This story was made possible in part by our friends at City of Guthrie. Thank you, City of Guthrie, for supporting progressive storytelling and narrative journalism from the middle of America.
We were going into our sixth year of drought, and people were getting desperate. Wichita Falls and Lawton both had turned to cloud seeding. In Duncan you couldn’t use water outdoors unless you were hosing out a meat truck. Or ambulance. Everywhere people prayed for rain.
In April 2015 those prayers were answered. Churches took out ads in local papers saying Praise Him for Rain!
By May the ponds and the lakes and the creeks and the ground had all filled up, but still it kept raining. The streets filled up with water. Folks got stranded. No one was going to reconsider whether all that prayer had been a good idea, but quietly people began to remark that sometimes God has a real dark sense of humor.
On May 23, 2015, a weather system set up over Comanche County, dropping rain at a rate of one or two inches per hour and moving at roughly the speed of a man walking. Around 11:30 p.m., in an effort to save the dams, the spillways were opened at Lake Lawtonka and Lake Ellsworth, which sent a lot of water down West Cache Creek and East Cache Creek, respectively.
Flooding, while not quite universal, was widespread. People in Sterling sought shelter in trees. The woman at Darby’s Furniture, where my wife and I went to replace a couch and armchair that we’d lost, told me about a police officer near Elgin who returned from a 36-hour shift, out rescuing flood victims, to find he’d lost everything too. Our friend out at the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge told us about her son and his family in Cache, who got six feet of water in their house so fast they were trapped inside. The windows wouldn’t break, and they could only get out through a hole in the wall that was left after the floodwaters pushed the couch up against it with enough force for the drywall to stove in and for the brick outside to tumble down. They made their way around the house to a CB tower and waited there for three hours until a boat came.
The moment that will stay with me forever was when I stood in my neighbor’s flooded pig pen while he went to get a skill-saw to cut away the fence so we could get his pig—the water already to her nose and still rising—out and up on a trailer. The rain had stopped. The light atop a silo over on Mountain View Road, a mile away, shone white in the cloud-black sky, and below it the light’s reflection rippled upon a hundred acres of water where there should have been wheat.
I’m standing in pig shit, I thought.
Some 18 hours later, when I finally got a chance to shower, I looked down at the black-rimmed cuticles
around my toenails and considered that, along with creek bottom silt, some small part of that grime was probably pig shit too.
Compared to some, our family was lucky. We only got two feet of water and were able to take shelter at our neighbors’ place. Our daughter, more than anything else that night, was pleased as punch to be awake at 1:00 a.m. and watching Ice Age: The Meltdown on our neighbors’ couch. Our furniture was mostly ruined; one of our cars was left undriveable, the van was the only one that survived thanks to the best van insurance; our cabinets and trim and the sheetrock and insulation all had to be ripped out—and all this just six months after our house was built. Perhaps worst of all: we threw out more than 700 books. Things looked pretty gloomy when we awoke on Sunday, May 24.
Our neighbor’s business partner—they’re home builders—came out as soon as he’d heard about it, with his trim carpenter sons and their wives and some friends, to help us box up what was dry and pack it into a trailer—which they’d brought with them—and tear out what was wet. They spent a week basically doing demo work for free. Friends and neighbors and near strangers came and took away countless baskets of sodden clothes and brought them back clean and dry. A friend’s father spent three and a half hours shop-vacing my wife’s car. Our neighbors gave us their bedroom for a week, and another friend gave us her house for the summer. A poet came down from Oklahoma City bearing Clif Bars and milk crates for our LPs. It’s hard not to turn jingoistic here or reel off clichés about the “Okie spirit,” but all in all the way people gave so selflessly when we needed them was pretty heartening, and humbling.
This wasn’t how I planned to spend my summer. I was supposed to be finishing a novel. I remember standing on our neighbors’ porch the morning after, looking at the wet world the flood had left behind, not sure yet just what all we’d lost and wondering what it would be like to live after.
Turns out, the after isn’t so different from the before. Our lives took on an intensity for a while, and I have experienced nothing since that was as vivid, as near-hallucinatory, as when I stood calf-deep in the water in my neighbor’s pig pen, looking out over all that glimmering darkness. The woman from FEMA said something to us, something like, “Water finds its own level.” Living has a way of doing that too sometimes, leveling out, seeking calm, if you’re lucky. For a while it felt like our world had been changed dramatically, but now it feels we’re no longer living like it’s the after. Instead we’re living like what it is: the going on.
Originally published in This Land: Winter 2016