Disaster State

A ‘Meander map’ of the Mississippi River over time. Created by Harold Fisk for Army Corp of Engineers.

Note: this essay is a sort of companion piece to my CNF piece, “maybe even the sea” at Longleaf Review.

When I say there was a flood and it destroyed everything we had, I know what you’re thinking: You see that movie disaster flood in your mind. That giant wall of brown (or sometimes beautiful blue) water punching and slushing its way through canyons, tearing out trees as it heads toward the tiny toy houses in that tiny model town or city that is just no match for a floodzilla of water. Only a superhero can save those tiny places and the people that must live in them from a water monster like that.

This is a map of the Mississippi river as it floods (‘Meanders’) over time. This is also a map of disasters over time because everywhere the Mississippi meanders, people are living or farming or doing something like driving to work. You see time and the river in different colors, but it’s much more interesting to imagine the map as all one color, all one river. Anyone living near the Mississippi River or its tributaries is already living under water. It’s just a matter of time. The map is also the rescue, containing all of that disaster in one pretty, safe surface.

(This map is so popular that if you google ‘Mississippi Meander Map,’ there are hundreds of listings, many of them on Pinterest. Apparently it’s quite popular to print, mount, and hang this disaster map on your wall. The pink tentacles are disturbingly similar to the bucket of worms. Radical Cartography site has a collection of Fisk’s maps.)

You can see that the river is a thing alive. It’s not some tame, dependable stripe on the land, it’s a rolling, meandering, jumping beast, but slow. And this is just the two-dimensional surface of the world. It tells you nothing of the way the river moved down and into. But the river doesn’t move this way in human time. This map is showing you a river year or maybe even a river hour. There should be another legend on the map, human time: river time. We didn’t live anywhere near the Mississippi River (it was at least an hour away in Vicksburg), but when you live in Mississippi near any water, you’re right next to it. Or already under and inside it in river time. Add global warming to the current mix and we are all already underwater in river time.

Which is why this disaster didn’t work like a movie. Most don’t. Most disasters are not good movies or even TV. Most disasters are slow (river time) and they start out in places you can never see (except looking back because then your mind can make a story of it, can say there was a beginning and end) or places that you wouldn’t notice like rain on asphalt, or worse, the city planning that drained that wetland and paved over it for new houses, trailer parks, and Walmarts. And other disaster non-places like the invisible one that made it impossible for my Mom to get a good job even though she had a Masters degree, even though she got into medical school but couldn’t go. It would take me a long time to even start to see those nearly invisible disaster seeds, they were buried so deep, and camouflaged like a stick insect or an octopus. A perfect mimic. Of what? What we wanted to see to keep going, to keep thinking all of the work we were doing lead to someplace good. At first it was that everything was going to be okay. It was going to get better, we just had to work hard. There would be a rescue. Then it was Mom’s fault; it was Dad’s fault. It must have been. Because if it’s true that it was their fault then I can work harder and harder and never be a loser like they were. I can work hard enough to never live where disaster goes. Or I can work even harder and be the (rich, always rich) superhero that saves the day.

After their divorce, my parents lost everything in the brutal, unforgiving trickle-down economy that was the real hallmark of the Reagan 80s. While my parents were scrambling to recover the pieces of their middle class existence, Reagan and his political descendants were dismantling the ‘safety nets’ as fast as they could. There were no rich or even middle class relatives, nobody and nothing to help us. We lived with my mother in other people’s houses or someone’s family farmhouse no one had lived in for years so it was falling apart because she couldn’t find a job (even with or maybe because of that Masters in Biology) and my father had lost his (tenure-track English professor) and couldn’t pay child support. When we moved to the trailer park in Jackson, MS, my parents’ hometown, it was supposed to be to something better. A place where they had people and connections and family to help at least a little. But those people, it turned out, felt betrayed that they’d left, that they’d gone to universities outside Mississippi and thought they were better than those they’d left behind. Dad ended up working on oil rigs with his PhD, Mom at a gardening center for minimum wage.

