ShaunAnne Tangney's Flood Story
ShaunAnne Tangney shares her experience of evacuating her home during the 2011 Souris River flood in this personal essay titled, "Love Story." Listen below.
Hear more memories from the 2011 flood in our series, Main Street, Minot: Ten Years After the Flood.
LOVE STORY by ShaunAnne Tangney
“There are eight million stories in the naked city…” That was the tag line on a 1950s television police drama, set in New York City. It’s kind of a corny line, but when I think about the 2011 flood in Minot, it rings true. Statistics tell us that some 11,000 people were affected by that flood—some 11,000 people had to evacuate, lost their homes, spent months, years, living in FEMA trailers, struggling to rebuild, daring to come back. That’s a big number, a significant portion of the population of the city, but in reality, every single person in Minot was affected by the flood. Every single person. And every single one of them has a flood story.
I’m lucky. My flood story is a love story.
It’s a story that begins on Memorial Day weekend. That was the date of the first evacuation. The prediction was for a minor flood—two, three feet. Nothing to roll your eyes at…it’s just that in retrospect, two or three feet seems…like…nothing…
But that’s not what it felt like at that moment—at that moment, it was terrifying and unreal and we spent several days—with the help of friends—sandbagging the house and moving out everything that was precious, valuable, irreplicable—guitars and jewelry, photographs and poems and old letters, paintings and prints and pottery, Russ’s mother’s quilts, my grandmother’s button box, the fifty-year-old jade plants, a lot of the furniture, all of the computers, all of the wine… The rest, we piled up on countertops, on platforms made of sawhorses and plywood, hoping the water would not reach that high, and that the inundation would be short…
And then…we bugged out. We moved in with friends and waited…three days, five days… Their house was perched high atop North Hill and from their deck, we could see the whole of the valley below… We watched the National Guard trucks patrol the city as if it were a war zone… We watched the side-dump trucks pile the levees higher and higher… Dust and dirt filled the air… The shrill beee-beee-beee-beee-beee of trucks backing up like incessant tinnitus… We watched the helicopters circle the city like malevolent dragonflies… the thumping chop of their rotors like blows to the body… endlessly…all of it, endlessly…
But there was no flood… And after a week, we were allowed to go back home.
But no one thought it was over. The river was still running frighteningly high. We still had water in our basement—not because our sewer backed up or sump pump failed, but because our home is right on the levee, maybe fifty feet from the river. We had water in our basement because there was so much water coursing through the Mouse River at such immense pressure that it was seeping through the concrete walls of our basement.
We didn’t move anything back in. We had moved out our big, luxurious king-sized bed, but left behind the smaller, merely adequate guest bed, and so we slept in that. Most of our clothing had been hastily shoved into trash bags and was piled in garages and basements all over town; we lived in the remnants we’d left behind, and did laundry by hand. We had no table at which to eat our meals. We had no stereo on which to listen to music. We had one tiny tv that that we watched 24 hours a day, anxiously checking cfs and water elevation (why we thought tv could tell us what we could know first-hand by stepping out the back door and walking down the driveway to the levee is a postmodern mystery…)
That whole spring, it just would not stop raining. I remember that it was hot. Humid. When it wasn’t raining, it was steaming. I remember Russ playing a gig at the state fairgrounds on a night of a terrific downpour. He called me—astonished and awestruck—to tell me that he had seen a manhole cover explode up out of the parking lot under the ferocious water pressure. I thought, we may be in trouble here…
For a week…and then another…we lived in a weird limbo… We scrounged up a card table and ate our meals there. We collected a computer each, and we sat on the floor in the living room, backs against the wall, and tried to do what work we could. I bought a cheap plastic lounge chair and sat in the shaggy, un-mowed yard, reading trashy novels purchased on whims, pretending it was some kind of strange vacation. Russ collected one guitar and held on for dear life. We slept fitfully in the too-small guest bed, listening night after night to the roar of the river, as if it were already over our heads…
Life just…stalled… And in the midst of real fear and worry, there was one thing—it seems small now, but I was very anxious about it at the time. I had made plans and purchased a plane ticket to go visit my best friend Bob in Michigan, something I did every May, when school wrapped up. The first evacuation had cancelled that trip. As the weeks passed, I fretted about not being able to see Bob, about having to eat the cost of the ticket (Delta Airlines didn’t give a crap about the fact that we were under threat of a flood and living like squatters in our own home; if you couldn’t make your flight, that was your problem). I fretted likewise about not keeping the promise Bob and I had made to each other in grad school: to visit one another at least once a year.
By mid-June, the general sentiment around town was that we had weathered the worst of it. There was no official word, but cfs, although still monstrously high, seemed to have leveled off, and the levees, raised eight feet or more in a heroic effort by the National Guard and Army Core of Engineers, were holding, and sump pumps all over the valley (if not at our house) were sucking basements valiantly dry. We were beginning to think we’d made it.
