I drove across the Tuscarawas and headed north, wondering what it must feel like to survive a flood.
Years ago, I read Dave Eggers’s Zeitoun. I’m still haunted today — this afternoon, especially — by one of Eggers’s many startling post-flood descriptions. This particular description captures oil and gasoline burbling up to the surface of the floodwater.
And then there’s the way those same floodwaters warped walls, turned neighborhoods in the Ninth Ward to underwater ruins, and became poisonous, even deadly if entered or consumed.
This is Hurricane Katrina, and New Orleans. This is our recent history. Zeitoun, the subject of Eggers’s account, tried helping others trapped by the water to find shelter, safety, and food. For his troubles, he was mistaken for a looter and a terrorist and jailed. He suffered and nearly died in captivity.
The book stays close to Zeitoun’s experiences but carries one hell of a walloping argument against flimsy bureaucracies, all while mounting a strong defense of the lives those bureaucracies quash.
Floods are disastrous. Transformative, for better or worse.
There is, however, despite their destructive powers, a certain kind of beauty in disasters. Floods, especially. Call it the beauty of inevitability: something happens, and when we realize we’re powerless to stop it, we’re held in thrall while walls collapse and the very floor beneath our feet washes away.
Such a disaster happened here, in Dover, OH, over a hundred years ago. The river broke its banks, wrecked all the shops and homes along Dover’s Front St. There are photographs taken of the destruction caused by the flooding. Its aftershock is still visible in the few skeletal remains of old homes falling slowly to pieces at the edge of the river course as it runs today.
At the dam this afternoon, I kept thinking: this structure represents our best effort to prevent the inevitable. It has a certain beauty, this dam. Call it a steadfast beauty, the kind one hopes will sustain, even save us, when all else threatens to wash away.