Is This Many Disasters Natural?

Fires and floods

I’ve experienced four natural disasters that totaled my residences–one by fire and three by water. I’m 42-years old, so it appears I like to average one a decade. Three of them, though, decided to scrunch themselves into seven years. Apparently those li’l suckers were running a sprint, not a marathon.

Dare I say this propensity to natural disasters is unusual without sounding self-pitying? I wouldn’t take them back, so I seek no pity. It just strikes me as, let’s say, oddball. I can’t quite find anyone with whom to commiserate fully. I’ll never incriminate the Master Plan, though, because the smoke and sogginess crystallized some major life lessons.

But let me tell the abbreviated stories first.

My childhood home, along with my teenager stuff, was destroyed by electrical fire at 17-years old. It doesn’t always happen like the movies, so you know. Our fire was in broad daylight. We were home. We just calmly walked out, went to the neighbor’s to call 911 (no cell phones, the horror) and watched with the whole neighborhood as it burned, firefighters cutting holes in the roof for the fire hoses.

But, all new clothes for a teenage girl isn’t such bad news. And finding out which girls at school have generous souls because they give you clothes–and not old leftovers, but nice ones–is a great lesson on the best of humanity. Those girls are few. Those girls are precious. I seek out those girls in life always now (and not for the clothes).

Fast forward eleven years and the real adventure starts. While on a trip to celebrate my first wedding anniversary, we received a call that our house was going to flood soon after we’d arrive home, and it did. We’d just finished renovating the entire house.

Now grant you, we were fully aware we lived in a flood zone. The average frequency of flooding seemed to be every thirty years or so, based on history. The last flood had been eight years before. Probability and statistics be darned (sorry Dad).

You’ve never crossed your eyes so hard in disbelief as when you see a piano and pool table lifted by car jack onto multiple cinder blocks, legs wrapped in heavy duty garbage bags (praying it’s high enough), with everything you own piled on top, a dishwasher on a dining room table in an upstairs bedroom and two cats with noses pressed to the glass on the French doors of their higher-ground prison, watching as you leave them to spend three days alone as the house floods and recedes below.

But out we go to live in a spare bedroom with family, 75-pound yellow Labrador in tow. (If you’ve been following my blog, this is during my mute years, making for interesting family dynamics.)

Several feet of water on the first floor meant demolition down to and rebuilding up from the studs and joists. Gutted would be an understatement, because you have to slush through all the mud to even begin to getting around to gutting. And flooded carpet is heaaVY. But many months later, we finished. Done. Check. Woo-hoo!

Less than two years after that flood, we flooded from the top. No sooner were half of our roof shingles torn off for replacement than the skies dumped unceasing, torrential rain for days, and the roofers hadn’t correctly protected the roof as it sat shingle-less through the onslaught. So it rained in the house. At least it only rained in half the house. (It rained on the big-screen first, as luck would have it. Bye bye, TV.) We were helpless to stop the indoor rain until the outdoor rain stopped. By then, the damage was done.

In came the water management folks, cutting holes in the walls and blowing fans up and through for days that sounded like jet engines. We assumed the mold preventative measures worked since that’s what their business is all about, you know, preventing mold.

However, three weeks later we started demo, pulling out all the drywall, carpet and ceiling in half the house, and there it was. There was the mold, in all its sneaky glory. But we didn’t grow just any mold. Nope. We sprung for the big guns–the nefarious black. I got sick very quickly.

Out we go again to live in a spare bedroom with family, yellow and chocolate Labs boarded. (If you read my infertility post, you’ll understand they were our children at that point. We missed them!)

We lived in a historic district home with ancient, plaster ceilings. Have you ever experienced (insidious, cruel, mean-spirited) plaster dust? Don’t. Make a quality decision now not to. We had thick plastic hanging floor to ceiling, covering doorways, wrapped around every single possession we owned all piled in the non-raining half of the house. In the end, the dust still covered everything we unwrapped. It was reminiscent of the worst quarantine set you’ve ever seen in a futuristic bio-attack movie. It felt like a war scene.

But we rebuilt again. We made it back. Done. Check. Yay.

Next, just to be gluttons for punishment, we went ahead with a huge addition to the house we’d been planning since we bought the place, because we needed bedrooms for kids. Done. Check. Good.

We got it done in time for the next flood. Remember that 30-year-average-between-floods fact? Yeah, neither could the floods. Hurricane Ivan (“The Terrible”) deposited several feet of water in the first floor again.

Out we go, but this time we got a whole in-law suite to ourselves, chocolate and black Labs in tow. (RIP, Jack the yellow. We chronicle the lives of our dogs by which ones were with us during which ousting.) The house was torn down to bare bones again and rebuilt. Done. Check. Enough already.