And so, Russ and I, sitting cross-legged on the living room floor, decided I could go to Bob’s. I would go for four days of fun and escape into the loving arms of my best friend, and when I got back, we would begin the work of putting our home back together. Russ was generous like that. He knew how to give a gift. He really didn’t like Christmas or birthdays, didn’t like trying to figure out which earrings I might like or picking a restaurant for dinner, but way beyond ephemeral things, he always knew the things I really needed and never hesitated for one moment to give them to me.
So I went to Bob’s, and we had a lovely weekend, filled with mutual friends and dinner parties, days at the lake and nights on the town, and the deep, besotted, far-ranging, curl-up-on-the-couch-for-hours conversations that are the root of our friendship.
And, come Monday morning, replete with and revivified by his dear and loving friendship, Bob dropped me off at the airport, ready, I thought, to face the work that waited for me back home. Waiting for my flight to board, I called Russ—mostly to say that I had had a wonderful weekend, and that my flight from Flint was on time, and that no delays were predicted in Minneapolis, and that I should be home by about 4:30 that afternoon.
Russ paused a moment, and then he asked me, “So…you’re in the airport now?” “Yeah,” I answered, “why?’
“I have to tell you something,” he said, “and it’s a hard thing and I know you’re in a public place, but I have to tell you and I have to tell you now.”
My only thought was, no good can come from this…
“I have to tell you now,” he said, “because I don’t want you to walk into it blind when you get home…”
I could only get out one word… “What..?”
“It’s going to flood,” he said. “It’s going to be bad. We’re probably going to lose everything,” he said.
I was stunned…speechless…I’m sure I started to cry…I don’t remember what I tried to say…I do remember what Russ said.
“We’ve had people here for two days,” he told me; “we’ve been loading up everything—all the rest of the furniture—we’re pulling all the appliances out of the kitchen right now—but when you get back—there’s so much more to do… As soon as you get off the plane, it’s right to the house to keep packing things up—we’re going to have to work non-stop until they make us leave to save as much as we can… I need you to be ready,” he said, “the minute you get off the plane—I need you to be ready…”
“OK,” I said thorough my tears, “OK,” not knowing at all if I could be ready. “But tell me this,” I asked. “I’ve talked to you every day this weekend—why didn’t you tell me until now? You knew about this days ago, and every time I called you, you said nothing…why?”
“Because,” he said, “I wanted you to have a good weekend with Bob. There aren’t going to be very many good weekends for a long time, and I wanted you to have a good weekend with Bob…”
It was the greatest act of love I had ever experienced at that point in my life.
That was Monday, June 20th. I got home, Russ picked me up at the airport, and we embraced, but we didn’t cry, for fear it would break us if we did… We held one another…and we looked one another in the eye, and he said, “Look—when we get home—Walter and Bruce and Allen are there…and we need boxes…and we need more help…and there’s no stopping…there’s no stopping now if we want to save our lives…”
And I said, “OK…” and I got on the phone, and I found some boxes (nowhere near enough—finding a box in Minot that weekend was like finding the Hope Diamond), and all the rest of that day and all of the next, while the guys pulled appliances and loaded furniture and broke down Russ’s entire audio-video business, I took books from shelves…in the end, 150 boxes of books… I stuffed clothing and linins and bedding into garbage bags, and wrapped dishes and housewares in too little newspaper and hoped for the best, and gingerly moved 3,000 albums into an attic where we were sure they’d melt or be chewed up by mice…
It was the grimmest two days I’d ever spent in my life. All the friends who came to help were nothing short of an army of angels… Every garage and basement and attic offered to us for storage was a kindness beyond measure… The National Guards-men and -women who appeared on our doorstep and proceeded to empty out our basement were nothing short of a miracle… We shared hastily ordered fast food and coolers filled with beer… But it was all so hopeless…uncertainty poisoned the air and we reeked of sorrow and fear…
And then…it was 3:00 o’clock in the morning, June 22nd… Russ and I were driving the last load of the day up to the friend’s house where we were, once again, bivouacked for another evacuation, this one, no one knew for how long.
We crossed the 6th St. bridge, the river lapping at the roadway. Traffic was backed up for blocks in every direction, cars and trucks overflowing with household belongings, like something out of The Grapes of Wrath, headlights glimmering in the humid night.
And then, something I’ll never forget… At the three-way intersection of 6th St and 5th Ave, there is no stop sign or traffic light. It could have been mayhem, everyone out for themselves, desperate to get out of harm’s way, fighting to get one more truckload of their lives to higher ground… But it was not… Only the basic rules of the road applied: yield to the car on your right, take your turn… Stress and fear permeated the night, but extraordinary patience, and what I can only call grace, ruled that intersection, in the middle of that horrible night…
And when it was our turn, Russ and I drove slowly up 5th Ave, until we were halted by a red light at the intersection of 5th Ave and Broadway—right by the Barley Pop.
We were bone-deep exhausted and soul-dark frightened…
And Russ reached across the front seat, and he took my hand, and he said to me, “I’m so glad you’re here with me…I couldn’t do this without you…”
And then that was the greatest act of love I had ever known…
And then the light turned green, and, holding hands, we drove on into the dark, wet, terrible night, certain of only each other…