On terror, floods and a vanishing decade
A muddy flag hangs in a flooded basement in Binghamton.
It’s 9/11 and I am driving down Interstate 88 towards Binghamton, towards the flood. We live on the backside of the Catskills, a landscape of narrow valleys where a creek is never far away. Two weeks ago, half the towns in this corner of New York were washed out in Hurricane Irene.
Flood cleanup in Prattsville.
In villages like Schoharie and Margaretville and Prattsville, we were still digging out the mud, our boots and basements still wet, when we got hammered again by Tropical Storm Lee. Ten inches of rain in 24 hours and the rivers were soon muddy roiling torrents.
Silver Creek in Oneonta is usually a quiet, mossy trickle this time of year.
The Binghamton area, where the Chenango River spills into the Susquehanna, was the worst hit. 20,000 people are still evacuated. Water poured over banks and berms, flooding bridges and entire neighborhoods. Today I'm photographing the aftermath for the Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin.
I drive through Otego. Three days ago, this valley was impassable. I-88 follows the Susquehanna River, as does NY Rte 7, and County Hwy 48. After the water covered the floodplains and cornfields, it came for the roads. I stood here near Exit 13, middle of the empty interstate, watching Otego Creek stream over the pavement before turning my car around. That day, it took me two hours on the mountain roads to find a way through.
Butternut Creek water rises over the bridge in Gilbertsville.
In Otego, the mud lines are clearly visible. A layer of silt coats every plant and wall, up to 2, 3, 4 feet off the ground. Now the water is finally receding. The highway is open except for a mudslide in Chenango. Mud and water, that’s all we’re thinking about now.
Johnson City. Many roads remain flooded three days after the storm.
In NYC, however, they are thinking not about water rising but planes falling. For 9/11, NPR is trying to broadcast simultaneously from Manhattan, the Pentagon and Shanksville, PA, while I drive downriver. The result is a disjointed potpourri of speeches and grief. Politicians recite poems and psalms. Bells toll for each plane crash. Amazing Grace, somber, a cappella. Two by two, the survivors at Ground Zero read from the endless list of names. But every time there’s another moment of silence, the damn Morning Edition announcer interrupts it. We are afraid of silence.
I pass Unadilla. On Thursday, they were underwater on 3 sides. A firetruck was the last vehicle down Main Street before they close it. I stopped then in the middle of the intersection:
The water over the road is the color of coffee with too much milk. A state trooper tells me: “I can’t advise you to cross, but I won’t stop you from trying.” I get out and walk into the moving water. There’s a sheen of oil on top, swirling. I feel the current as the river overtops my boots. I keep my eyes on the double yellow line and I’m soon across. A second officer is turning motorists back to the highway. I slosh back to my car and make it to Exit 10.
Houses underwater in Unadilla near Exit 10.
On NPR, the reading of names continues. Of all the speakers, it is Bush — the one we loved to hate, the one who marched us to war nearly a decade ago — who brings tears to my eyes. He reads a letter from Lincoln to
"the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle.” Hearing that voice, I talk back to my radio: What might have happened had we sought peace? Why did you do it?
He answers: “I feel how weak and fruitless must be any words of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming.”
It’s five miles from Unadilla to Sidney, same distance as Central Park to the WTC. I pass Sidney, where they are still underwater, and on to Ninevah when NPR plays the screams of eyewitnesses watching as the South Tower falls. Governor Cuomo, who was up here just last week, taking flood photos out the window of his SUV, quotes FDR on freedom from fear.
Clinton Street in Sidney.
I think of my friend Andrew, who lives just up from the Pentagon. In 1999, when we moved to Kazakhstan, Andrew stored a box for us in his basement, and he recently shipped it back. I opened it last night and wondered at the familiarity of the past. How a dozen years can vanish in a moment. Here is a notebook with phone messages. A dinner receipt from Las Placitas. A book I’ve been looking for — I knew it would turn up, how is possible it’s been missing twelve years?
Shoes float inside a Sidney home.
“Fool, said I, you do not know, silence like a cancer grows.” I’ve seen people despair over what they’ve lost, but many more resolute, determined to salvage what they can. “Words, like silent raindrops fell, and echoed in the wells of silence.” I’m going to Binghamton to listen. So I can report how people are surviving the biggest disaster in their own lives.
Paul Simon performs on 9/11.
I feel no older, but how different the world is a decade after this all began. Can you remember 2001? We were so hopeful then. We thought there could be peace. Was it simply naiveté? Because I can see now, the wars and the floods, they are never going to stop. Not until we change the ways we live. Until we become brave enough to accept some blame.
From Ground Zero, Amazing Grace again, haunting on flute. Former Governor Pataki reads from Billy Collins’ poem The Names:
Names rising in the updraft amid buildings.
Names silent in stone
Or cried out behind a door.
Names blown over the earth and out to sea…
So many names, there is barely room on the walls of the heart.
Why do we memorialize our suffering? Will it really help us heal? In Binghamton, I get out of my car in the mud below Riverside Drive and get to work.
The flooded Susquehanna River, in Vestal.