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Hurricane Ivan: Blood and Water

Next time, Joe will remember to turn off the faucets before watching the game.

"If you don't stop talking about the flooding, I'm gonna stick you!"

The voice came from behind the counter. People ready for the needle could not see the anger, but it splashed across the medical testing facility's waiting room. How could patients due for blood tests find a technician threatening them? The people with me in the waiting area exchanged glances across the open space, which suddenly felt much smaller.

"What happened to you?" I whispered. The First Amendment didn't go down the drain with the aftermath of Hurricane Ivan in Pennsylvania, did it?

Two brown-haired ladies and a polite gentleman in a jacket conspired with me to keep the lines of communication open. Blood may be thicker than water -- usually -- but right now we would greet Noah like a neighbor. In fact, I expect him to join in our Oktober Fests -- if he can navigate the detours.

"Oh, the rain -- "

"Did you hear me? I mean it! I lost everything. I'll stick you!"

Had Stephen King suddenly appeared in small town America? The academy award-winner Misery flashed across my brain. Why not? Natural disaster movies couldn't hope to thrill the locals anymore.

The angst accompanying Ivan lasted for weeks. After he re-grouped in the Gulf of Mexico, I followed his huffing and puffing, circles and tangents, every morning. The National Hurricane Center offered maps and predictions. They became my new favorite reading. In my corner of Pennsylvania, neighbors eyed each other sympathetically, waiting for the threat of hurricane-related flooding to disappear.

In the attenuated silence, we confessed our grief, as we must. It took courage for us to get out at 7 a.m. for medical tests, not knowing where clean-up crews would appear -- or what they would need to clean up.

All of us know the story now. The rain began like a black curse -- in the middle of the night while we slept, expecting Ivan to hurry on his way. By the early morning of Saturday, September 19, five inches had fallen in six hours. Still, the sky kept coming. We held our breath as, for the first time since the 1950s, friends and acquaintances rushed up and down Main Street. Panic tempted us to scream, but we stifled our voices.

Our volunteer fire department and small professional police force joined forces to face the threat as a single emergency management force. Flood barriers appeared, one after another, starting at my corner. Firefighters and policemen ordered mandatory evacuations, beginning at the other end of Main Street.

Farther down the road, all unseen, the flood rushed under a trestle, carrying debris. It kept going, wiping out Willow Park Road, a connecting route in Bethlehem. Chunks of pavement disappeared in the tide; water rounded the roadsides. Then, it flowed on to Butztown and William Penn Highway.

Word of these developments only came after we sheltered in place all Saturday, waiting for the decision of the police and fire department. Did this event mean I would come and go with the tide, too? Intermittently, I checked the spread of the flood's wake behind the houses across the road.

The canal through our town usually creates a quiet ribbon, threading its antique towpath behind backyards. Beyond the canal, offering 17 miles of continuous biking and hiking trails, lies the Lehigh River, a charming meanderer, draped with overhanging branches. The scene creates an idyllic painting -- emerald and gold reflections adrift with geese and ducks, goslings, ground hogs, and the occasional hunting dog, sure his prey hides around the next winding corner.

At some point in the chaos, the water drove a channel through the barrier between the canal and the river. Like the trail of an enormous finger, the route remained visible. Now, nothing stood between the houses and the river -- it just kept coming toward the houses, unimpeded. Reports of floodtide recession kept surfacing. Still, the water kept creeping. Picture a slow motion camera that goes on forever: I retreated to my home, lay down and pretended to sleep.

The emergency forces shouldered the responsibility of notifying residents when to evacuate. They came and went throughout the night, monitoring the tide and erecting barriers. They worked themselves to the bone ensuring that their evacuation notices arrived in time for residents to make an orderly exit, complete with children, clothing, valuables and insurance policies. By the time the weekend ended, I needed to restrain myself from hugging everyone one of them I met.

So, the people in that waiting room and I sure knew what we were talking about. We deserved the right to air our grievances, for even God stayed on 24-hour duty all weekend. I bet the calls pouring in from Freemansburg clogged the Divine airwaves. How else could it come to pass that the flood receded at some mysterious point, leaving a good number of us awed but safe?

I entered into the waiting room conversation as gracefully as possible, raising my voice just enough to carry over the office's banked files. "We need to talk," I said, no louder than necessary.

"Well, I'm warning you," came the reply.

"These stories provide therapy," I insisted.

A sign hanging in a rehabilitative hospital stuck in my memory: "Our patients have enough problems. Don't you be one of them!" This advisory permanently reminded healthcare deliverers to observe the rules of professionalism. This technician, however, swamped our experience with her own suffering. She could not keep her feelings under wraps any more than we could.

Given our mutual delivery from the Great Reaper, however, I held my arm forth bravely when my turn with the needle came.

"Are you really gonna stick me"? I asked, my voice quaking only slightly. My defiance remained clear -- not altogether wise, given the circumstances. I turned my eyes away from the needle.

The technician remained defiant, too. "I have nowhere to go," she wailed. Her hair hung about her shoulders, confined by a miserable scarf, just like mine. "My house went down the river -- everything!"

"Oh, I'm sorry," I finally managed. "I can never look at this," I admitted, inviting her to lavish her bravery where mine failed completely -- seeing a medical instrument penetrate the skin.

Thus invited, she explained the mysteries of healthcare -- not the natural forces which triumphed over both of us so recently. At least I no longer needed to ball my fist. At least I didn't cry -- and she didn't cry either. So for the duration of the shot, both of us managed to pretend that underneath the skin, where the blood flows relentlessly, we weren't children all our lives.

Perhaps the technician heard the tale, secure behind her self-imposed restrictions, that brought all of us to tears in that waiting room. Our favorite jewelry store, sitting in the center of our favorite little storybook town, suffered water to the ceiling last Saturday. As the villagers later discovered, the tide took all the babies' earrings, all the sterling frames for anniversary photographs, all the brides' and grooms' loving tokens, out through the front display window, depositing them for miles, deep in rubbish.

Whenever the name Ivan arises in the future, we will tell our stories of the Great Flood of '04. Undoubtedly, someone will say, "Oh, don't tell me about it! I can't stand to hear!" But the cause of free speech provides more security than mere comfort. Our stories mean we survived to put our communities back together. That process begins with the honest heart, unloading its own storm of grief and anger. In this swirl of passion, we push relentlessly forward, detours or no detours!

Looking like Alice, hair bedraggled and so fatigued she could barely stand, my healthcare provider shared her agony with me as I sought the narrative gold in the whirling streams that nearly carried all of us away.

So, Noah, come this way: You will always be welcome. Consider us your family. The doves, the sunny days, the beer-hall fests all rise before us as we head for October. By then, the repairs should be well underway, if not complete. Until then, look for me on the local bus. Miracles arrive as we let them -- in my case, six blocks from here, with a honk and a horrible groan at 7:05 a.m., sharp!

Meg Curtis