I will say this for it. We never had to worry too terribly about the potty mistakes of the puppies-in-training at this house. New flooring down to the studs every year or two will do that for you.

So to recount, we moved into this house originally in Fall of 2003. We moved back into it after conquering the final flood end of year 2011. During that time, we’d done the initial renovation of the whole house, torn it down to studs for three natural disasters and then stuck a huge second story renovation project in the middle just for fun.

At this point, we felt dazed, confused and exhausted…utterly and beyond comprehension exhausted…and grateful. I was grateful to have survived the chaos, and a peaceful day in a finished space has never gone unappreciated by me ever again. And I was increasingly grateful as I started to see beauty rising from ashes (and I’m not referring to the rebuilt home itself).

In late 2012 we adopted our baby boy. After getting through the sleepless baby stage, we started making plans to move. We weren’t tempting the fate of that amnesic floodplain while we had a child and expected one or two more by adoption.

We may very well have lived in that house forever were it not for that overly restless river. We’d made an old chapel into our home, and we loved it. I adored living there in that house, by that river, somehow, despite…. Plus, after being fixed up time after time, it was bolstered and rebuilt as stable as a bomb shelter (well maybe not) despite its age. And it was as beautiful as I could have ever wished a home to be, with stained glass windows for days and a vaulted ceiling to heaven, now everything inside brand new. So, considering its perfected state, it was obviously time to sell (as anybody who’s ever fixed up their house just to put in on the market knows).

So what did we do? We bought a fixer-upper (but it didn’t need gutting, so there’s that anyway). But, hey, when the price is right and you’re on a roll…. We’re maybe almost getting closer to the tail end of this renovation 2 ½ years later, and we love living without flood risk. But what I know from my house fire is, there’s never no risk. That’s life. My security isn’t in elevation or inspected electrical systems. And, like I said, these disasters brought me lots of beautiful gifts wrapped in flame and saturation.

In ways too complicated and personal to describe, God provided for us financially via these floods. My chronically poor health wasn’t cheap. Adoption isn’t cheap. And entrepreneurship comes with sometimes pricey, big risks. But, by no coincidence I’m sure, the same risky business we own is that which enabled us to survive (and dare I say thrive?) through the disasters. We own a business fixing up old real estate, essentially, so paying ourselves to undo the repetitive destruction was a blessing, underneath all the blood, sweat and many (many many) tears and mold-induced lightheaded spells.

But that was the least of the provision. God could’ve worked out the finances any number of ways. The thing I couldn’t have learned from anything other than destruction of health and home was this: People are what matter. People. People. People. Period and amen.

I know it sounds trite. It’s easy to let that go in one ear and out the other at different points in our lives. It’s easy to live brushing it off, thinking there’s more time, or wanting to forget it, choosing to be in happy distraction or denial, especially if comfort of body or abode hasn’t ever been disturbed. It’s tempting to occupy time and spend energy managing stuff or trying to buy or organize it for its own sake. Stuff can even be a false salve or lie sometimes, if we’re managing our sentimental stuff so sacredly because it belonged to people we cared about, or if we talk ourselves into believing we’re chasing after it for the sake of the people we love while they always see our backside.

But many challenging questions remain. Am I treating people with as much care and attention as belongings? If the person whose thing I am now treasuring knew I was treasuring it, would they be surprised based on the love I showed them (or didn’t) while I had them? Am I pushing off time with anyone until after I own a satisfactory amount of stuff? Am I using stuff to avoid the hard work of real relationships or to try to bandage a wounded, unhealed heart that can’t ever be fixed that way?

At any rate, the primary gift I received is learning that if my inner house is in order, I can more than survive my outer house falling to pieces (repeatedly) in any number of violent ways. In the moment, it’s terribly painful, YES; no one likes their every routine and comfort stolen for days, much less months or decades. But, here’s what I know beyond a doubt now. You can take everything I own, and I am still me, my memories are still my memories, and my life is still there for the living. Destroyed stuff can’t steal anything substantial from me unless I keep looking back at it.

My primary residence is my spirit & soul; a street address only keeps me dry and warm. I’m terribly, hugely grateful for the latter. Many are not so blessed. But my current house with my current stuff and my current routine will never define or make me, and the lack thereof can never confuse or break me.

People–loving and being loved by, serving and really knowing them–makes up life. The rest, as they say, goes back in the box at the end of the game (or sometimes much sooner and more often, in my case). And all that stuff is to be obtained solely for use in the service of people and life, not the other way around, as they also say. The trite-isms are tried and true. I’m grateful for my upending reminders to live with the end in mind, even if this many natural disasters is anything but natural.

With Hope and Heart in Hand,
Carolyn

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