Saturday, July 08, 2006

July 8, 1994: When the Waters Rose

I WAS NOT KEEPING a blog on the 10th anniversary of the above date, so I couldn't commemorate it here. With one eye on the screen and the other on the blue skies over my town, far bluer than those on 7/8/04, I recount the day the waters of a northern border town of New Jersey swept away my coworkers' cars and trust in the weather.

At the time, I worked at a publisher of psychological and human-factors books and journals. The expansion of the production department and our need for warehouse space led the boss, in April 1994, to move both parts of the business to Northvale, a town on the New York–New Jersey border, far from the highways and malls that stereotype this state. The new workplace comprised two warehouses, each with vestigial office space. Into one of these spaces our production department was crammed. The office itself was at the blind end of a desolate, winding road, dotted with similar industrial spaces and partly paralleled by a water-filled ditch that terminated in a pond. Our nearest neighbor was a manufacturer of cologne, and the factory lent the air a sickly-sweet redolence.

In the months since our move, I and my coworkers noticed that the groundwater in the area, which also saturated the woods between our parking lot and the cologne factory, rose easily when heavy rain fell. The ditch and pond are part of the Sparkill Creek, which flowed across the border from New York. Bureaucratic turf conflicts had prevented some responsible party — either the town, the county, or the Army Corps of Engineers — from performing much-needed dredging of the creek, which would have alleviated the swift rise of water downstream after rain or snowmelt. It also would have prevented what followed.

I don't recall either the weather prediction or the exact conditions on the morning of Friday, July 8, 1994. As the afternoon neared, however, the skies blackened, and rain began to fall. Not merely swift-moving summer rain. This was Hollywood-backlot rain of the 40-days-and-40-nights variety. Water fell in punishing drops from the storm clouds, which came to a halt over Northvale, it seemed, and quickly saturated the ground.

Rain was falling on the northern side of the border as well, and the Sparkill Creek failed to contain the waters. Those of us in the outer offices noticed that the water had breached the streams that ran through the nearby woods, which were now more akin to flooded mangrove forests. Bullet-like precipitation now began to splash into a rising sheet of water in our parking lot. We had seen ponding before in the lot, but nothing like this, never so quickly.

The rain refused to stop. Despite the presence of the company's chief financial officer, we didn't get the go-ahead to leave. I tried to sneak out, carrying a Federal Express box, but my department head spotted me, and when she asked where I was going, I stammered some excuse about dropping the box in my car to deliver it on the way out. When I looked out the front door, I saw that the water had reached the top of the first of four or five steps up to the entrance.

Finally someone made it plain to the mongoloids in the comparatively dry confines of the main office that multiple cars, at minimum, were at risk of being flooded, and we got the nod to leave. The rain was still falling at a blinding rate, and from my window I could see the water had reached the bottom of my car door. Folks clustered in the entryway but stopped, in disbelief at the still-pouring precipitation and the depth of the water in the lot. I pushed through them and ran, sloshing through the flood, to my car. Opening the door admitted a little of the water, but I did manage to get the engine to turn over, back the car up slowly (to avoid getting too much moisture in my tailpipe), and roll out of the lot.

My view was poor from the water spattering against it, but I knew the drive in and out, and could make out bodies of water. What posed a greater threat was the depth of these bodies. The road out was uneven in level in addition to being curvy, so any of the floods emanating from the overwhelmed sewer gratings could have swamped my engine and left me stranded. I decided to avoid as many as I could, including a possible escape onto a higher side street through a fence chained shut with what I hoped was a flimsy lock.

Down the first straightaway, however, there was little to distingush the road from the drainage ditch that had once lay placidly beside it. I drove slowly through a few massive, unavoidable puddles, which were deep enough for water to splash onto my car hood. At the first major bend, however, my potential escape was blocked by a vast road lake, which could conceivably have been deeper than any of the other bodies I had boated through. With the rain finally slackening, I could see licks of steam emanating from beneath my hood — evaporation of water on hot components, I ardently hoped. I dared not risk the lake.

Instead, I made a hard left, not along the road, but onto the grass next to it. The warehouse to my left had a significant lawn, and although it seemed waterlogged, there was no deep ponding or mire in which I thought I might be trapped. So I drove across this company's lawn, evading the massive puddle and eschewing the Dukes of Hazzard–like crashout through the fence.

I took the last couple of bends, and the ponds that made them treacherous, slowly, and finally made it onto the main street. From here, only one more body of floodwater stood between me and escape: on the other side of the railroad tracks, which, by coincidence, ran next to the professional building where I had had my first part-time postcollegiate job. I confess that the tension of having dodged so many deep water hazards and the excitement at the proximity of my escape led to my first and last mistake at this juncture. I accelerated over the raised tracks, splashed into the final pond, forged through about half of it . . . and then the engine died.

