The rains started midday.
It was a Monday in mid-August, a normal work day — meetings and mini-crises averted. I thought little about the pounding rain outside as I sat through another conference call.
At 6 p.m, just before my commute home, my husband called me to tell me the highway was shut down.
It was completely underwater.
I’ve lived in Michigan nearly my entire life, and in metro Detroit for more than a decade. I can’t recall another time the highway shut down due to flooding.
I started plotting alternative routes, and headed out on the back roads of Detroit, the parks and gas stations, the abandoned houses and vacant storefronts barely visible through the falling rain. The windshield wipers flew at top speed, over-matched by the deluge. The water covered the curbs, making it hard to know where the road began and ended, where the yellow lines were. My car slashed through puddles, sending water in waves six feet high.
I thought many times that I’d flooded out. But I plowed forward, through backups and detours and streets that looked like rivers and dips that sent me into what felt like rapids.
When I finally made it to my neighborhood — normally a leafy, beautiful suburb just a few miles north of Detroit — I found a lake in my front yard, and a parked car in the street buried up to its headlights. I crossed my fingers and pointed the car toward my driveway. For the only time, I felt like a genius for driving an SUV.
Once home, it became clear my problems were just beginning.
Water — dirty, black, and smelly — gushed into the basement through a toilet and the single floor drain. The toilet looked like a geyser, shooting water a foot into the air. The water rose rapidly throughout the small space, which was half-finished and housed our boys’ playroom and a majority of their toys, as well as our washer, dryer, furnace, hot water heater, and a host of odds and ends that had no other logical home.
At first, not knowing what to do, we moved things a foot off the ground, thinking there was no way the water would rise higher than that. But it continued up and up, two feet, three feet, four, pouring over the items we’d mistakenly thought we’d saved.
Soon, nearly everything was under water. Or floating in it.
The water rose until 10 p.m. that night. We finally gave up attempting to do anything about it — what could we do? We’d saved what we could, which wasn’t much. Instead, we stood on our porch, with the water lapping our feet, and yelled across the street to neighbors on their porches, all of us in shock at what was happening around us. Ill-advised drivers, including a fire truck, flooded out in front of us. Later a tree, its roots weakened by the waves, toppled over with a frightening crack, just missing a house. I went inside and moved my children to a back bedroom, afraid the tree in front of our house would do the same.
We barely slept that night. Calls to our insurance provider left us with daunting news —they wouldn’t cover anything. Calls to restoration companies promised little help — we were on the wait list along with hundreds of others, they’d get to us when they could. Finally, at 5:30 a.m., I gave up on sleep and headed down to the soaked basement to assess the damage.
It smelled like a sewer. Black muck covered everything. All the contents of my basement were tossed about like someone lifted the entire room and shook it like a snow globe.
The bongos I bought my husband for his birthday in our mid-20s were tossed onto the toilet. He’d always wanted to learn how to play, and loved those drums, even if he never did take a lesson. Now, that option was literally in the shitter.
The pillow I’d handmade for my son J.J.’s nursery was a goner, too. Standard advice was to toss anything that could absorb the water.
We threw away tons of toys, luggage, photos, my husband’s entire childhood baseball card collection. Our filling cabinet did little to protect important documents. They’re still sitting in a pile in my garage — I can’t bring myself to sort them.
We were not alone, not by far. We were just one of more than 118,000 homes and business effected. All in all, the flood sent 10 billion gallons of sewer water into Detroit-area homes, causing $1 billion in damages. I saw reports that 95 percent of the homes in my neighborhood flooded. And why? Why was it so bad? Reports listed a confluence of factors. A supposedly “historic” rain — five inches that fell in a matter of hours. Meteorologists said it was the wettest day in Detroit history. They began calling it the 100-year storm. Also playing a role was an outdated sewer system that simply wasn’t built to handle that much water. There were rumors that someone forgot to flip a switch at the drainage facility. Another that scrappers stole parts that precluded it from working properly.
What I really lost on August 11, 2014 was not my possessions or a large chunk of my savings, although those were painful in their own right. What I truly lost was my confidence that climate change is something “out there,” something far away, that won’t touch me or the people I love. I suppose what I lost was my sense of removal.
Crazy weather happenings make national news, what, once a quarter now? Here in Detroit, we’ve been through winters in the last few years that also made the history books for being the coldest or snowiest ever. Who can really say that this storm, this flood was something that will only come once a century? I don’t buy it.
We rebuilt our basement anyway. Over six months, we bought a new furnace, water heater and dryer, a new couch, new walls, floor and paint.
That’s the thing about us humans. We continue to have hope against all evidence that life will return to what it was like before, hope that we can control our little corner of the universe. The truth is, things change, and as an individual, I can’t control much of anything, especially — outside of making better choices to reduce my own footprint — the climate. I’m OK with that.
And I love my new basement. I love its shiny exopy floors and the nook for my sewing projects and a new lime-green couch. I’m not happy the flood happened. But I do feel wiser for it. And I feel comfort that we can lose so much and still let hope, however misguided, remain.