Survivor's Guilt

What if the worst natural disaster of your lifetime strikes, and you don't even get a good story out of it?

by Susannah Felts

I dress my toddler in her swimsuit, thinking, Why not. She likes it. It's fitting. But we keep one eye on the basement and the other on the local news. In the basement, a thin layer of water slowly spreads across the middle of the concrete floor, nothing a shop vac can't make short work of.

The television tells a different story. Places that never flood are submerged, the reporter explains. Cut to footage of an inundated I-24, a portable classroom broken loose and crushed to bits by rushing water. The tornado sirens come and go. Slowly, inexorably, Nashville is swallowed by muddy water.

Video camera in hand, I watch my daughter run through the yard, the bright floral pattern of her swimsuit and green frog boots flashing against the steady gray screen of rain. Her grandparents would love this. I consider posting the video to Facebook, and then think: No way. Earlier I'd seen a status update that read, I just saw my house on TV. … Well, the top half of it, anyway.

"Puddle!" my toddler shouts in delight, stomping her feet, her wet hair clinging to her head.

We wake to those terrible, impossible scenes of downtown. The brown water deceptively placid, as if a child has carefully taken a brown crayon to the wrong areas of a coloring book. Flood waters are uniquely infuriating in their silent and stubborn lingering, the way they seem allied with the calm blue sky to mock their victims, anxious to rebuild.

In East Nashville, just a couple of miles from this ruination, the sun is shining on my green lawn, the flowers are perking, and I have a damp swimsuit to pick up from the floor. We stroll down to the coffee shop, where the barista asks me how I'm doing. "Oh, fine," I say. Then it occurs to me that she's not just being polite. There's real concern in her question, as in, Have you spent the day dragging waterlogged trash from your home?

Fortunate. Lucky. How many times have I said these words in the last week? How many times have I felt them as I clicked through photos of the devastation, feeling like a rubbernecker on the highway?

But the guilt can make you text those numbers to the Red Cross, buy cans of beans and rolls of paper towels and get them where they need to go. You see the people of your city helping each other, and you want to join them. You bake cookies for a sale supporting relief efforts; you donate money at the grocery store; you skip your shower to conserve clean water. In these tiny, necessary acts, you feel the small warmth of doing your part, any part. You try not to think about the silently selfish impulses behind them. We want to lay claim to the stories of the flood—to have something to take away, even if nothing was taken from us.

A guy at the coffee shop is describing a flooded softball field. He uses his hands to show how high the water got. "The wrath of God," he jokes. We all traffic in these stories now, whether we come by them first- or second-hand. They're a lousy trade, but we're stuck with them, and share them we will.

Published Friday, 7 May 2010