Sunday, September 11, 2011

Washed Out Graves

Washed out graves caused by flood in Lawton, PA
I spent the last two days watching the news about the flooding in NEPA, Northeast Pennsylvania. I have kind of a morbid interest in it, like looking at an automobile accident. Not because I like to see people in pain, but because I lived through the Flood of 1972 in NEPA’s Wyoming Valley, caused by Hurricane Agnes.

I live in Philadelphia now, a geographic region not prone to natural disasters. Until recently, that is. I used to like that about Philly. Unfortunately, two weeks ago (the last week of August, 2011), we not only had an earthquake (5.8 in intensity), but a freakin’ hurricane in the same week! Jesus Christ on a toasted bagel! My kitchen ceiling leaks now and I am no longer a fan of the rain gods.

Flood waters gushing past levee (ref.)
Given a choice, however, I’d rather have ceiling leaks than live through another flood. I mean, imagine this scene at right (from a few days ago) being your home town. Led Zeppelin's song, "When the Levee Breaks" takes on a whole new meaning. You wake up to the television showing evacuation routes out of your city. I watch these poor people (and animals) in Wilkes-Barre (near where I grew up with my parents, brother, and sister) packing up their possessions and lashing them to the roofs of their cars – it brings back, well, a flood of memories. We had water up to within one step of the second floor of our house. We lost everything in the basement and on the first floor. My dad and I paddled a rowboat out to our house when the water was highest. Scraping the metal boat bottom on the roofs of cars is a sound I still remember.

My friend George, who lived a few blocks away, got it just as bad. He reminded me recently that the worst thing about having your house under water is the flood mud that’s left after the water recedes. River flood water is not clear water, it becomes muddy and brown as it rips up everything in its path. Look at the water in the photo above – its BROWN! It also stinks like fish. The mud dried on everything. I still have some in a little 35mm film container. People tried to hose out their TVs and other appliances, tried to salvage them, to no avail. Flooded cars got sold on the other side of the country, to the unwitting and the unlucky. 

My Mom said to me last night – and this gave me chills as I hadn’t thought about it for decades – “Remember we had to kick down the warped doors to get into our house after the water went down...?” 

Tomorrow, volunteers are needed to clean up the abandoned Mt. Moriah Cemetery in West Philly. At the same time they’re looking for volunteers to sandbag the dikes along the Susquehanna River north of here. I remember sandbagging on top of a twenty-foot-high dike in front of my grandmother’s house. It looked for all the world like her house would get washed away when the water came over the dike. Instead, it ripped through the dike a couple miles up river, gutting a cemetery in its wake. There were stories about the National Guard and Army Corps of Engineers collecting bodies and removing caskets that had jammed themselves onto the front porches of houses.

I wrote about walking through the devastated Forty-Fort Cemetery in a blog last year ("Cemetery Flood"), and the horrors and stench that greeted you if you were crazy enough to crawl under the boarded-up fence after the waters receded. (They shored up the levee at this point on the river last week.) Seeing these photos yesterday of exposed coffins and vaults in the Snyder−Rush Cemetery in Lawton, PA (photo at top of this article) brought back some of those memories. You think when an area is flooded, the water comes in, then goes away. Not so. There’s a lot of force involved. Cemeteries aren’t necessarily safe just because the bodies are underground.

Oak Hill Cemetery, Georgetown
In 2006, I visited Georgetown’s  (Washington, D.C.) Oak Hill Cemetery, an incredibly picturesque and beautifully landscaped Victorian cemetery. It was late spring and had been raining a lot. I checked in at the gatehouse and the caretaker, a little old lady, welcomed me. As I strolled down the wet slate walkway (that you see at left), she came out and yelled, “Be careful! The walk is slippery, but stay on it! The grass is even more slippery and you could fall into a sunken grave!” 

As I made my photographic way down the winding paths under the trees, I heard water below. Curious, I continued down the lovely terraced switchbacks until I could see Rock Creek down there through the trees. The landscaping is extraordinary here – the hills and dales provide a greater amount of acreage than you expect. What you see from the road (‘R’ Street) gives you the impression that Oak Hill is a rather small cemetery. However, the majority of its 22 acres is tree-covered and slopes down and away from the road toward Rock Creek.

Reaching the bottom of the cemetery, I was a bit shocked to see the muddy waters of the swollen creek licking at the bases of the monuments. The swift current carried tree limbs and other debris past the foothills of the cemetery. Everything was damp and mossy down there and I was overwhelmed with a very uneasy feeling, a feeling that I still get when I look at the photos I made that day (the ones you see here). I climbed back up the hill toward daylight.

I emerged from the dark woods and clambered up onto the base of a large marble obelisk to photograph its angels, when almost immediately, a police helicopter appeared directly overhead! (oddly, this is not the first time this has happened to me! (see my blog posting, "Bessie Smith's Grave.") I froze, and realized that the streets outside the cemetery were crawling with cops; roadblocks were set up on 29th and R Streets where I was parked. Hey, whatever manhunt is going on here in the land of the living sure beats the creepy flooded graves down by the creek. So I just eased on out of there and headed for the nearest alehouse. I often wonder if anything ever gets washed away down there, off into the Potomac River. Who would know? Like the bodies – skeletons in old-time clothes – that got washed down the Susquehanna River and into the Delaware Bay in 1972. That river is like a running, open wound, a wound that never heals.

View other Flood News:

Volunteers Needed for Sandbagging
Shoring Up the Levee in Forty-Fort, PA
Flood photos at WNEP-TV's Facebook site
Susquehanna River Flooding
Hurricane Agnes: Here We Go Again  
Wilkes-Barre, Pa., Levees Under Extreme Stress after Record Crest
Cemetery Flood posting on The Cemetery Traveler 
Bessie Smith's Grave posting on The Cemetery Traveler
 Photo credit for top photo of washed out graves:
Book: A Portrait of Agnes