Wet restarts

It is the hurricane season and true to its word, gigantic, powerful storms have slammed the south and south-eastern United States. I am a distant observer, perched in the ash-covered, wildfire ravaged Pacific north-west, but I have had experiences of dealing with weather-related floods (twice) and an unfortunate sprinkler flooding. Watching the soggy images on TV and reading news reports makes me reminisce about my own experiences with water damage and restarting life afterwards.

It isn’t pretty. Water, the benign liquid we take for granted, is way more powerful than it looks. Anything that touches water is gone – damaged forever and needs to be discarded. As communities focus on rebuilding, these measures are easier said than done. The first time I experienced floods was in Kota, Rajasthan. Yes, flooding happened in the desert state. I am painfully oblivious to the watershed and other natural drainage systems of that area, but I can vividly recall the hysteria and panic I faced when my one bedroom rental room was threatened by floods. Our landlord who lived upstairs, rushed downstairs early morning to tell us the water was here. I was sleepy from a late-night study session and woke with the worst shock of my life. I remember stacking all my books and notes on my chair which I then put on top of my table. I remember clearing out the last three shelves of the cupboards, rolling my cotton bedding and stuffing it on top of my chair. I saw the water flow in from under the doors into the room and prayed that my bizarre contraption held its own during the flooding. Thankfully, all my prized possessions (my coaching notes and textbooks, nice clothes and bedding) could fit on top of the table which turned out to be higher than the water level. I left for upstairs in a hurry, barefoot and scared.

We spent the day watching the flood waters climb from the second floor (first in Indian terms). Roads turned into rivers, pigs swam in the muddy, dirty waters. Shocked and confused students living in houses nearby tried to salvage their possessions. After a while, it turned to fun. We watched the incessant rain and grey skies dump water into the streets that had turned into rivers. No power, no classes for the day and food was thankfully provided to us by our landlord. The day or two that followed weren’t as bad, it was the aftermath that caused the greatest grievances.

The water had caused all the wooden doors to swell up preventing them from shutting properly. Anything left on the floor or touched by the dirty waters had to be discarded. The room reeked of fungus and mold and would feel moist for months later ( I developed the worst kind of fungal cold for months afterwards). No amount of new paint or whitewashing or bathroom cleaning could remove 100% of the smell or mold. Fungus would grow in anything that touched water and was forgotten. I found fungus on clothes that barely touched the water, inside the walls, between the door frame and any notebooks that remained remotely wet. My cycle needed new wheels and chain from all the corrosion.  I don’t think my room ever recovered from the water damage. Thankfully, I left the place within 6-7 months of the event. But that was the first time I experienced flooding and the grimy, moldy aftermath of it.

My second run-in with water damage was no weather phenomenon but a man-made one. Never the one to have any  luck when it came to room-mates, I suffered the biggest setback of my graduate life when my then room-mate started a kitchen fire. I used to occupy the hall (bigger, more spacious with balcony access) with direct access to the open kitchen. The fire triggered the sprinkler system which poured water over everything I had, my books, bed, laptop, plants until there was 3-4 inches of water in my hall. I lost everything ( thankfully, my most important notes and research findings were electronically backed up) and had to navigate through the renters insurance system to recover costs. I can clearly recall my room-mate’s voice asking me to come home since there had been a “minor” incident. That was my second restart in the three short years I had spent in the USA. The first had been caused by bed-bugs. That story is for another time.

The most recent run-in with flooding happened in 2015 in India. I have blogged about the floods in Chennai – a mix of unprecedented rainfall, shoddy management, absent rescue efforts, zero communication and government conspiracy, that shocked the city. I must consider myself supremely lucky to be at home with my parents when it all unfolded, in addition to water not entering our house at all. Our apartment complex built on higher ground was marooned but the presence of mom and dad, along with 50 other families helped our small community navigate the crisis flawlessly. Yes, we saw boat-rescues, had no power for over 8 days, no internet or phone connection and had to rely on some creative recipes by mom who fed us delicious, hot meals made in the glow of 10 candles. We spent quality time together, narrating stories, hanging out in the same room burning the scented gum (sambrani) to keep mosquitoes and moisture at bay, slathering copious amounts of bug repellent and tracking our inverter charge to determine which room to sleep in. We slept on the floors (the beds were too warm), forgot what refrigerators were used for and charged our phones during the one hour power we got from the apartment’s common generators. For months, I saw trash-piles that were several feet high (not unlike those one can see in Florida and Houston) as people discarded all their belongings. The city decided ultimately to burn it all, to prevent diseases and curb the emanating stench which threw up smoke and acrid odors from all the burning materials. Recovery isn’t pretty. Not one bit.

So, three times being affected by water and it hasn’t become any less scary. Today, I live in a place not commonly affected by floods but as the TV showed heartbreaking images of hurricane devastation in Florida, I couldn’t help but wonder if I could evacuate at a moment’s notice like I did 13 years ago in Kota? I have furnished my home painstakingly, brick by brick and it would absolutely crush me to lose most of it to catastrophic water damage. After three restarts, can I deal with another?

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