Over to You

ONE BIG STINKING MESS

We survived the flood—and then the full impact of the disaster struck us

FLORENCE McKEE August 30 2004
Over to You

ONE BIG STINKING MESS

We survived the flood—and then the full impact of the disaster struck us

FLORENCE McKEE August 30 2004

ONE BIG STINKING MESS

Over to You

We survived the flood—and then the full impact of the disaster struck us

FLORENCE McKEE

SIX WEEKS AGO, July 11, 3 p.m. Rain and wind begin hammering our Edmonton home. For 90 minutes, lightning crackles and thunder dances on the roof. Hailstones and leaves clog the eaves. The road and sidewalks disappear and the water crawls steadily up the lawn. From the top of the basement stairs, we watch the ominous creep of sewer water from the drain. Dark waves splash against the bottom step. Then a giant gush of sewage floods everything. With the roar of a train, it erupts in a continuous torrent from the toilet as well. The water level rises and rises. Finally it stops 30 cm deep. Then the sewer sucks water back in

a long rushing “whhh.” Eerie silence follows. It’s an hour before we can think again.

From 5:30 p.m. to 1:30 a.m., my husband, Ken, and I take turns trying to contact our insurance company. A recording repeats, “Due to technical difficulties...” Later we learn 5,000 other Edmontonians were also reaching out for help.

In terms of disasters, some say fire is preferable. It erases swiftly, leaving only ashes, charred remnants, a few blackened studs pointing to the sky. A flood spews things around: Gramma Anna’s crochet, a child’s shoe, letters casually left on the coffee table. A flood raises false hopes: salvaging anything is a race against reality.

Day 2. A neighbour’s daughter is on our doorstep with a shop vacuum. I easily imagine her with halo and wings. My cousin hurries over with supper and gets right to work. It’s a dirty job carrying foul-smelling boxes full of stuff that can’t be salvaged to the garbage and she stays at it for nine hours. Day 5. The adjuster gets to our claim and sets the process in motion (many others will wait for weeks). He will base his determination on what once had a price tag. There is no formula for coverage of the irreplaceable.

More days go by and the stench in our home ripens. Mould climbs the wall panelling, up the bedstead, across the carpets. We salvage what we can, sploshing through finely ground feces mixed with leaves shredded by the hail. We wear rubber boots, protective gloves and old clothes. We repeatedly swab the kitchen counter, the phone, door

jambs and railings with bleach or antibacterial soap. Periodically we escape to a motel for the night.

Our daughter arrives from hundreds of kilometres away and races up and down stairs, carrying more boxes out to the patio. Out in the garage, we discard mementoes I couldn’t throw out before: a kindergarten drawing, report cards, impromptu notes to mom and dad. One from our early computer days reads, “Naughty, naughty mommy. You forgot to put on the dust cover.”

Our emotions are unpredictable. When Ken reads the warning on the bottom of a waffle iron covered with silt, “Do NOT immerse in water,” we laugh to the edge of hysteria. Day 10 brings total panic when I misplace our listing of losses to discuss with the insurance broker, then sheer joy when I find it. As I pry photographs apart, images cling to the back of the one in front. Halffaces. One eye staring. All that is left of a photo of Gramma Margaret is the petunias at her feet. When I see it, the tears won’t stop.

From the lower shelves of every room, we pull damp and buckling books. We fill box

after box. And spread out on the lawn or draped over trees: deep turquoise silk from Thailand, wool suiting, Uncle Pete’s Ukrainian kilim, a baby bonnet. The adjuster, noting that sewage gets into fibres, asks us, “Would you really want to wear or use it?” We stack a mountain of black garbage bags.

Day 13. Hardwood furniture that might be restored finally goes into storage. Day 14. City waste-management crews take the rest: suitcases, wall units, stored clothing, mouldy basement floorboards and whatever else was contaminated. Around the city, hundreds of workers assess damage, conduct safety checks on water, gas and appliances, disinfect, haul or rebuild, toil in slime and dirt for 12 to 14 hours a day, six days a week. The disaster-recovery crew at our house is made up of young men from Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. All are hard-working and empathetic. One, in particular, has the sensitivity of a grief counsellor.

Day 15. The cleanup and demolition of our entire basement, built by my father in 1963, is finally finished. We’re exhausted. The only sound is the industrial dehumidifier wheezing like some dragon in the basement. The smell of disinfectant is fading.

Day 18. The provincial government allocates emergency relief funds. At a nearby school, we join the lineups to fill out eligibility forms. On hand to offer immediate assistance are a variety of community services, the Salvation Army and other agencies. And from the beginning, thousands of friends, neighbours and volunteers have provided equipment, help and encouragement. They’re our Rainstorm Heroes.

Day 45. It’s quiet today. Further discussions with the adjuster and contractor are pending. And an empty basement echoes. Hül

Florence McKie Is now wondering what’s in those boxes that are missing labels. To comment: overtoyou@macleans.ca