When I first come home, the streets are still crumbling. It’s fall break, early November, a month since President Obama officially declared the city a disaster zone. It rains the entire week. Driving through my neighborhood the first evening, everything looks different. Repair teams have blocked off the broken edges of roads with traffic cones and caution tape, and the asphalt’s red-clay underbellies form small canyons. Mobile attics sit in neighbors’ driveways, filled with ruined furniture. I have to take a detour out to the main road — our small creek bridge was flooded, and the repair efforts haven’t yet determined whether it’s structurally sound. I imagine the bridge collapsing out from under my mom’s Camry, the car wedged into rubble and muddy water. It’s a fleeting but familiar thought: in elementary school I was afraid of bridges, always worrying that my parents’ minivan would veer off the edge or that the entire structure would break apart, free-falling into the water below.
The flood conjures up a laundry list of these forgotten childhood phobias: bridges, floods, hurricanes, cars trapped in rising water. As a Sunday-school kid raised on Old-Testament horror stories, I went through a phase where I was even afraid of rain, images of Noah’s ark flashing across my mind during every thunderstorm. When I thought “flood,” I thought in Biblical proportions — whole houses underwater, families living in inflatable orange rafts. Sunday-school teachers told us that God promised to never flood the earth again, but I eyed rainclouds warily, suspicious of someone who would drown everyone on earth to begin with.
Growing older, I learned that my hometown is not a flood zone. Two hours from the ocean and not particularly low-lying, Columbia, South Carolina is not supposed to flood. Most homeowners don’t even have the insurance for it, assured by real estate agents that there was no risk. The only threat is one buried in Columbia’s psyche: Lake Murray Dam, west of the city, breaking and flooding the whole area, a hundred thousand people’s homes destroyed. When I was in middle school, the city developed emergency escape routes and sounded practice sirens every Tuesday in case of a dam breach. Some residents would have time to move to higher ground. But my family, a two-minute drive from the lake, wouldn’t even make it out of the neighborhood.
When the reports of flooding first came in, my only connection to those back home was social media. High school friends posted about the Red Cross’s text-to-donate fund, hashtagging their tweets #prayforsc. I watched Snapchat stories of the damage over and over. Despite the severity of the situation — or because of it — people tried to maintain a sense of humor. A girl tweeted Drake’s latest Instagram selfie with the caption, “This just brought the flood indoors.” Some evangelicals took a different approach. They declared the flood an act of God, punishment for the Supreme Court’s legalization of gay marriage or the Confederate flag’s removal from State House grounds over the summer. Or, according to a few ambitious Facebook posts, both.
But the scariest part wasn’t the apocalyptic predictions — it was the water itself. A photo album of the worst flooding circulated on Facebook. Most of the pictures were taken in my neighborhood, one of the hardest-hit areas in Columbia; the state newspaper called it the “ground zero” of the flood. There were almost definitely implicit socioeconomic biases attached to this label (downstream, poorer and blacker neighborhoods received less attention despite worse damage) but my neighborhood was badly affected.
The reason is simple: the creek that runs through our backyards is a tributary of the Saluda River, which flows out of Lake Murray. SCE&G, the company that owns the nearby hydroelectric plant, released water from the rising lake, afraid that too much pressure would break the dam. When they opened the floodgates, the river rose and swallowed the surrounding area. In the pictures online, it’s barely recognizable: creek swollen and glassy and breathtakingly wide, roads turned into rivers twelve feet deep, a pasture entirely submerged, its horses found by the train tracks miles away. In one picture, the swim and racquet club is drowned up to the tip of its pointed roof. I clicked through the photo album for hours.
But this was nothing compared to the pictures my mom texted me, taken from an upstairs window at home. The creek rises after every rain, but in the eighteen years we’ve lived in Columbia, it’s never overflowed its banks. As a kid, when I asked if our house could ever flood, my dad pointed out the hill it was built on and assured me that it would “take a miracle” for any water to reach us. By “miracle” I understood he didn’t mean manna falling from the sky, a burning bush, the Red Sea parted. He meant swarms of locusts, water turned to blood, the Red Sea crashing back into itself and killing hordes of Egyptians. A miracle of vengeance. In the pictures my mom sent, the creek has inched its way up the hill, stopping barely three feet from the base of the house.
At the worst of the flooding, I called my parents too often, looking for updates when there were none. Maybe I was worried that, somehow, they wouldn’t be there to pick up my calls. Or maybe I was just putting off homework, unable to focus on academics while my state was underwater. My parents stayed with my sisters in a hotel for a few nights because the power grids were down, the water lines contaminated. It was hard to find places to eat, my mom told me. Even the Waffle Houses were closed, an unofficial FEMA metric for determining the severity of storm damage. It would be weeks before the boil-water advisory ended and power was fully restored. I wasn’t there for any of it.
