Right now, the Florida panhandle and southern Alabama are dealing with severe, "historic" flooding, thanks to the latest wave of bad weather. It's the kind of news typically framed as regional, a freak incident in far-off middle America. But I tend to take these stories a little personally because 20 years ago this July, my family and I fled our flooded house in a boat, shortly before dawn.
So if you've ever wondered, this is what it's like to live through a 500-year flood.
First off, it's important to understand that I grew up down a mile-long dirt road, just outside of Macon, Georgia, with the Ocmulgee River in my front yard. Sometimes it got so low the sandbars were green with weeds; sometimes it swelled to angry proportions, turning bright orange from the red clay soil.
But it wasn't a source of anxiety. I knew not to approach the bank without an adult. Our home sat on a patch of relatively high ground, built like a beach house on top of six-foot-tall stilts. When the river overflowed, typically the water just spilled into the oxbow lake on the other side of the house. Every now and then we had to canoe out, and once or twice the river crept under the house, but it wasn't a big deal. It was fun, even, like a countrified Venice.
Then, in 1994, we got hit with Tropical Storm Alberto. Not even a proper hurricane! But it stalled out over north Georgia and, basically, pissed all over Atlanta for several days. I remember it raining, and raining, and raining; that summer seems like one long rainstorm. And all that water drained into the Flint and Ocmulgee Rivers.
I was eight, so I wasn't exactly glued to CNN. But I knew something was up when my sister and I spilled out of our bedroom, giggling madly about something stupid, and my dad lost his temper, barking something about old man river. Chastened, we returned to our bedroom and packed our Barbies into a Rubbermaid tub, just in case.
When we went to bed, it was still raining, and the river was fat, but nothing was really out of the ordinary. I could see the patch of gravel where my parents parked.
The next morning, it was all water, lapping just underneath the floorboards.
While we'd slept, the rain had continued and dams upriver had broken one after another. What had been a worrying situation had escalated within just a few hours to a life-wrecking disaster. My parents decided to stick it out until the sun rose, then evacuate via the tiny johnboat my dad used for fishing on the river. My mom spent the night ferrying family photos and keepsakes to the attic.
Shortly before dawn, it became clear we couldn't stick around until the sun came all the way up.
My mom shook us awake and told us to get dressed; my toddler brother she let sleep until the last minute, so he'd stay calm. Somehow the lights were still on, but you could hear the water gurgling as it rose through the floorboards. We retreated to the kitchen, grabbing the small bags where my mom had packed us each a change of clothes. As we left, I could see brown water sweeping into the house, converging on us from the hallway and my parents' bedroom. I watched my dad firmly shut the door on the water, and we all turned our backs on the house.
We piled into the johnboat from the porch, where it was tied to the railing. My mom buckled our life jackets and told us that if we fell out, we should hang onto a tree until they came back for us. At the time, this was totally reassuring! Only years later did I realize that my parents—not all that much older than I am today, in the grand scheme of things—must have been fucking terrified.
But the trip went smoothly, a ten-minute boat ride through the tree tops. We all hopped out on dry land, and my dad went back for our neighbor. He took long enough that, as the sun came up, I could see my mother grow increasingly nervous. Turns out the outboard motor got tangled in a net—but he managed to get it free.
We were tremendously lucky, especially when you consider that 30 people died. It's not like we lived in a suburb and the river caught us by surprise. We had the boat, and my dad knew how it handled in fast-moving water. My grandparents were nearby and just a few years prior, my dad's stepfather had left him a small lake house where we could stay until we got sorted. The house had to be gutted, but it remained basically sound and was rebuilt without too much trouble, thanks to flood insurance.
Twenty years later, the flood is a distant memory, something that might've happened to a different person—maybe a couple of great-grandparent farmers. But the movie Titanic feels strangely familiar to me, and my dad really, really relates to that Johnny Cash song "Five Feet High and Rising." And I don't think any of us will ever forget the nauseating stench of flood mud, which never really leaves your nose once you've gotten a whiff.