21. JUNE 2012 - SEPTEMBRE 2012 - 239We have had a taste of the old days lately. No Internet, no telephone, only rarely mobile service. The first day or two the lights kept going out. But at least we had lights, and potable water. And we were above all grateful for what we didn’t have: water and mud in our house.

We have watched news reports of hurricane after hurricane hitting the U.S. What is strange is to have one hit us here, in the south of France, not even near the ocean, though not all that far from the Mediterranean.

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High
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Already lower.
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Same spot before the rain. The “river” went up to a duck’s knees.
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And the river bed was a place to play.

We were spared the worst of the winds. Tropical Storm Leslie marched over Portugal where it was the biggest to hit since 1842. It then very unusually skirted the south side of the Pyrénées over to the big, warm bathtub of the Mediterranean, where it picked up more moisture and veered north and inland. And then it cozied up to the south side of the Black Mountains and stayed put for a whole night, dumping the equivalent of six months of rain in a few hours.

It was clear that the storm was extraordinary. It can rain very hard here, even if not often. In fact, we had been suffering a drought, with a little rain in July, and almost none in August and September. The ground had been like concrete until a week earlier, when we got some rain and everybody was so happy. It’s a good thing it did rain then, softening up the ground, because otherwise the deluge that followed would have run off even harder.

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High.
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Lower.
may river
More typically, it’s way, way down there.

Even with the shutters closed, we could hear the river rumbling, like a nonstop fleet of trucks speeding by. It shook the house. The wind helped the rain finagle its way up under the roof tiles, so we had drips everywhere. That’s why, when our neighbors called around 5 a.m., we were up—we were placing buckets and plastic boxes and whatever we could find to catch the leaks. 

Our village was devastated by a flood in 1999, along with most of the villages in this region. Our neighbors’ house was nearly carried away by the river. “River” seems an exaggeration for what’s usually a 2-inch-deep trickle that dries up completely in some spots only to reappear a ways downstream. On Sunday night, it was a raging river, stretching far beyond its banks and tearing down everything in its way.

Our neighbors moved their cars to our yard, which is significantly higher, and then got their animals. Anybody who knows me knows that I will cross the street to avoid dogs, even ones fenced in yards or held on leashes. I prefer to have zero contact with any animals—live and let live, I wouldn’t hurt them but I don’t want to touch them or let them touch or sniff or lick me. So it was a big deal that a couple of dogs took up refuge in our glassed-in porch. Plus a cat in a cat carrier. It is proof of how much I love my neighbors.

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Not at all normal.

On Sunday night Monday morning, our neighbors waded through water almost to their knees as the river licked at their yard, trying once again to devour it all. The river was unrecognizable, stretching far beyond anything I had ever seen in 15 years. We arrived after the 1999 disaster, but as long as I have lived here everyone has had stories to tell. Weeks without plumbing or electricity. Everyone being sick of being dirty and cold. Mud everywhere. The army shoveling it out and distributing water. Neighbors helping neighbors.

By dawn, the rain was relenting a bit and our kid woke up, panicked about having missed the school bus, not noticing the highly unusual event of us having breakfast with the neighbors. School was canceled for three days. 

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The water had already receded a lot at this point.

In our village, it was like a snow day. A few very old houses right next to the river had their ground floors flooded, and some cars parked in front of them were smashed up by the current. The river rose so quickly, and during the night, that people who slept soundly (like our kid) had no idea what was happening, and if they did it was too dangerous to go move a car at that point. 

By dawn, the water had already barreled downstream to torment some other villages. The level was still high, the racket deafening, but it was far lower than hours before, and just kept dropping. Villagers came out to survey the damage, to be shocked at where the water went, to compare it to the high water of two years ago and the Big Flood of 1999. Everyone walked in the middle of the main street, because roads in and out were impassable and there was no traffic. We saw everybody, it seemed. I think I got (and gave) a record number of bises for an hour. 

