Last week we were seeing Ireland’s floods only on the national news, reporting from the West Country. Now some people have been evacuated on the edge of our own village in East Ireland, and we called friends to make sure they are not among the evacuees.
Rivers that ordinarily creep gently under towns are now swiftly crawling the high stone walls that bind them in towns, sweeping across the fields of unlucky farmers in the country.
In one town, the river demolished a 300-year-old bridge, the only connection between the town’s two sides. Rescue crews had to thread an emergency pipe across where the bridge used to be — ironically a water pipe, so the villagers on the other side can drink safely.
I was a cub reporter in Missouri during the flood of ’93 — a flood so great, we were told, that it would only happen once every 500 years. I interviewed people from small towns that vanished, whose residents held their next election in encampments. I remember driving with a friend through woods and stopping the car suddenly when the trees ended — there was water almost to the horizon, with telephone poles and electrical towers poking through here and there. I remember visiting my home state last year, during the second 500-year flood in 15 years, when many river highways were closed — either underwater or scattered with fleeing wildlife.
This is said to be Ireland’s worst flood in 800 years — smaller in scale, of course, but this is a smaller country. It is also important to remember that this is an old country.
In Missouri the river settlements, levees and written records may only have been decades old – no more than a couple of centuries at most — and people could imagine the ’93 flood to be an unusual peak in the river’s chaotic cycle. Here, though, towns date to the Middle Ages, if not to Roman or Celtic times, and the river walls were set at their heights long ago and from longer experience.
This is not just a rainy week. This is not normal.
Please don’t interpret this as 2012-style millennialism, for too many people imagine the Long Emergency through images of Hollywood’s sudden karmic apocalypses. Such fantasies might not prepare us for what we are seeing — long stretches of normality punctuated by weeks of crisis, after which a new and slightly different normal appears, until we look back and wonder what happened.
This might be what it looks like — evacuating a single neighbourhood that never flooded before, here and there until towns slowly retreat from rivers and coasts. Each holiday shopping season a little “grimmer,” each Christmas more traditional, our travels a little rarer and slower in irregular waves, until we find ourselves where we are.
Perhaps next week the 800-year flood will recede, and no one will have to evacuate again until the next one in a decade or two. And perhaps we will forget, and go back to believing that we are in control.