After the Flood

As the water begins to recede, Chapter 16 writers take stock

by Margaret Renkl

At first it seemed like simply a good weekend to curl up with a novel, lulled by the kind of steady rain that makes errands unappealing and yard work impossible. Might as well pour a cup of tea, pull the lamp a little closer, and settle in. For book lovers, a rainy Saturday is nothing less than a vacation.

But by Sunday, when portable classrooms started bobbing down the river, and people started dying, and even police cruisers were overtaken by flood waters, we got it. Tennessee was being pummeled by rainfall of truly Biblical proportions—more than a foot in less than forty-eight hours—and this was no one's cozy escape.

While water still poured from the sky, the images were arresting: a couple of teenagers clinging to the luggage rack of an inundated Jeep, whole families wading through the sludge or crowded into rescue boats, a young man cradling an old woman while another young man walks alongside, bearing her oxygen tank—all colored sepia and gray, muted by the veil of unrelenting rain. But shocking as those photos were, they were nothing to the bigger-picture scenes that came later, after the front moved out and helicopters took to a suddenly benevolent sky, and we could see that all those close-focus pictures weren't isolated scenes of misery at all. Every particular image of loss and despair, every photo that captured the fear of one person, must surely be a microcosm of the grief and confusion being played out in neighborhood after neighborhood, home after home.

Everyone in town has a camera in his pocket, so this flood has already been documented beyond any inevitably iconic moment in Tennessee history. But at Chapter 16 we wanted to try to give words to the experience, too.

We aren't trying to blunt the full impact of the disaster, to render it less overwhelming by boxing it into the artful shape of an essay. There will be time for someone in love with language to capture the sweep and majesty of this breathtaking natural event, and the sweep and majesty, too, of the way Tennesseans have responded to it. But with water still standing in people's kitchens and mud still caked in their hair, this is not that time.

Instead, we're offering a series of tiny vignettes, each telling one small part of the story of Tennessee's flood. In many ways, these are only the barest edges of the tapestry, for no one truly devastated this week had the time, or the heart, to write an essay. You won't read here—at least not yet—about what it feels like to lose every piece of furniture in your house, or to learn that someone you love didn't make it out in time. The real heart of the story of this flood is still to come.

Until then, look for Maria Browning's account of watching a hummingbird patiently waiting out the storm on her porch, for Wayne Christeson's tale of helping an artist carry her still-wet canvasses to higher-ground, for Paul Griffith's meditation on the meaning of a water-logged guitar, and Anne Reeves's thoughts on crossing the angry Tennessee River on I-65, and Lyda Phillips's glimpse of a drowned woodchuck in Shelby Park. And because, as Auden noted, every human disaster "takes place/ While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along," don't miss Liz Garrigan's piece about playing with her children in the rain, and essays by Faye Jones and Susannah Felts on the eeriness of being untouched by an event so seemingly universal.

You won't catch any of these writers attempting to make sense of what happened in Tennessee this week. They're only trying to articulate it, to tell their own stories. And story is what we're all about at Chapter 16.

Look for the whole collection of essays here.

Published Monday, 10 May 2010