The Impending Flood

Moving waters Flickr

Photo by flickr user Ishmaelo, https://www.flickr.com/photos/ishmaelo/227975837/

In the Fall of 2015 I had been feeling out of sorts, for no particular reason. I began to wonder if it was somehow tied to hurricane season, which I paid apprehensive attention to most of my life. My roots in three states bordering the Gulf of Mexico – Louisiana, Texas and Florida – echo with memories of storms past, both menacing and exhilarating. They are woven into the fabric of my life and serve as a backdrop for many retold stories. I believe they are the source—along with early childhood Bible reading and Lina Wertmuller’s 1978 “end of the world” film—of my recurring dream, the terrifying impending flood.

My flood terror dates back to Hurricane Audrey, when I was five. The Category 4 storm hit the coast of Louisiana on June 27, 1957, killing over four hundred people. A twelve-foot storm surge extended twenty-five miles inland and destroyed our beloved family vacation spot, Holly Beach. For years afterwards the coastal marshes were littered with household appliances and other debris, reminding travelers of the force of destruction that passed through. I spent the night of the storm at home with my parents, grandparents and brothers, spooked by the nervousness of the adults as the rain whipped up, the electricity went out, and the wind rocked the house and trees. The next morning, we opened the back door to find a toppled tree blocking the path. There were several trees down, along with electrical wires, in what seemed to me like a tattered wasteland.Hurricane Audrey in Ville Platte

As scary as the tense night and aftermath were, I think what frightened me most was the harrowing story told to us by a distant cousin, Louise, an elderly woman who survived the hurricane floating on a tiny raft with another woman. Like so many others who lived near the coast that fateful day, Louise either did not receive a warning about the dangerous storm on the way, or chose to ride it out; I don’t recall how that went. But as the flood waters began to rise, in the house were Louise, her maid, and a friend. The two friends climbed up on the kitchen counter, and from there accessed the attic. Meanwhile the less able maid was unable to scale the counter, so she perished.  Up above, the friends were not safe for long, as the house soon began to break apart. Tossed about between waves and debris, somehow the two women found themselves clinging to a raft-like section of the house. When a lull in the wind allowed them to climb onto the raft, they were immediately pierced by nails sticking up out of the wood. These they covered as best they could with seaweed and other flotsam. The two women sat back-to-back to support one another and help maintain balance on the tiny platform. Desperate swimming creatures tried to climb aboard with them, and had to be swatted away. For hours they pitched with the wind and roiling sea, holding on to the sides of the raft, and then, abruptly, all was quiet and still. They had entered the eye of the storm. This respite lasted about an hour, then it was back to riding the storm once again. Both women survived Hurricane Audrey.

I remember feeling mesmerized as I listened to this real-life adventure, shocked that I knew someone who had faced such a horrific ordeal, and amazed that she lived to tell us the story. But more than anything, I think this story created the fear of impending flood in my psyche. I’ve had the dream countless times, and in each one I am fearfully waiting for approaching waters to engulf me. The anxiety of anticipation, not knowing what will happen when it comes, is excruciating, but also familiar. The flood never arrives in the dream; there is only the waiting.

As I got older, I have a vague sense in the dream that this has happened before and not to worry too much. Someone once told me the dream represents a fear of life overwhelming me. I have noticed the dream occurs more often during times of stress and adaptation. The dream interpretation literature suggests hidden unconscious fears, emotional turmoil, a life crisis, sexual themes, or “someone of the opposite sex who you trust may be trying to use you.”

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M. J. in surf at Holly Beach with maternal grandmother

The fear of being engulfed by seawater also has roots in two earlier episodes when I was four or five, playing in the ocean at Holly Beach. In the first instance, a bull with menacing horns wandered onto the beach near where I sat in the shallow water. Shocked and scared speechless, I ducked under water and stayed there as long as I could hold my breath. When I came up for air, the animal was being led away. In the second incident, the waves seemed enormous to me as I clung tightly to my dad. Somehow he lost hold of me, I was swept away by the water, and I tumbled head over heels for what seemed like forever before he caught me again. Shaking with fright, I accused my father of deliberately letting go of me, but he reassured me that wasn’t the case. Sometimes I still wonder if he was telling the truth.

Only one period of my life was spent away from hurricanes. This was while I was living in Lexington, Kentucky while a graduate student in anthropology. There we had to contend with tornadoes, and the first time I sheltered from one I was as frightened as in any storm of my youth. My neighborhood was right in the path of the tornado. Emergency personnel were going through the streets with a loudspeaker, warning people to stay inside and hunker down. Two fellow students were with me in my small apartment. There were few places to hide. I huddled in a closet, eyes squeezed shut and waiting for the worst. Several neighborhoods were hit, but thankfully, ours escaped.

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Galveston after the 1900 storm

After graduate school I moved to Galveston, Texas with my then husband Roger. Everyone who lives in Galveston feels a bit haunted by the historic hurricane that hit the city in 1900. Storm warning systems were rudimentary compared to today, and the city was unprepared for the Category 4 storm that took more lives (6,000-12,000) than any other natural disaster in U.S. history. A storm surge fifteen feet high washed over the island and destroyed nearly four thousand homes. Most residents had not evacuated.

