch I could see this. Then, the waters broke on the west side of the river, onto my side. The creeping current revealed three secrets of the topography of Riverside Drive. The roadway crowns in front of the Kum and Go, Myrtle Street, and the alley driveway that enters South Riverside Court. Save this giant thumbprint of dry space, the whole of Riverside Drive seemed covered in standing water.

For what I needed to see next, the grassy slope abutting Myrtle was an even better crow's nest than my porch. I flip-flopped across the paved alley, down the sloping sidewalk and tar, and upward through the moist grass.

The brow of the hill overlooked the university and its sandbaggers. From a distance, their retaining wall seemed made of rough ashlar instead of webbed bags of silt.

For a while, I sat, watching the arching machinations of the Iowans at the waters' arc. I observed the movements of the river. Iowa had breached across the car-lot, the four lanes of Riverside Drive, and lapped against the grass at the base of my perch. Rippling through the water, were several fish--lunker carp, to be exact. As they looked for worms and beetles in the sediment, they flopped, sucking air very audibly before each eventual submerge.

In time, a family of two came closer. I saw the father first, still dripping from having waded through the waters which flowed from further down Riverside. As he strode over the shrinking area of dry concrete in front of Kum and Go, the Asian man began tucking in his white polo. His daughter, hair in pony-plaits, walked as he walked from one side of the river's embrace to the other. Calf-deep, the father created swirls for his daughter to wade through. She removed, from the crook of her elbow, a parcel which she then gently unfolded into a sheet. This she handed to her father who was already beside the fish, standing poised and very still.

I got up.

Walked back to my house.

Finished packing my cases with summer clothes, wedges, food, and watermelons.

Lunged them all into the car.

Drove down South Riverside Court.

U'eed in front of Kum and Go, and geared it up Myrtle Avenue.

Splashing through the water on the other side of the river, I was one of the last to drive over the Burlington Street bridge.

When news of the flood became national, people across the country were curious about the damage, FEMA, and my safety. Once satiated, folks mostly breezed me another email or two, then almost immediately fell back in line relying again on me to help them out through whatever chronic life-crisis they had been dealing with before.

Meanwhile, I'm living in a good friend's basement, can't return home for several days yet, and when I do--the stench will be deplorable as my neighbor's basement apartment had been flooded with rainwater before the river's breach.

In short, I'm fine.

I'm Okay.

-- Shanti Roundtree

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Beautiful. :)