You might have heard, we had a flood.
Our houses weren’t even close to being touched by floodwaters, but I am once again grateful for Geology 101, the course for non-majors at Beloit College, where Prof. Stenstrom drilled into our heads that we should be geologically aware when buying a house. My front yard is 4 feet above the sidewalk, with a concrete retaining wall, and the alley drops off steeply about 2 houses down hill from me. Even if the levee hadn’t held, I’d probably have been fine.
However, others were not so lucky. Our neighbors on the east end of town were inundated. The water came up so fast and high that it submerged the highway at Yankee Jim canyon, a place where the river is usually 50 feet below the roadway. A large building that housed multiple Yellowstone National Park employee families washed away, after the river ate a full 90 feet of frontage in just a couple of hours. And our neighbors over in Red Lodge suffered catastrophic losses at 2 in the morning. Their whole town is ruined.
For decades now, I’ve been telling people that if you’re going to have a disaster, Montana is a good place to do it, because people not only pitch in, but they have skills. There have been brigades of folks helping the flooded — doing the dirty work of pulling out soggy carpets and floorboards and drywall. As the waters were coming up, the road crew working in the canyon just south of town, which floods even on a non-catastrophic year, were bringing in loads of gravel and volunteering their heavy equipment to help berm people’s houses.
The water still came up. The last major floods were in 1997, when the river topped out at 37,500 cfs. This year it hit 60,000. Damage was done. The two northern entrances to the Park are going to be closed for at least this season, if not for next. This will have devastating consequences for the people who live here. I’m not sure how everyone will survive.
What has struck me from people who don’t live here, is the impatience. The morning after the flood, there were tourists in Gardiner calling in helicopter services, not even willing to wait to see if the waters would go down, to see what the road would look like. As it turned out, they were able to drive out about mid day. We’ve had folks who have reservations at our vacation cabin calling and emailing Himself, wanting to know what the situation is, if the Park will re-open. He keeps telling them we don’t know yet, we’re still in the middle of the crisis. However, he does keep reminding people, there is plenty to do in the Paradise Valley, and you don’t have to sit in a traffic jam all day to do it.
When is it going back to normal, they keep asking. We’ve been in this endless loop for the past year, since the vaccines came in, this endless loop of pressure to “return to normal.” There’s all this social and media pressure to return the world to what it was like before the pandemic, to the globalized, superheated economy, to a world where workers were “happy” to commute to soulless office parks every day, where Starbucks workers weren’t unionizing, where everyone pretended we don’t know what the working conditions inside Amazon warehouses are like. Where you can fly across the world on a whim for vacations, where entire industries exist to give you a neatly-packaged consumer experience of “going to XYZ.”
Until there’s a flood, and the road washes out, and your sacred itinerary might be thrown off because the world still exists. The physical world in which, astonishing as it is, a canyon can flood so deep that the road is submerged and you can’t get out. People panicked. They couldn’t even wait in a safe place with food and water and a community who rallied to take care of them, they couldn’t even wait 24 hours to see how the situation was going to play out. They were frightened and offended that the actual physical world was impeding their sacred right to a vacation.
And like those tourists who didn’t want to admit that the road was flooded, that the actual world had intruded on the experience they thought they should be having, so too with the rest of us. There is no more “normal.” If the pandemic has shown us anything, it’s how fragile our house of cards is. Viruses, wildfires, tornadoes, floods, a planet where we currently have more C02 in the atmosphere than in any moment in recorded history. We can’t “the economy” our way out of this one.
If we’re smart, we’ll start inventing new normals. New economies.
Normals that normalize not commuting, that normalize distributed systems of work and energy and leisure. With any luck, we’ll start inventing new models where “economics” and particularly the economics of neoliberalism, are no longer the prime value. I’m beyond exhausted by politicians and talking heads (and “libertarian” dudebros on Twitter, although I mostly have them blocked) nattering on about “the economy” as though it’s the only value that counts.
One thing that’s been striking and inspirational to me about the Ukrainian refusal to bow to Russia’s invasion is how the entire narrative of that war has kept the focus on life. Human life, animal life, the life of their fertile farmlands, the life of vibrant cities. None of it has been couched in the language of money and “the economy” and what it’s cost Ukranians to have large sections of their country bombed into smithereens. The cost has been dead children. Dead people. Dead animals. That they have not allowed themselves to become inured to the assault on life itself.
The circumstances are utterly different here, although we did see the Montana response we rely on. Everyone helped out. My neighbors and I were outside making a plan at 10:30 at night, when the police were telling us to evacuate. They have little kids, who were asleep. We’re all up on this little bench. “Bang on my door in the night if you need to,” I said. “We’ll go across town to my friend Nina’s house. It’s empty, and she’s got 5 kids, so there’s plenty of beds.” Word got out that the river was slopping over the top of the levee and people showed up with flatbed trucks full of sandbags and warm bodies to keep passing them along, piling them up against the unbelievable force of the Yellowstone river, running at THREE TIMES the normal flood level. They kept it from breaching. Word got out that the animal shelter was flooding, and the swift water rescue guys got in there, rescued all the animals, and people found them temporary lodging. And the next morning, crews of volunteers arrived to strip out wet carpets, crowbar soggy drywall, and start making a plan to rebuild.
I moved here 20 years ago for a number of reasons, but among them was climate change. I wanted to be someplace where people have skills, and where they come together in a crisis. That’s what we saw this week. I just hope we can be smart enough to take the right lessons from all of this. That what’s important is life. That what’s important is community, and cooperation, and making sure our neighbors are okay.