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Our Galveston house before storm damage

When I first moved to Galveston, I was fascinated by the famous storm and read what I could find about it. The flood dream surfaced often, as I strained to cope with a new job and family. By the time a real-life hurricane threatened the city, we had a one-year old son, and I was working in Haiti fifteen hundred miles away. The project was an evaluation of feeding programs for malnourished mothers and children. After gazing upon a seemingly endless array of sick and underfed children, my thoughts turned often to my own child back home. When I learned that Hurricane Alicia was headed toward Galveston, I called Roger immediately and we made plans for him to evacuate with our son to my parents’ home in Louisiana. As he drove east on I-10, Roger prayed that the storm would not make a turn in the direction he was heading.  Unable to do anything constructive, I fretted in Haiti and listened to the news.  In the end, husband and son weathered the storm safely, and the only damage we sustained was torn shingles on the side of our house facing the sea.

Haiti was not hit by Hurricane Alicia, which formed in the Gulf of Mexico, but it often lies in the path of tropical storms from the Atlantic, which move through the Antilles and into the Gulf. My work in Haiti continued periodically after Alicia, and I often kept track of hurricanes that threatened Haiti, then menaced some place I cared about along the Gulf Coast, whether Texas, Louisiana, or later, Florida. Hurricane Georges in 1998 was memorable in this regard. I had been making quarterly trips to Haiti from Tampa to supervise a project that involved support groups for women with elephantiasis of the leg. The groups met weekly for educational and self-care sessions, followed by refreshments. The groups also provided support for members’ families affected by other difficulties.

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Haitian support group members share a meal at a weekly meeting

When Georges struck in September, I was in Tampa but had visited the project in the prior month, pleased to find things going well with the groups. The hurricane struck with a vengeance, killing close to six hundred people and destroying 350,000 homes on the island of Hispaniola, which Haiti shares with the Dominican Republic. Then it headed toward the Florida Keys and up the west coast of Florida, raising alarm that Tampa might be hit. But it veered northwest, and then I had to worry about my Louisiana relatives. Meanwhile, in the aftermath of the storm in Haiti, many of the people in the project area who lost their homes showed up at the support group meetings, hoping to find assistance or at least food, since relief efforts were not well organized or provisioned. Within the limited means available to the project, food, clothing and household supplies were gathered and distributed to needy families.

The next time a hurricane seriously threatened Florida, it bypassed Haiti but struck South Florida where I had an ongoing project. This time it was a study of tuberculosis stigma, and it was a two-country study involving Haitians in Haiti and Haitian-Americans in Ft. Lauderdale. In August of 2004 Hurricane Charley swept over Cuba before heading north to make landfall on the southwestern tip of Florida. From there it crossed over the state to the east, causing considerable damage to the southern counties and the Tampa area where I lived. In the Ft. Lauderdale site, one clinic where we were working was destroyed by the storm and had to be dropped from the project. General recovery efforts in the area delayed our data collection by several months. Meanwhile Haiti was in crisis following the coup d’état that had deposed President Jean Bertrand Aristide a few months earlier. Civil unrest made it dangerous for people to leave their homes, so no work could be done on the project for almost a year. Thus we lost a lot of time on the study and had to request an extension. Finally completed in 2008, I decided the beleaguered study would be my last one in Haiti. Two years later, a devastating earthquake hit that country, and I have not returned since.

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Hurricane Katrina

My dreams of the impending flood have become less frequent over the years. I suppose a lot of things figured into this, like simply age and maturity, having a stable job and income, and surviving divorce and single motherhood. I had raised two sons; one graduated from high school in 2000, the other in 2004. I was beginning to relax about the threat of storms. But then in 2005 Hurricane Katrina struck the Louisiana coast, and along with the rest of the nation I watched in horror as the Category 5 hurricane took over the Gulf of Mexico and slowly made its way toward New Orleans. In what has become a well-known tragedy, the storm surge and levee failure caused severe flooding in 80 percent of the city and left thousands stranded and desperate, if not drowned. My own family was not in danger, except for a niece and her husband who lived in New Orleans and left town in time. I listened in shock as the stories emerged of people trapped in attics, nursing homes inundated, inmates stranded on highways, people begging with signs to be rescued from rooftops. Those nights, vivid dreams of the impending flood plagued my sleep, once again arousing anxiety associated with water and danger.

Now I live far away from hurricanes in the Pacific Northwest, but face the new (for me) threat of a different kind of natural disaster, an earthquake. I wouldn’t say I am terrified that the “big one” could strike any day, only moderately uneasy. The earthquake class that I took at Portland Community College did little to reduce my concern when the instructor told us that the Oregon coast is “overdue” for a massive earthquake. I took copious notes and imprinted on my brain that in the event of earth trembling, I should go into the back yard away from trees, or inside the house I should lie down in the corner of a wall where it meets the floor. I also learned that my preparedness kit should include a water filtering system, bottled water, freeze dried meals, first aid kit, small propane stove, candles, matches, and a battery-operated radio. The instructor calmly warned us that there would be “riots and lawlessness.”  Despite making me somewhat more prepared, I remained frightened of the forces of nature, which broadened to include wildfires following a severe drought in the summer of 2015.

But I have lived in this corner of the country for only three years, so the anxiety I feel may indeed be a holdover of hurricane season apprehension. One good thing – I rarely have the impending flood dream these days. Maybe it’s because I rarely remember any dreams at all anymore, or maybe I am finally overcoming fear of the flood, or perhaps fear of life itself.