Looking back now, I think it was around 3 AM on September 26, 1985, while lying on the floor of the Virginia Beach Convention Center, staring at the underside of a folding table, when my husband and I decided to move to higher ground. We had spent the previous day fastening plywood over windows, emptying shelves, closets and cabinets and then stacking our upholstered furniture, rugs, clothing, books and tools atop counters, tables and wooden chairs, trying to protect them from anticipated flood waters. Hurricane Gloria, described at one point as the “Storm of the Century,” was swirling off the coast, predicted to make a direct hit on Virginia Beach on the morning of the 26th. Our suburban lot, set two blocks back from the Atlantic Ocean, was low-lying. A long-time resident told us that, during the famous Ash Wednesday Storm of 1962, flood waters had reached our front door knob. We had flood insurance but, studying the fine print while hurricane warnings sounded over the radio, we realized that the policy only covered the “depreciated value” of the contents of the house. Depreciated value on a ten year old television, twenty year old books and a thirty year old sofa does not equal replacement value. Thus, the eight hour stacking, stashing and boarding up marathon.
And so, we decided to “be safe” and move to higher—much higher—ground in the Shenandoah Valley, two hundred miles inland. Ironically, six weeks after Hurricane Gloria decided to give Virginia Beach a pass and strike Long Island instead, a storm spawned in the aftermath of Hurricane Juan devastated West Virginia and parts of western Virginia, including the Shenandoah Valley. When we arrived there the following spring, we were greeted by the sight of a two story house, still wedged high in an oak tree overhanging the Middle River, where flood waters had left it months earlier.
We found the home of our dreams--a hundred year old “fixer-upper”-- perched atop a hill surrounded by rolling countryside, framed to the east by the Blue Ridge Mountains and by the Appalachians to the west. No large bodies of water in sight. Safe at last, we thought.
We were taken aback, therefore, when a tornado struck the nearby town of Augusta Springs. It knocked a century-old wood frame church off its foundation, then skipped over a hill and reduced a trailer to a few scraps of aluminum and shreds of insulation. I commented to an elderly neighbor at what a freakish occurrence a tornado in these parts must be and he nodded, noting, however, that the last one he recalled had torn a path across his pasture before knocking the top off one of the massive oak trees that shaded our own house.
“Oh,” I said, swallowing, “I noticed that the tops of three of the oak trees were broken off. They all must have been damaged in that same storm.”
“Oh, no,” he replied. “The tornado only got one of them. Lightning strikes got the other two.”
One day we got word that my friend Lucy’s house had burned to the ground. My husband and I grabbed some crowbars and headed over to her place, thinking to help her shift the wreckage enough to recover some of her belongings.
“No”, she said, as we arrived to see the flat black ruins. “You don’t get it--there’s nothing left to move.”
Her big, solid house-- like our own--had been built of chestnut—a hard wood that had been seasoning for a hundred years. You just can’t get better firewood than that.
Twenty-one years after our run-in with Hurricane Gloria, we passed through the eye of Typhoon Xangsane in our present home in Da Nang, Vietnam, two blocks from the South China Sea. We survived unscathed, but the City of Da Nang appeared devastated. The typhoon ripped off part, if not all, of everyone’s roof. Great trees that formerly lined the avenues downtown were uprooted; tree limbs and downed electric lines blocked most roads.
Yet, even as the winds were dying down that Sunday evening, Da Nang residents were out salvaging corrugated metal panels and fixing their roofs. Enterprising people quickly began chopping up and hauling away downed trees, leaving only leaves and the smallest twigs for the city trash trucks. Electrical service was restored in a matter of days.
Less than two weeks later, another typhoon lurked off-shore. Da Nang residents bought empty feed sacks and headed resolutely down to the beach. They filled their sacks with sand and then hauled them up atop their houses to ensure that their newly repaired metal roofs stayed in place. The second storm by-passed Da Nang but the sandbags remained in place until the bags degraded and the sand sifted back down to earth many months later.
This year, in lieu of typhoons, central Vietnam was pummeled with a series of extremely heavy rain storms. I’m talking about days of continuous, horizontal, masonry-wall-penetrating rain! The storm drainage system of downtown Da Nang, for the most part, handled the run-off well—certainly much better than my old neighborhood in Virginia Beach. The Han River rose out of its banks, covering Bach Dang Street for one day. The nearby tourist town of Hoi An flooded, as it does every year. But, as soon as the flood waters receded, shops were mopped out, merchandize restocked and business resumed. Two days after river waters swept through a neighborhood on the outskirts of Da Nang, reaching a height of six feet within some houses, I traveled through to see freshly scrubbed houses, sleeping mats hung out to dry and people sipping coffee in the neighborhood shops.
My young friend Mieng confided that her grandmother’s house had washed away in the recent floods. Her grandmother lives in a bamboo hut by a river in Quang Ngai province.
“Oh, my God!” I said. “What will she do now?”
“The same thing she does every year,” said Mieng. “Stay at the community shelter until the flood waters recede and then rebuild her bamboo house with the help of her neighbors. My Dad wants her to move here, to Da Nang, and live with us, but she wants to stay in Quang Ngai with her friends and neighbors.”
My friend Tam tells me that, when she was a child in Da Nang, before the American War, all the houses in her neighborhood were made of bamboo. One day a fire swept through and burned them all down. I haven’t seen a fire engine in the year and a half that I’ve lived in Da Nang—but I haven’t seen a house on fire either. Da Nang houses now are made of brick and cement—impervious to both fire and flood. The walls are solid masonry; the floor is ceramic tile over concrete. There’s no carpet, no sheet rock, no insulation. If the roof blows off, they stick it back on. If the floor floods, they mop it. If the walls get wet . . . they get mildew.
Will we be able to avert the disastrous effects of global climate change? Maybe we will and maybe we won’t. But, even without that added complication, bad stuff happens. It always has and it always will. There is no safe place. Insurance policies and new technology are not the only possible responses to life in an unpredictable world. There’s a lot to be learned from cultures that have a history of weathering big storms and hard times.
A flexible reed may survive a storm that fells a mighty oak.