Before me, the deluge

July 25, 2018

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
July 25, 2018

Author’s note: This post contains some profanity near the end. MEM

Early on the morning of Tuesday, July 24, it began raining in Durham — very hard. My car, a lightly used loaner that I’d purchased from a Raleigh dealership the day after the 2016 election, was parked in its usual spot by my house. I gave a little thought to moving it.

I ended up not acting on that impulse, but I ought to explain why it occurred to me.

About two months ago, I wrote a post about my fruitless search for a radio interview with Scott Huler, the author of the 2011 book On the Grid: A Plot of Land, an Average Neighborhood and the Systems that Make Our World Work. The impulse to move my car was motivated by the very same incident that prompted me to look for that (possibly imagined?) interview.

It all started on the night of Thursday, May 17, about a day and a half before I left for this year’s pokerpalooza. I left Raleigh around 11:15 that evening, taking my usual route — really, the only sensible way — home along Interstate 40 west. About midway through the trip, it started pouring. It was enough of a torrent that I considered pulling over.

I didn’t, but I decided that if it was stilling raining heavily when I reached downtown Durham, I would take a different route to my house. My customary journey involves some undulating local roads, and I didn’t want to encounter any washed-out troughs.

I got off N.C. 147 at my usual exit, Duke Street, but I encountered a spot of trouble soon after I turned onto West Main Street, which I thought might offer a safer alternative. There was some flooding where Main met Gregson Street. I proceeded cautiously through the intersection.

The rest of the trip was more genial, despite the continuing downpour. I considered different ways to go as I drove, trying to identify the roads that were least likely to flood. I was successful…

…until I reached the road where I live.

I live on a generally quiet residential street; there’s an exception to that “generally,” because the road is sometimes used as a cut-through by impatient drivers.

My house is situated near a creek. When I pulled onto my street, I saw something that I’d never seen before: Water was pouring across the asphalt.

All of about a 30-yard stetch of the road was covered with overflow from the creek across from where I live. Normally, it would divert into the stormwater drain on the curb in front of my house, but there was so much liquid that an impromptu lake had formed on one side of the road.

I sat in my car for a bit. When the rain slacked a bit, I cautiously began making my way to my front door.

It was too dark to see clearly. However, the impression I got was that my entire front yard, up to and including my little porch, had been swallowed up by the lake. I shuddered to think how much water was flowing into the actual house. I decided against fording the yard, which would have meant getting soaked up to my knees, if not higher.

Instead, I retreated to my car and waited for the deluge to recede. As I tarried, two or three motorists advanced to the washed-out section of road, saw that the pavement had been submerged, and turned their vehicles around.

It wasn’t until a little after midnight that I actually dared venture all the way to my porch. When I got inside, I was relieved to discover that only a tiny trickle of water had gotten past the door.

There was a bit of business to attend to before I could call it a night, however. I’d noticed a sort of wake in the street near my house, apparently caused by some bit of debris that had been washed into the travel lanes. Eventually it became clear that the waters had carried the remains of a stump from one side of the pavement nearly all the way to the other.

Before I could remove it from the road, however, a vehicle began approaching, its engine roaring. I took a step or two into the road and waved my arms, but the driver didn’t slow, so I backed out of the way. The automobile — an SUV, if memory serves — smacked hard into the stump. The vehicle stayed on the road but moved with a rattle.

The vehicle came to a stop about 40 yards from where the road bottomed out. “What was that?” the indignant driver cried out angrily. “What the fuck was that?!” 

There wasn’t much to be said at that point; I mentioned a stump, trying not to sound smug about it. I noticed that the vehicle had temporary license plates, from which I inferred that it had been purchased no more than two or three weeks previously.

The guy didn’t ask me for help, so I turned around and began walking back toward my house. As I did, he cursed some more and pulled away, still going far too fast for the streets he was on, even if the roads weren’t wet.

I got my first good look at the stump. Indeed, it was the same one that I sometimes parked my car near when I left it on the far side of the street from my house. It was heavy, perhaps 50 pounds or maybe even more. Its position in the street was a testament to the power of floodwater, which the National Weather Services says causes more deaths than any other thunderstorm-related hazard — and which, as Scott Huler may or may not have noted, can damage buildings and infrastructure if not properly diverted by stormwater drains.

Ever since that night, when I know there’s a chance of heavy rain, I try not to park directly in front of my house. Fortunately, Tuesday morning’s precipitation didn’t seem to do any harm to my car.

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