The second time I come home, a few potholes have been filled with gravel or covered with metal plates, a trademark of South Carolina’s neglected roads. It’s been another three weeks, already late November. The trees are newly bare, dead leaves sitting curbside in fat black trash bags. Federal disaster relief funding has run out, and with the price of oil so cheap, there’s no state gas-tax revenue to repair the roads. The next time it rains, half of the potholes wash out again.
The next time I’m home, another three weeks have passed and nothing has changed. It’s late December, but the air has only gotten warmer. Christmas is a thick, humid seventy-five degrees. On the way to my grandmother’s house for dinner, the car windows won’t stop fogging up. I drive across the dam like I have so many times before, still distracted by the view: lake on the right, Columbia’s distant skyline on the left. The water is quiet and gray and, for once, empty. In a few months it’ll be filled with sailboats and jet skiers, Fourth of July houseboat parties and motorboats full of dads fly fishing. I wonder if warm winters will become the norm. If we’ll develop new holiday traditions — unwrapping presents on houseboats, eating pumpkin pie on the beach. If we’ll adapt to a more Australian Christmas.
Even lacking such a drastic transformation, though, it’s clear that things are changing. Weather predictions are becoming irrelevant. Thousand-year floods rise from the earth like some ancient plague. Winter lasts a week. It feels both strangely Old-Testament and disturbingly apocalyptic. It’s one thing to read about glaciers disappearing, to study countless line graphs charting temperature rise. It’s something else entirely to see pictures of creek water, thick with red clay, swirling around the base of my childhood home. To listen to my sister crying on the phone because it’s raining again and she’s scared. To see the broken roads and flooded homes that appear so often in news coverage of earthquakes, tsunamis, and hurricanes — except this time, I can name the street, the interstate exit, the graffiti on the back of the stop sign.
Despite the cheap road repairs and racist evangelicals, the flood makes me miss South Carolina. The state newspaper reports how the residents of my neighborhood band together, helping each other clear out rubble and providing shelter for those whose homes are damaged. Local churches lead relief efforts, hosting outdoor worship sessions and distributing Bojangles’ and Chick-fil-a to those in need. It’s all deliberately, proudly southern. At the same time, I feel like someone I love is in the hospital and I should be helping or at least suffering with them but I’m seven hundred miles away and everything is fine and it shouldn’t be. Like I’m trying to take ownership of a pain that doesn’t belong to me anymore. And it makes me nostalgic. It makes me want fried chicken.
By spring break, five months since the flood, I have to look more closely for its remnants. The city becomes a spot-the-difference puzzle: the neighborhood bridge is open again, but bears a strict weight limit. Most of the potholes have been refilled, packed more tightly this time, but their outlines remain in the road like scars. Old toys and lawn chairs that sat fading in the backyard are gone, swept away when the creek receded. Houses are still under repair, and a few have been abandoned entirely. The neighborhood is slowly rebuilding around the skeleton of its old self, bones mending after a fracture.
I read once that new bones grow back thicker and stronger. Maybe. But for now, my state is still healing, and the future is uncertain. Every season brings with it some new extreme. The cherry trees bloom too soon, the east coast drowns while the west withers with drought, winters bring so much snowfall that the northeast runs out of road salt. It seems likely, even inevitable, that disasters will keep happening, with increasing severity. So I worry about the next time. I worry like I did as a kid, afraid of floods and hurricanes and rain. I think back to my dad telling me it would take some kind of cruel miracle for our house to flood. It seems now like we’re on the brink of that miracle, three feet from that angry Old-Testament God who drowned the earth. How do we rebuild when it could happen again? What do we do when we repair our homes using life savings, only to have it all washed away a second time? What happens when a thousand-year flood becomes an annual occurrence?
One warm morning over spring break, I put on flip-flops and trek down to the creek. It’s sunny outside. The Bradford pears are blooming, bees humming. Baby catfish drift with the slow current. It all looks the same as it did when I was little, when I’d wade barefoot through the ankle-deep water, undisturbed by any knowledge of leeches or cottonmouths or invisible parasites that enter your body through your feet. I step into the creek and I’m ten years old again, raising slow-motion clouds of silt with my flip-flops. I walk a little ways, to the widest part, and stand in the current. I watch the creek’s constant motion, how it makes the sun ripple under its surface, how it never stops. All that water not knowing where it’s going, rushing toward it all the same.