We 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Our 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.
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?