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Teaser Tuesday: Living Under Threat of Disaster

Tuesday, August 6, 2019 - 07:00

Between the time between when I established floodtide as a facet of life in Rotenek and now with the book with that title is moving towards publication, the effects of weather fluctuations have become a lot sharper in people's awareness. The massive persistent flooding in the American midwest this year is shocking, but less in the general news than more focused floods due to hurricanes and the like. Technological attempts at long-term flood control in places like the Mississippi basin have not always produced the benefits they promised...or have simply moved the damage from one location to another.

The river's behavior in Floodtide is not entirely natural, but the city treats it as simply part of the natural variation in behavior: unpredictable and to be endured. The engineering controls focus on human behavior. Those in the potential path of a flood--whether because they can't afford a house in the safer parts of town, or because they're willing to trade hazard for the prestige of the Vezenaf--shift their belongings to minimize damage. Those who can afford to do so leave town.

When the river shows signs of rising, you act. You can't wait to see how high it comes. Hence, the public service provided by the floodtide bell. And those who know the river best don't need to wait for that warning. Most years, the precautions are wasted effort, but you can't expect the Rotein to show mercy to the complacent.

The details associated with the floodtide declaration are all my own invention: measuring the rise of the river by the water-steps (which have been nicknamed after the apostles), declaring a flood when the water reaches the feet of the statue of Saint Nikule, and the symbolic declaration of the floodtide holiday when the river doesn't rise that far by wetting the statue's feet. They all feel like the sort of hybrid folk-civic-religious rituals that arise over the centuries.

It's facile to say that if a place has regular disastrous flooding, maybe you shouldn't put human habitations there, but habitability has always been hopelessly entwined with bodies of water. The placement of New Orleans at the mouth of the Mississippi river wasn't an unfortunate oversight--the river was what made the city exist. Much closer to me, personally, the Sacramento river has seasonal flooding due to Sierra snowmelt that is mitigated by the use of reserved floodplains (no building allowed) and an extensive levee system in the agricultural areas of the delta. I used that familiarity for some of the "emotional truth" of my stories, but throughout Europe, major cities have always risen up on significant rivers, whether large enough for navigation or simply for water supply. And that has always made them vulnerable to periodic flooding. I have a research folder of images of floods in older European cities to use for reference and inspiration when visualizing the effects in Rotenek.

* * *

[Liv] pushed off and prayed to Mama Rota as she kissed the river. Then she made a face and tasted the water again. Instead of keeping close to the edge, Liv pulled out into the middle of the river like she meant to cross or to catch the current to go all the way down to Urmai. Liv pulled one oar in and let us drift briefly as she dipped her hand in the water and brought it up to taste again.

“It’s coming,” she said. “Don’t know how high or how long, but it’s coming.”

“Floodtide?” I asked.

She nodded as she put the second oar back in the water and angled back toward the north bank again.

People were muttering about it in the Nikuleplaiz over the next few days. The rivermen had seen the signs in a streak of color toward the middle of the current. Mefro Dominique took Liv’s word and rather than sewing, we spent two days carrying all the stock upstairs from the workroom.

“It isn’t often the water rises high enough to fill the streets,” Mefro Dominique said. “It’s only happened three times while I’ve lived here. But if it does, we won’t have time to move things.”

So the fine fabrics were tied into bundles and carried up to the bedroom. The baskets of ribbons followed them, and the printed magazines with their fashion plates and anything else the water might spoil, until the upstairs rooms were stuffed like a warehouse and the downstairs was bare except for the worktable and the dresses we were sewing.

The muddy streak in the middle of the river grew wider and the river crept up one step toward the statue of Saint Nikule then part of another. Three days went by without the water rising farther. Whoever it was that decided to declare floodtide must have figured it was all we’d get, so Father Mazzu went down to the edge of the steps and dipped a bronze bucket on a little chain into the water, then took and poured it over the saint’s feet.

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