Before me, the deluge — again!

September 25, 2018

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 25, 2018

Having finished most of my hurricane preparations on the afternoon of Thursday, Sept. 13, I checked the forecast decided that I should conduct the rest of my day as I normally would. That meant going to Raleigh to play poker.

That went more or less as it usually does, although some wind buffeted my car on the drive home. I monitored weather conditions and watched and listened for wind and rain throughout Friday, but conditions in Durham didn’t seem in any way remarkable to me, even though the storm system made landfall in Wrightsville Beach, N.C., early that morning.

Things could change radically, of course, if the Hurricane Florence’s track shifted north — but it never did. On Saturday, if anything, the rain and wind seemed to be even lighter than what we’d seen on Friday.

Matters intensified the next day. From my perspective, Sunday featured by far the heaviest cloud cover and most consistent precipitation of the entire storm. That evening turned out to be somewhat jarring, as I was at a bar showing local news, which kept on blaring tornado warnings about funnels touching down somewhere east of Henderson.

However, for me, the worst was yet to come. I don’t remember what time I got to bed Monday morning, but it was probably after 1 or 1:30 a.m. Once I actually fell asleep, I slept soundly…until I didn’t.

I don’t know why, but I woke up around 5 a.m. Perhaps it was the rain, which was coming down harder than at any time in the previous week. I went to my front porch and looked out on the scene. Rather unsurprisingly, water was pooling in front of the storm drain on the curb in front of my house, where I used to park my car.

Unable to fall back asleep, I climbed into bed and fiddled with my phone. Every 15 minutes or so, I peeked out a window or went back out to the porch to check on the situation. A little before 6, I saw that the curbside stream flowing into the storm drain had grown; now, it stretched the entire length of the property. What’s more, the body of water now extended a foot or more into the street at its widest point.

Shortly afterward, I happened to glance out my front window and was shocked by what I saw. In a matter of about five minutes, the water had leaped the curb and swamped my entire front yard.

I went to the porch and stared for a bit. Water covered about a third of the street in front of my house. I took a 65-second video and went back inside.

My home was now on the verge of flooding, I realized. I hastily dressed myself and made sure my computer backpack was ready to grab. There was no way I was going to leave by the front door at this point, so I did something that I literally had not done in years: I unlocked my side door.

This door is in the kitchen, and I really never use it at all. My garbage can blocks it, and the door’s deadbolt has been engaged about 99.9 percent of the time since I moved into this residence in September 2013. In fact, as I rediscovered later Monday morning, the side door doesn’t remain closed unless the deadbolt is set.

I used my key to unlock the door from the inside and tugged on it a few times until it opened up. At 6:05, I stepped onto my side porch and was taken aback at the sight that greeted me.

Not only was my front yard covered in roiling water, the narrow strip of land between my house and the driveway next door was underwater. Actually, the driveway, formerly a dirt and gravel track that had been coated in concrete just a few weeks earlier, was itself partly covered by rushing liquid. There wasn’t a safe way to step from my side porch to dry land.

I spent a few minutes taking video, staring at my new neighborhood hellscape and considering my options.

The scene, unusual to begin with, was not exactly unprecedented: Back in May, I’d seen the street by my house completely flood thanks to a downpour that lasted at least half an hour. The difference back then, though, was that I was outside the house, not inside it.

Two factors made the current situation seem unreal, almost hallucinatory. One was that the developing disaster was extremely localized. My residence sits at the low point of the street, and only my house was in danger of being swamped. Water wasn’t accumulating in any other yard, nor even on the street in front of any other structure.

The other strange thing was that some of my neighbors were doing something that occasionally kept me up at night: Playing music loudly. I’m not sure if there’s a band that practices in the house or if they’re just turning up the volume on their sound system, but the throb of their bass often shakes my bedroom at odd hours. (Bear in mind, these aren’t my immediate neighbors — the people in question are located across the street and one house over.)

Anyway, as I surveyed the flooding, the sound of rainfall and rushing water was complemented by bass rumbles from otherwise incomprehensible music.

I should put in a word here about the dangers I was facing. It would take an immense amount of water for me to face any chance of drowning in my own house. Still, floodwater is typically contaminated by chemicals and bacteria, and if something were to surge onto the front porch and past the door, I obviously couldn’t just slosh around willy-nilly.

Of course, water hadn’t gotten that high yet. (As far as I could tell, it never rose past the top step.) So there wasn’t an urgent need to evacuate.

For a long minute, I thought about leaving the house and retreating to my car, which was parked in a safe spot up the hill. At best, any attempt to exit would see me getting soaked up to the ankles, if not higher. I imagined myself slipping while carrying my computer; despite being cocooned in my backpack, it could suffer serious damage. Even worse, there was a very real chance that I could slip and drown.

Ultimately, I decided that the risk outweighed the reward. Though the water might yet rise higher, it would eventually recede. Yes, I might have to evacuate the house, but if so, I would either wait until I could see the ground beneath my feet or — if absolutely necessary — call 911 to be rescued.

So I did what I normally do when I wake up early in the morning: I went back to bed, looked at the web and Twitter and eventually fell back sleep. The falling-back-asleep part took awhile, however, since my phone received a number of emergency alerts due to possible tornados. (In the end, from what I learned, none touched down near me.)

But fall asleep I did. And when I awoke, the area around me was much drier — and much, much safer.

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