I frantically tried to restart it, but I couldn't get it to turn over. Feeling massively stupid, I popped it into neutral, hopped out, and pushed it to dry ground with the assistance of some kind onlookers. Once we had it on the side of the road, I ran into my old company to call AAA for a trip to the dealer's, boat shoes squishing with each step. After the tow, my father picked me up from the car lot and listened to my amazing tale, which I punctuated with considerable doubt over whether my car would ever run again. This fear was dispelled the next morning: We went back to the dealer, started the car successfully, let it run as it spit water from the tailpipe for 10 minutes, then backed out and left in our respective vehicles. That car lasted another 11 years, even if I never managed to get all of the flood mud from the inside of the hood.

I was lucky. Although all of my coworkers escaped without physical harm, their cars didn't.

In the wake of my escape, my coworkers found a number of ways out. When the rain threatened to invade the building, most of them entered our neighboring company's warehouse, loaded into the back of an 18-wheeler (along with a fairly frightening dog, I am told), and were driven free of the flood from that dry perch. A couple of them were removed via rowboat after sticking it out and attempting to walk through the receding waters, only to be stopped by the police for fear of being swept down through an open manhole into the fast-moving sewers. Both groups made it into the media, the former on the TV news later that night, the latter in a photo the next day in the county newspaper.

My coworkers returned the next morning along a street free of water but strewn with mud and debris to find their vehicles entirely inundated, in some cases still full of water. My friend Anne wept as water gushed from her Honda as it was hoisted up by a tow truck. My boss and mentor, Chris, was one of the few whose car — a silver Chevelle — still functioned more or less ably after the flood, and he redubbed it SWAMP THING, which he later painted across the rear in bold, Famous Monsters of Filmland–style letters. In one rare burst of humor, the finance officer's car was found to have a number of wrapped condoms floating around inside. But most of the cars were totaled.

In learning this, I felt guilty for having gotten out first and not having taken some of my workmates along. I eventually realized that going solo was probably the only thing that saved me. I was driving through water that crested my headlights in some cases. Any more weight, and the level of the engine (in particular the spark plugs) might have dipped beneath the waves. Then I would have endangered up to another three lives, with no guarantee of choice as to where the car might have crapped out. The truck that eventually rescued most of the others might have passed to see four soaked production editors clustered together on the straining roof of a submerged Corolla.

I visited the scene of the flood that Sunday. Mud still clung to the vegetation lining the road and drainage ditch, which had subsided to its regular banks in the past 48 hours. The building bore a watermark where the flood had peaked. I parked my car where I had parked that Friday, just to see how deep it would have been in the flood. The next time you see a Corolla, stand next to the door handles. Based on the mud line on the trees, had I left the vehicle along with the others, the water would have reached midway between the door latch and the window line. A muffler full of water and a wet distributor cap would have been the least of my worries.

The company covered part of the replacement costs of the cars totaled in the flood. It instituted a new policy: When it rained in the future, two people would have to go out with one of our rulers to measure the depth, and beyond some point, we would be allowed to leave. Even after we had a firsthand witness from the top of the corporate pyramid, we still couldn't be trusted to nick out at the slightest sight of moisture. It typifies the mentality at that company to this day. Anne and I made this errand one day, when a late-winter rain following an icy snowfall caused the water to rise over impenetrable permafrost. I believe the measure was deep enough, but by that time, she and I knew each other well enough to craft a saving mistruth if it meant she didn't have to suffer the loss of another car.

The closest I have been to such threatening flooding since then came with Tropical Storm Floyd in September 1999. I and my car escaped harm. By that point, I was commuting into the city via bus, but the roads had been closed by the remnant of that once-powerful hurricane and the torrential rain it brought. Apartments and condos less than a half mile from where I sit went under water. The Elks Lodge to which my dad belongs took on several feet. Scant miles from where I had lived a month earlier, in Lodi, low-lying homes and businesses disappeared under flooding, and an aerial photo of the region resembled some of the scenes from Katrina. Still, then, as now, had the waters lapped at my tires and the clouds shown no signs of yielding to the sun, I would have gotten into my car, which in 1994 was dipped like Achilles in trying waters, and escaped as best as I could. I spent 9 months underwater prior to my birth. No pull of heroism or hubris, nor any threat of unemployment, can tempt me to leave the world in a similar fashion by remaining behind.


Amy said...

ah, memories! What a great recounting. I followed you over those tracks that day, Ai and I praying that my little Prelude would make it. It stalled out too, but luckily I got it started up again. I still have the blue T-shirt that Art made us to commemorate the event!

Chris said...

Nice job capturing the day, James. What infuriated me almost as much as the personal danger and the car damage is that they were probably preventable. During an earlier, not as bad high-water incident, I told our boss, "I'm leaving," and did just that, only to be given holy hell from her boss the next day. So, I was intimidated going into this new situation. I spent too long making up my mind, and, in those do-I-or-don't-I moments, the water began rising, and then in a flash much higher. By the time I got into my car (a 1984 Mazda GLC), the water inside was mid-calf-high. I wondered about electrocution even while I started the car and began backing up. I got it halfway up the set of stairs to the entrance. The nose of the car was still submerged somewhat, but it would have been far worse had I left the car parked nearer the stream. Days later, in a talk with the president, I gave our boss's boss some holy hell of my own. I don't think it did any good, except as venting for me.