You might think a trailer would be terrible, but to us it was like re-joining the real world after living in the wild. After houses with no heat or showers, it had both. In one old house we lived in before the trailer, the pipes froze in winter and we couldn’t unfreeze them (even with blowtorches), so we melted snow for everything on the wood stove in the kitchen. The wood stove was the only source of heat in that giant, uninsulated, ancient farmhouse. We slept in my parents’ sleeping bags originally bought for family camping trips and I became obsessed with survival guides: which plants were edible, which were poison, how to treat wounds. I got in trouble repeatedly at school for a multi-tool pocket knife I insisted on carrying (who knew when you would need it?) everywhere. When it was really cold, we would heat up bricks on the wood stove in the kitchen and put them inside the sleeping bags with us. Taking a bath meant not only melting enough snow, but warming it to the right temperature and having someone to keep heating up water while your bath quickly turned cold. I don’t remember ever being warm or really clean in these places, these half-abandoned houses although I know we were also there through summers so we had to have been at some point lost to me. The trailer, in comparison, was like a small, warm, safe spaceship. It even had a microwave.

I know now that the fact that it was a trailer in a trailer park made it particularly vulnerable, not necessarily because it was a trailer (check the gorgeous rush for modern ‘trailers’ we now call tiny houses), but because of who lived in trailers (not hipsters). The trailer park just gave disaster a perfect space to enter and spread into our lives. Everyone has seen the news footage of some poor sucker (always poor) talking about what the tornado sounded like when it picked up their trailer and threw it halfway across the state. Like all areas where the poor live, trailer parks exist on land no one else wants: too far away from infrastructure, usually situated on flood plains, near pollution (dumps, utility companies, or like ours, just downriver from a sewage treatment facility on a flood plain). In the language of patriarchal culture, trailers themselves are just asking for it. They’re not really fixed to the ground, they have no basement to hide in to escape the inevitable tornadoes of tornado alley, they’re relatively flimsy and made out of stuff that wasn’t made to last. They’re cheap in every sense of the word. Disposable, like us. Like most areas designated as ‘low rent’ or poor, the trailer park and everything in it was already a disaster, but its destroyed side was hidden to us by time. The fact that my mother was divorced from my father and he wasn’t paying child support amplified the downward momentum (because we read disaster as something we are heading toward in narrative as if we could just stop or change course and save ourselves. But these disasters were always already right there waiting for us, a net, a structure we were already woven into). Looking back on it, disaster looked predestined instead of what it was: always present, just not visible. Yet.

We’ve been trained to see disasters as something acute, like a heart attack. Like a well-contained event that can be resolved with the application of a violent white man (a doctor or soldier usually). This image is relentless and I find it almost impossible to imagine a story for myself outside it. We are either the soldier/doctor or the victims awaiting rescue. There is no other role in this narrative. It’s particularly obvious after (and before) mass shootings. Instead of banning assault rifles or guns altogether, which has reduced gun violence in other countries to near zero, our politicians call for armed individuals to come to the rescue. Apparently they are out there waiting, these armed men. They just haven’t been armed properly or been in the right place at the right time. We even talk about arming teachers, putting the resolution of this systemic disaster on a few individuals instead of on the institutions that have put us all on the flood plain. But it’s the structure that needs changing to minimize these disasters. And by structure I don’t just mean physical, but economic and political. We need regulations to keep people from falling into disastrous economic straits. We need regulations to keep assault weapons out of our communities. We need regulations to force corporations to stop dumping poison into our environment and to pay their share back into the system. Disaster is always a possibility, its potential always present, but effectively researching and regulating against it are the only ways to effectively prevent and/or minimize its devastating and violent effects. But if you’ve read Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, you probably understand that disaster is also a strategy of corporate interests to extract even more power and capital from those of us who have so little, and from the government that is supposed to use that vast reservoir of our tax money for the public good. We’ve begun to think of these disasters as inevitable when they are, in fact, predictable and preventible. Like the levees in New Orleans breeched by storm surge after Hurricane Katrina, even the engineers knew they wouldn’t hold and New Orleans sits in a hurricane-prone location. It was only a matter of time and it’s only a matter of time until the next one because nothing was corrected after Katrina. In fact, as Klein predicted, Katrina allowed the wealthy to buy up land cheaply and develop it while the poor were forced into mold-infested temporary housing, onto toxic dump sites, or out of the city altogether. Expect the same in Puerto Rico where Hurricane Maria took care of the first stages of a staggering disaster and Trump and the GOP have withheld relief funds so that their wealthy contributors can profit off the misery and loss.

