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In the wake of a disaster
Note: To all of you who have offered kind words, support, prayers, and offers of help, thank you so much. It really does help to just read these things. And thank you also to all of you Land Desk readers! You’re the best. We’ll get back to our regular Western U.S. programming next week. I promise.
Fifty-three years ago, in early September 1970, a tropical storm moved inland from the Pacific and dumped its load of moisture onto the San Juan Mountains in southwestern Colorado. Gullies, arroyos, and small streams turned into raging torrents; Junction Creek — which sometimes runs dry by late summer — jumped its banks in Durango and inundated people’s yards and some homes. And the Animas River swelled up into a ferocious monster, racing down its upper gorge, tearing out railroad tracks and other infrastructure. In the Animas Valley north of Durango, where the river runs slow, it outgrew its channel and spread out across pastures and cottonwood groves. The glacial moraine on Durango’s north end served as a sort of dam, backing up the floodwaters behind it and turning the valley into an enormous lake.
I was born a couple of weeks later, at Community Hospital, which stood on the edge of the moraine and which would have afforded the new me an expansive view of the flood had I arrived a bit earlier. As a child, I was regaled with stories about the 1970 flood, as well as the far bigger, and more destructive, 1911 flood. These stories fascinated me, because they provided more evidence that nature is powerful and wild — ultimately defying every attempt to tame it. And I yearned to see another such flood in the Animas Valley. I suppose those Old Testament stories of deluges and arks infiltrated my non-religious mind, leading me to believe the flood would have a sort of cathartic, or cleansing, effect.
Well, I’m here to tell my younger, naive self of a few days ago: Floods are anything but cleansing.
I wrote the last dispatch from flood-ravaged Greece on Tuesday afternoon, about eight hours after being forced to flee our house as the waters rose up around us. It seemed, at the time, as if the worst was behind us. It wasn’t. That night the rains came with even more intensity, joined by hurricane force winds and lightning and thunder. This time the floodwaters reached another foot or two higher than before in our house, wreaking even more destruction. (The first time we had returned, we had found things on high shelves dry and unaffected. This time they, too, were soaked and muddy.)
We were able to recover a few essentials: canned food, coffee, dry beans, a butane cookstove and cartridges, wine, medicine, and even dry dog food in a plastic bin that had apparently floated through the disaster without getting moist. Most of the ceramics that Wendy had collected over the years were intact and our bikes had been totally submerged and wore a coat of reddish mud, but otherwise functioned.
Our house is just outside the village of Koukouleika, which is built on a ridge top and so escaped most damage. We are staying here now, along with 22 others (and nearly a dozen dogs). As they recovered from their initial shock, the Koukouleikans went into action. They lent us clothing and shelter, cooked feasts with all the perishables that would soon spoil without power to run refrigerators and freezers. We put out every container we could find to collect rainwater, checked unoccupied summer homes for bottled water and butane, scraped up a generator and some petrol to fuel it.
The road that connects Koukouleika to larger towns with supplies had a huge chunk ripped out of it by an arroyo and was totally impassible. We’ve been without power and running water since the first night of the storm, but consider ourselves lucky, since Volos — a town of half a million people — was also without electricity or running water for 24 hours. Word is they still don’t have water.
Yesterday I decided to make the four-mile trip by bike to Milina, a lovely little seaside town with tavernas and shops lining the water, a couple little grocery stores, bakeries, and a hardware store. It’s a tourist town, but a low key one with a vibrant year-round population. It’s where we go to eat out, buy groceries, or pick up supplies for the house. I was joined by a Bulgarian who is staying out here, on this side of the canyon in the road. We used a ladder to climb down into the road-canyon and then back up the other side, handing our bikes up to each other.
I was happy that my bike had survived, but still feeling a bit sorry for myself as I passed homes that had escaped relatively unscathed. But as I neared Milina, and the number of homes and density of infrastructure increased, I noticed more and more damage: sunken boats in the harbor, debris- and mud-strewn yards, and so forth. Just before Milina, the entire hillside had given way, blocking much of the road. The slope led up to a hotel, and was once littered with walls and terraces and stairways. Now it is a cliff. The hotel is still there now, but maybe not for long.
Then I came around the bend into Milina, itself. I was aghast. I have no words to describe the scene. Utter devastation? Catastrophe? Everywhere I looked, destruction. I stopped, stepped off my bike, and futilely tried to stifle my sobs. Our home is damaged, many of our material possessions ruined, sure. But the people of Milina had not only lost homes and businesses and livelihoods, but also were forced to watch helplessly as their community and hometown was ravaged by the water tearing down the hills through the town, wreaking disaster everywhere. It picked up cars and tossed them into the sea. It uprooted giant trees and lodged them between buildings. It left tons upon tons of silty mud on the streets and patios, inside homes and businesses
.It’s even worse elsewhere. The entire town of Karditsa was (and maybe still is) underwater and many of its residents are still missing. Seaside towns on the side of the Pelion Peninsula opposite of Milina have reportedly been destroyed; a cottage was washed out to sea, killing a newlywed couple. A stretch of Bulgaria’s coastline was wrecked. Istanbul, in Turkey, had terrible flooding.
It seems that after every extreme weather event in the U.S., someone insists on arguing that the heat, the massive amounts of rain, the megadrought — it’s all normal. It’s always hot in Phoenix, they’ll say. It’s always dry in the desert. It’s always rainy in the fall. And it’s true, in a way. But it also ignores the extremity of these situations, along with the whiplash-inducing jerk from one extreme to the other. The data show that there is nothing normal about the rainfall amounts during this storm, which are just mind-blowing. The centuries-old houses that were wrecked by the floodwaters, or even older olive groves that had new arroyos carved through them, make it clear that this is not normal. It is not normal for a record-breaking rain storm to follow on the heels of a record-breaking protracted hot and dry spell and a harrowing wildfire season — including Europe’s largest wildfire on record.
I don’t know if this particular storm’s abnormal ferociousness has been attributed to climate change, yet. But I do know that this is what human-caused climate change looks like.
Back in Milina, I slogged through the mud in a daze. I passed a dozen people huddled around a generator, charging their phones, as if it were a campfire. I saw people dragging waterlogged furniture out of storefronts, their cleanup efforts underway even without electricity or water. I spoke to a young man from Milina who looked upon it all with dismay. “Even the old Greeks have never seen anything like this,” he told me, confirming that this was anything but normal. And I’ll be happy if I never see anything like this again, even on my home river.