Our kid lamented that it took a disaster to get people out to stroll about and greet each other. As the days went on and the roads remained closed, except for one circuitous and damanged route that quickly became clogged with cars, our doorbell rang regularly with various friends popping by to say hello. “I like when people come by like that,” our kid said.

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There are lots of uprooted trees.

P1100747Our kid has such a tender heart. We had organized a bunch of stuff for a vide grenier, and our kid went through everything, looking for clothes to donate. We loaded up the car and took it all to Trèbes, which was hit hard. 

The drive there was through utter devastation. It was mostly vineyards, so it will rebound. The harvest was over. The winegrowers will trim the vines and pull out the rubbish and replace the uprooted plants. But so much rubbish! Branches and entire trees, but also anything that was sitting in low-lying yards, or even that was put away in garden sheds that got washed way, their contents scattered far and wide. Much of the plain was still a lake of muddy water. It will recover.

Some won’t recover, though. At last count, 14 people died. Not a peaceful way to go. On our way to Trèbes, we saw piles of soggy personal effects, set out at the curb to be hauled away. We saw houses filled waist-deep with mud. The parking lot of the Trèbes arena is a mountain of debris.

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Just two weeks ago, it was completely dry.

The president, Emmanuel Macron, visited Monday. Our kid snorted in disgust at the news, but I said he’s damned if he does, and damned if he doesn’t. If he comes, he will be criticized for using a tragedy for publicity, for wasting taxpayer money on the trip, which requires helicopters, bodyguards, teams of assistants. On the other hand, if he doesn’t come, he will be criticized for not caring, for not raising the tragedy high enough on the agenda; he also will risk hearing about the state of things filtered by ministers and assistants who perhaps have other priorities and agendas. 

Have you lived through a devastating storm? How long did it take for life to return to normal? 

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58 thoughts on “Too Little, Too Much

  1. Thank you for the detailed account of what happened over the last few days in your beautiful region. I was still in France when the events unfolded and watched in shock and horror, like many people, the images in the news. As you mention, there were victims this time, on top of the damage! I watched people speak on TV: They had lost everything, and narrowly escaped, including seniors who looked lost and exhausted. I am glad you and your family are all right. Thank you for welcoming your neighbors’ pets on your porch too. I have an aunt who, like you, can’t get close to animals so I understand. Good luck to all of you over the next few months. There is a lot of work and healing to do, I am certain. Your blogging friend, Veronique (French Girl in Seattle)

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  2. When I was eight years old and living in Portland, Oregon, we had a huge storm. Winds were clocked near the Willamette River at 120 miles/hour. It was a real mess. Power out for most people, lots of debris (mostly tree limbs). No flooding however. When we surveyed the damage to our yard in the morning, our front lawn was completely covered with fir bows and a maple tree next to our house had split into two, leaving a huge chunk across the yard, blocking stairs up to the house. (We lived right on the edge of a butte covered with fir trees.) It was at least a couple of weeks we were without power, although I *think* we still had telephone service. This was 56 years ago this month and the people who lived through it still talk it every October.

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  3. That looks terrifying, and I’m glad to hear that you, your family, and your house came through relatively unscathed, although seeing the damage to friends and neighbours and their properties must be really tough. I’ve been through a few big windstorms that downed trees and took out our power and caused leaky rooves and destroyed our boat motor, and a few big snowstorms that kept us homebound for a few days. But those are relatively minor inconveniences compared to what you’re describing. I hope that’s it for you for a few years at least!

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          1. Yes I pulled off into a bar and had to park the car so that it was positioned against two walls and then wade my way into the bar. I had seen it coming for miles – had been to visit the archaeological site at Filitosa. The hailstones that started coming down were the size of golf balls and i already had a crack in my screen.