I don’t even remember the rain although it must have rained for days. But it always rained in Mississippi feeding the terrible, hungry green landscape. Huge thunderstorms full of lightning and the ‘real’ monsters: tornadoes. All of that rain flooded the Mississippi, which flooded all of its tributaries including the Pearl River that I don’t remember ever seeing until it was there in the trailer park. When it arrived it didn’t look like a river, it looked like puddles in hard sunlight that slowly grew and joined together like some sort of mud amoeba. What I remember is sunshine and heat and slowly rising water. It took days for the water to move in. Days that assured you that the water would stop rising at some point and go back where it belonged so why collect everything and leave the comfort of the spaceship? And where would we go anyway? We couldn’t stay with my grandparents because my Mom had divorced my father (or maybe he divorced her, it was hard to figure out) and she was gay, so it was all her fault.

And anyway, this was not what disasters look like so it couldn’t be a disaster. Floods are walls of water churning and racing down on you. Floods don’t creep in broad bright daylight. So we thought we had time. Playing in the puddles, riding our bikes through the muddy obstacle course until the game became jump from dry place to dry place as the puddles slowly connected to each other and grew into ponds, then a sort of trailer park Venice. Canals of mud brown water between colored boxes of the trailers with strange, sometimes unidentifiable artifacts poking above the surface. I worried more about the dogs chained outside to trees and ‘doghouses’ than I did about the people. Especially the people who left their dogs chained up outside and never even talked to them. The people would be rescued, the dogs probably wouldn’t. I worried about my friends because I knew once we left the trailer park, I would never see them again. We planned elaborate escapes together then were separated forever by the real rescue.

We left finally in the middle of the night because the city released the flood gates to protect richer areas so the Pearl flooded the sewage treatment plant, dumping hundreds of thousands of gallons of raw sewage into the water. Water that would be in our trailer in a matter of hours. Still some people stayed even after words like ‘hepatitis’ were repeated and written on the screen. They had nowhere to go, my Mom said. We didn’t either, but we left. We left my friends and their families, the other dogs I played with, the feral cat I’d been secretly feeding. We left most of our things. Mom’s ‘friend’ Allison drove our ancient VW Bug through water up to my thighs, but I had always been the shortest in my class so it probably wasn’t really that deep. There isn’t much room in a VW Bug. My brother and I each got to bring a bag and Spot, our very wet dog. I think my Mom brought the TV. Everything else had to stay there and hope for the best (the acoustic guitar one of my Dad’s students had given me before the disasters piled up, stuffed animals, books, clothes, games, toys, furniture). When we came to the overpass and the road was covered and invisible under a black screen of water that could be moving or still, shallow or deep, Allison braked and we sat there as they debated what to do. You were never supposed to drive through something like this. It could be two inches or six feet deep. But the road was blocked the other way so this was it. This or back to the trailer park and the stream of sewage moving toward us. These cars are supposed to float so I guess we’ll find out, Mom said and they both laughed. They smoked a joint as the car idled and Spot panted next to me, stinking like the river. I imagined floating away in the bug, floating out to sea, islands of worms erupting in pink around us. But the Bug found the road and we drove across the water.

After the area was declared a national disaster, the government gave Mom a check for $1500 and some towels. My mother went back for things, but there wasn’t much to salvage. She washed and rewashed our clothes, sheets, and blankets and a few stuffed animals in gallons of bleach, but no one wants to hug a hepatitis stuffed bear or wear hepatitis clothes so we ended up throwing them away. Even though they’d been washed many times they still smelled like sewage or maybe we were imagining it, but it didn’t matter.

