End of the Line

Pass the Bucket

Defending a house from the encroaching water

Illustration: Barry Blitt

Have you ever had a gentle old dobbin out back turn into a herd of wild horses stampeding into your basement? If so, you may have some idea of what it was like when tropical storms made our river run amok.

I say “our river.” No one owns a river, but our backyard slopes gently twenty yards or so down to the edge of this one, the Konkapot, which generally amounts to what it is historically, an old mill stream. We sit in it on plastic yard chairs sipping gin and tonics. We float down stretches of it in inner tubes. We stand in it as crawfish give us pedicures. We watch a great blue heron flapping along the riverbed, woooop woooop woooop, and ducklings learning to fly.

Then: hurricane warnings! Okay, we stocked up on bottled water and batteries. Blow, wind, and burst your cheeks.

But when the storm reached us, it wasn’t windy. It just rained and rained and rained. How high’s the water, Mama? Pretty damn high, and rising, till it was twice as wide as usual, and ugly, swollen, snatching. A fifty-foot tree swept past us roots and all. Just upstream of us was a somewhat breached but still imposing old dam. That dam not only burst, it was dispersed—chunks of stone that had stood for a century and a half were flung downstream.

The river couldn’t quite get up to the house, so it came at us from the rear. The stream that usually trickles down the hillside above us, through a culvert under the road and perpendicularly into the river, had jumped its bank and was barreling into us broadside.

Power went out. When it came back on, the water in our basement was up to my knees, and the freezer and a lot of other stuff were afloat. You don’t like to see appliances floating. I was shaking the overwhelmed sump pump, trying to get it to kick back in. “Naw, man,” the sump pump said, “I can’t deal with this.”

My wife, Joan, and I were determined to deal—but should we be wading around in appliance-floating water with the power on? I shut off the breaker box. A two-person bucket brigade wasn’t working. I actually tried to suck hard enough on a length of garden hose to start a siphon effect.

A friend called with advice: Shake the sump pump harder. I went down there, found water up to mid-thigh, turned the power back on, braced for electrocution, and shook the sump pump harder. Said the sump pump: “What did I tell you before?”

A neighbor from up the road brought his portable sump pump. Water was an inch from the breaker box now. The neighbor’s sump pump didn’t work either. His wife had brought waders. She kept saying, “Doncha wanna wear these waders?” I kept saying, “No, I don’t want to wear those waders.” Just as I was about to tell her she wasn’t helping, she said, “Whyncha call the fire department?”

So, after a moment, I did. “If it’s a fire, you can put water on it,” observed one of the responding firefighters. “You can’t put anything on water.” But their gasoline-powered, eighty-gallon-a-minute pump brought the water down to where my sump pump could handle it. All brisk was the sump pump now—doing its job! I thanked the firefighters. But I didn’t feel brisk myself. I felt—not dispossessed, exactly, but…

“Yogi’s in the water!” Joan hollered. Yogi is a free-range neighbor dog, as are his parents. I happened to witness his very conception, perhaps, one afternoon while walking past where his mother lives. Now Yogi was being swept down the raging river. I took off running—not to dive in, exactly, but something… My feet went out from under me on the wet grass. Yogi clambered out up ahead, where the water had risen up over a ten-foot rock wall.

Three days later. The river is still very high, I’m home alone, darkness is approaching, and here comes the second storm. Float my appliances once—but not this time. I slosh up into the woods and find where the stream is jumping its bed. And I commence flinging logs and rocks till that stream is diverted back toward the culvert.

I wish you, or at least somebody, had seen me as I came back down out of those woods, as wet as a drowned rat but standing tall, savior of the basement. It’s not our river, but it is our house.