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  4. Family and friends lived through Hurricane Hugo in 1989. The storm devastated the coast of South Carolina and then went up into North Carolina. Charleston, SC was flooded. The clay tiles on the roofs of 18th homes were torn off. There was no power for weeks and schools were cancelled for all that time. My families property had a huge number of trees my father had planted and most were gone. Before the storm you could barely see the sky and afterwards, there was nothing but sky. My husband, daughter and I went down for Christmas that year and I cried most of the way down, because it looked like a war zone. Even though I didn’t live through that storm, not being able to contact my parents was a nightmare. We all recovered, including Charleston, and the rest of the coast. This past summer Hurricane Florence came in near Wilmington, NC and devastated that state as well as parts of South Carolina. Being on the SE coast of the US, we’re always in hurricane mode from 1 June through 1 November. It makes life interesting.
    I’m so glad you and your family and neighbors are all recovering.

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  5. I’m relieved to hear that you and your family are all right. So kind (and brave) of you to overcome your reticence to have animals nearby and to shelter them for your neighbors.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’m so pleased that you are okay. I was back in the UK when the storms struck, although my husband was still in France. Luckily, Castelnaudary escaped the flooding but we do know people who have been badly affected.

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  7. Wondered about you as the storms went through…just devastating. Glad to hear that you and your family weren’t subjected to the worst of the storm’s damage.

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  8. Very glad you and yours are OK. US media had little info, just generalized fear-mongering, and only the same two or three pictures over and over. Trèbes, I think.
    I’ve been through lots of hurricane-caused storms in the US, as well as the odd blizzard and tornado warnings. Plus an earthquake in Peru strong enough to make tall buildings sway. I can report that sustained winds of 60 mph are enough to drive a tree branch through a shingled roof like an arrow into a straw bale.
    Stronger storms were predicted years ago as climate change took hold, so we’d best get used to it.

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  9. I have been waiting to hear from you. I read about it hitting your town. It looked pretty terrifying so I am so glad you made it through. It is so sweet that “your Kid” is so kind hearted. My sympathies to those that lost so much.

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  10. I watched in horror as the news showed the devistation. I haven’t gone through something like this myself. However, a country town in Queensland back in 2011 had a storm pass through. Toowoomba, a town I lived in for a few years, through the drought. I had made many friends there. The town is on the top of a plateu that then drops suddenly down into the Lockyer Valley. The rain that day was so quick and heavy that as it literally poured over the edge of the hill and downstream to Brisbane. So many lives lost. Thankfully my friends were safe.

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  11. Thank you for the update. I am glad to hear that you and your family made it through this most “hellish” of events. To think that two weeks prior we were in the region enjoying the beautiful weather, the scenery, the vineyards and the people. My heart goes out to all affected. Again, glad to hear that you and yours and all you hold dear are OK.

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    1. Well, the weather is beautiful again. Much of the scenery is back to normal, even better after getting hydrated. But the low areas where the water went through are still digging out mud. I hope you get to come back, and I bet most of the traces of the flash floods will be completely erased by then.

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    1. Someone told me that the old stone houses make it through floods well. Villages typically arose near rivers–before plumbing the rivers were their water source. The ground floor of the house was for hanging laundry (in the historic heart of villages, there are no yards), and maybe keeping some farming tools or bicycles. The living room and kitchen would be upstairs, and the bedrooms above that. Water was almost expected to come through. With no placo/drywall, the stone walls would dry out quickly because stones don’t absorb any water.

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      1. Quite right. Old stone houses are not designed to be impervious. That style of building only comes in the mid-19C. The walls are designed to absorb the water like a sponge then wick it out again through the mortar with the action of wind and sun. It’s why you must not use concrete on them because it is too hard and causes the water to come out via the stone, thus dissolving it over time. It’s why masons talk about old buildings needing to breath.

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  12. I remember being in France watching footage on the internet of a flood washing away parked cars from a carpark that I used to park my car for work in Australia. It was jawdropping. A few years ago when I was back visiting I photographed the Swift Water Response Team (a division of the Fire Brigade) practicing in the local swimming pool. A bunch of heroes if ever there was one, and in my part of Australia, all volunteers.

