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I remember dreading my mother’s words: “I’ve been so worried about you.”
The hair on the back of my neck rose. I cringed. The message I heard was mixed. Beneath the concern lingered judgment. You’re not capable of taking care of yourself.
Now a mother of adult children, I’m on the worrying end, trying not to spill those tainted words. I understand now that the judgment I inferred was self-imposed and that my mother was just doing what mothers do.
On Monday, two of my kids hunkered down in their Brooklyn, New York apartments awaiting the arrival of Hurricane Sandy. Two time zones away, I listened to radio and watched the terrifying graphic on the Weather Channel – a swirling mass of white that covered what looked like half the Atlantic Ocean, inching toward New York. I had been in the city just a week before, celebrating my sons’ birthday and spending most of my tourist hours along the sparkling waterfront of the East River, riding the commuter ferry instead of taking the dingy train from Brooklyn to Manhattan.
By late Monday night, the spectacular lighted skyscape I’d admired from across the river was eerily dark on television broadcasts. My children dutifully texted over the darkest hours. “We’re fine. Having dinner with a friend.” “I’m fine, drinking and eating with my neighbors until this blows over.” My son was kind enough to call before I went to bed, just to reassure me that his neighborhood was safe, though the noise of the wind was beginning to get to him.
The next morning, reports of a hundred houses burned to the ground in Queens and the gruesome spot reports from along the Jersey shore. Disaster journalism unleashed. Occasionally a moment of thoughtful inquiry into weather patterns, super storms, and climate change. Presidential campaigning halted for a blessed 24 hours to show proper respect and concern. Political pontificators offered unsupported theories on how the storm would impact the election.
My son texted that his neighborhood was working perfectly, but there was flooding a half-mile downhill. The floodwaters, it turned out, spilled over the banks of the Gowanus Canal, a toxic waste dump so foul it has been designated a Superfund site. We’d walked across it last week on an outing to the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens and I remember thinking it looked like one of those green, goopy pools, bubbling and churning in a horror flick. Spilled over into the surrounding neighborhood was a mix of human effluent and something that sounds lovely but is not, polyaromatic hrdrocarbons, nasty cancer-causing chemicals that smell really bad when it rains.
Officials said don’t worry, we’ll clean it up and oh, by the way, don’t touch the water.
Four years ago, the neighborhood where I lived was swamped by toxic overflow during Hurricane Ike, a massive Gulf Coast hurricane that hit Galveston, Texas dead-on, garnering barely an hour’s worth of national attention in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, but changing lives and altering the geography of that barrier island permanently. Beaches eroded, dunes were breached, whole rows of waterfront houses were washed out to sea. When the flood waters receded, most of the town was buried beneath a layer of brown, fetid goo. Mildew had a heyday. Boats washed up from their docks and lay grounded at skewed angles along the median of the town’s main highway.
Now when I visit Galveston, I can only see signs of recovery because I saw it at its worst. Businesses reopened, houses rebuilt, manmade dunes along the shore planted with sturdy yellow and orange wildflowers.
When Ike hit, it seemed the state of worry would never end. Will the medical center re-open? It did. Will the oyster beds in the bay come back? They are. Will the cruise ships continue to dock in the heavily damaged port? They did.
Neither Hurricane Ike nor Hurricane Katrina started a national conversation about rising sea waters and global warming but maybe Sandy will.
Word from New York is cautious, dire, hopeful, serious, sobering and affirming. Nature has once more asserted its omnipresence and issued a wake-up call to its human inhabitants. For a brief moment, some of them are listening. I’ve quit worrying about the kids and channeled my concerns to the environment.
The kids are all right, just trying to figure out how to get to work and school while the subways are out of commission. This morning the Huffington Post published a photo from a New Yorker’s Twitter feed – a rainbow spanning the skies over the Gowanus Canal.
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.