We had those towels for years. They were the Flood Towels, ugly striped in shades of blue or brown. They got thinner and thinner, but they stayed at the bottom of the towel pile until I went away to a prestigious liberal arts college (on scholarship). My mother is not nostalgic or even slightly sentimental. She lives like a nomad, throwing away everything we don’t rescue (our childhood toys and drawings, letters, immunization records, etc. unless we rescue them), but somehow these towels hung around. I understand about not holding onto things too tight, worried they’ll be pulled from you anyway and you’ll just be injured from the fight. But I have a problem hanging on to people. I have unlearned how to hold on to people. You can’t make up for all of that time and distance, no matter how many letters, emails, texts you send. And this was before Facebook. No one wants to hear, It got worse. Maybe those towels were some sort of reminder for her, a way of hanging on, but I never found out which kind: how she overcame the disaster of the flood and got out of a terrible situation or how quickly disaster can take it all. Maybe both.

After this part of the disaster was over (it is never over), we moved back to someone else’s house in Kentucky and eventually my father moved back to Lexington (where he had worked at the university) and got a job he hated, but he had a house and he helped my Mom and us move into an apartment nearby (next door to a known sex offender and hoarder because that’s where you live when you’re poor). The disaster kept happening in small ways, but things got gradually better through their grinding hard work (something that is no longer possible). I started to believe that things would get better even after the worst, until the recent economic downturns. The dot.com bubble bust destroyed my own economic recovery and steep, arduous climb into middle class and my attempts to reverse that disaster through graduate school were destroyed by another disaster, the banking ‘crisis’/giveaway and the slow destruction of the university system. I believed in the movie disasters until recently. I believed in the cleanup, the recovery, the rescue. But there’s no rescue when the disaster isn’t acute, when it is chronic and these are just moments of punctuated disaster that have become more frequent, more violent. Because the water is already covering our road out or back in. We just don’t notice until we need it to escape.

You would think after the flood I would have nightmares of water and I do, but those aren’t the dreams that leave me shaken. Because I wake sometimes with the certainty that the world we rely on, live in, and dig into is just the fragile thin skin. The organs and meat of the world, the rivers and waters, the plate tectonics and geography, the systems (economic, political, social) we rely on, are a disaster mass of pink and white wormworks pulsing and writhing in seismic undulations and peristaltic movements that we interpret as tides, the flows of magma, politics, culture, memory.

A ‘Meander map’ of the Mississippi River over time. Created by Harold Fisk for Army Corp of Engineers.
A ‘Meander map’ of the Mississippi River over time. Created by Harold Fisk for Army Corp of Engineers.

I know we want hopeful narratives, inspirational quotes about how it’s going to get better, but sometimes it doesn’t. And when it does, it’s not about personal struggle or bootstraps or any other self-help American Dream success story, it’s about the overall system working. It’s about all of us working together to make this thing work. As I get older, it becomes obvious to me that the roller coaster of my family’s and my own financial struggles and disasters were and are tied directly to the overall economy’s ups and downs. And the economy is directly tied to the decisions and policies made by politicians. These disasters, all of them, were man-made. And so were the ‘rescues.’

A ‘Meander map’ of the Mississippi River over time. Created by Harold Fisk for Army Corp of Engineers.
A ‘Meander map’ of the Mississippi River over time. Created by Harold Fisk for Army Corp of Engineers.

Disaster isn’t a story with a beginning and end. Disaster is always there already, waiting. It’s the meandering Mississippi, simultaneously too big and too small in both space and time, in memory. It’s the beast we can’t see that is always right in front of us, already surrounding us. It’s the road out and the water, trickle-down economics, trailer parks, poverty. It’s global warming that was begun centuries ago with the onset of the Industrial Age and the mass burning of fossil fuels, but we chose not to notice. It’s just another name for the world and how it works. We need to get better at understanding its movements over time and space and how to work with it instead of against in expensive, expansive rescues that are never anything but temporary. Disasters can’t be met by individuals or even families. It takes communities, systems, institutions to work on these scales. We need maps of not just space but time and multiple minds and ways of living that meander along with the river (the economy, the climate) in river time, climate time. Any moment of stability is just a moment. The steady state is chaotic movement, disaster. The wormworks is always waiting (bubble-gum pink and writhing) just under everything we think is solid ground.

Work published at Tin House, Electric Lit, Hobart, The Offing, Future Fire, The Toast. I research for Roxane Gay. | melissamoorer.com

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