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  13. I got caught in the 1999 flood – went to birthday party in Azille, driving through the pouring rain and through water that was already lying on the roads. I knew that I would not be able to leave the village once I got there! We had a good party, and slept on the floor. In the morning all we could see was water – a huge lake had appeared below the village overnight. There was no electricity, no phone, and not much in the way of mobile phones either. I did make it home, that day, through devastated villages, past torn up roads and washed away bridges. I vowed that I would never go out again in that kind of weather!!

    In Saint-Chinian the river was more or less at normal flow last Monday at 8am – the highest level was around 11am, and then it dropped very quickly…

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    1. It peaked here around 5 or 6 a.m. (in the dark, so scary), and you could watch it descend almost by the minute. Really a flash.
      Azille is kind of on a hill, with a big plain below–I can imagine it turned into a lake. You were smart to stay put!

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  14. We were living in Floure (Aude) during the 1999 flood. Our house was up a hill so we had a little water come in from the patio and lots of drips but otherwise OK. In the morning it was still raining so my husband got the car out to take the oldest to college in Capendu. He got through some flooded roads but when he came across a fire truck on its side he turned back – the college was closed anyway we found out later! Over 30 people lost their lives. Some friends spent 12 hours on their roof in the rain in the ‘etang’ of Marseillette. It took 6 of us 3 days to clear all the rubbish out of just one of our vineyards – including a pre-war truck!

    This time we still had the drips and the flooded roads and now all those uprooted trees have ended up on the beach at St Pierre.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow! We got an SMS from the school saying it was closed. But while we were supposed to get an SMS from the mairie, we didn’t, nor did our neighbors. No idea whether it was because of bad mobile service or a problem with the mairie’s system.

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  15. Thank God you are ok! I always feel so bad when I see the devastation of these storms. Over the years I have seen many bloggers who have lost everything in Hurricanes and storms. We live in a hurricane area and experience either the winds or N’or Easters every year. This year alone we have had the unrelenting winds and water from 2 hurricanes. Thankfully we only had trees down. About 6 years ago a N’or easter did a significant amount of damage to the house.

    You are a good friend to let your neighbors bring over their dogs.

    My thoughts and prayers are will all of those suffering in your area.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. WE had a flood in the year 2000………..our house was okay but our chicken coop and neighbors were headed underwater……..I saved the neighbors chickens by putting them in trash bins and passing them up to another person……..the fireman yelled at me!”LADY LADY GET OUT OF THERE WE COULD HAVE A FLASH FLOOD AT ANY MOMENT!I YELLED BACK THAN GRAB A CHICKEN I”M NOT LEAVING TILL THEY ARE ALL ACCOUNTED FOR!!!!!!MY husband got to our GEESE right before THEY were going to DROWN………I have never been SO TERRIFIED!HE THAN took the BOYS SAILBOAT and sailed down the backyard to the neighbors 4 houses away to assist there………the PIPE had CLOGGED and water was backing up……..later they found a TREE a refrigerator and a DEER BODY inside.Water went in the neighbors house…………it was a MESS.
    MY HEART GOES OUT TO THOSE PEOPLE……….COOK FOR THEM!XOXO

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow. A sailboat in a flashflood is still pretty dangerous. Glad you saved the chickens. Talk about a good neighbor! Because this flash flood happened at 5 a.m., many animals died–the owners were asleep and unaware, or woke up too late to be able to take action.

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  17. What an incredible and terrifying experience! So glad you and your family came through it in one piece. I agree with your kid that it’s nice to see neighbours out helping each other, yet sad that it takes a disaster to make it happen. How ironic that I just posted about drought in our area! Although we all know that drought and flooding are two sides of the climate change coin, yet I can’t help but be horrified to see so much proof so close. Is your electricity back?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, the electricity stayed on, but flickered the first day. The Internet took much longer, and we still don’t have fixed phone service.
      We were in a drought until the big rains came. Not a drop of rain, for weeks.

      Liked by 2 people

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