Water, Water Everywhere: Of Real-Life & Fictional Flooding

It woke me up. In the distance, the evacuation horn was sounding that dull, forlorn foghorn sound of danger. Stumbling around in the morning darkness, I noted that the power was still out. I threw on my one good raincoat and a fishing hat. Outside, the rain was pouring like it had taken a fistful of Adderall. It had been doing so since the evening before.

Slipping but not falling, I ran out down the muddy road about 500 feet to see the creek about to rise above our bridge. On the other side stood a tall, thin man with a grey mustache. He was lifting the car onto his flatbed truck, about to tow it. “Sheriff’s Department saw it and called me,” he explained. “They say it’s going to wash away in the flood. Move it to higher ground. You go, too!”

The water had already risen a couple of inches in the minutes it took to place the car elsewhere. At the bridge, it was a maelstrom of mud and water, roiling. I stood at the railing as hard-flowing waves crashed against it. The brown red water looked like earth rolling to the rhythm of a major earthquake. The sound was like M-80 firecrackers piped through speakers at an arena rock show. Yet it was hypnotizing. It called me to jump in and dance with it.

I turned around. Water was rushing down the mountain, carving out new streams as it cut out huge parts of the road. Back near the house, three new waterfalls began to spew where there were none before. They met to make the sitting area near the pond into a new lake. Trees bent as even heavier rain made me wonder if I should evacuate.

But I couldn’t. The water was now pouring over the bridge. It wasn’t merely beckoning. It was ready to grab and steal anything in its path. I didn’t know it as I stood there, but throughout the Catskills, the water was taking cars and tossing them into boulders and trees. It was taking houses, too. As the last bit of power left the battery-operated radio, I heard that Margaretville and Fleischmann’s were under water. People on their roofs were being evacuated by helicopters.

The sound of a branch. It cracked with a sickening din and fell with a splashy thump 50 feet behind the house in the woods. Again, I put on waders and the raincoat to check the bridge. It was raining so hard that Ralph Lauren’s coat couldn’t take it. I was drenched as I watched the bridge become submerged.

My life has been full of writing about popular culture and my thoughts are informed by what I’ve seen and written. Just before the towers came down, I watched the World Trade Center attack from 6th Avenue and 12th Street with director John Waters and actor Tim Guinee, We talked about how the disaster looked somewhat like various movies we’d seen, and then, when the disaster became one of epic proportions, I wondered why our talk wasn’t deeper, more serious, more salient.

In the case of this horrible and historic flood, all I could think of when I wasn’t outside in the muck was videogames. Before Irene came, I had been playing From Dust, the Xbox Live game made by one of the designers of the brilliant, landmark 1990s failure, Heart of Darkness. Both games have drama, momentous water drama. But “From Dust” features mammoth tsunamis that rush in to take away the tribe to which you’ve just given birth. They scream pitifully for help as they are washed away into the foaming ocean rages.

Perhaps, like me, you’ve felt that the best of videogames can mirror life even as they enhance fantasy. Game developers have always done well in imagining both fire and water. But From Dust is too clean to feel real. The surging water and the aftermath isn’t as dirty and muddy and haphazard what I saw in real life. And, with the way the waters of Irene surged and kidnapped all in its path, I don’t think I’d have had time to scream like the tribesmen of “From Dust.” Yet “From Dust” felt real, as real as escapist fiction, which induces thrills and not fear, can be.

Yet the way Irene’s waters moved, almost as they were alive, reminded me of another videogame, Ken Levine’s BioShock. As I describe in All Your Base Are Belong to Us, the water was a character, deep black as you swam through it in the opening moments. And when it crashed through to your creepy but dry environs below the sea, I worried about drowning, an immediate panic. To me, BioShock was a closer approximation to what I saw when dealing with Irene.

But, again, in real life, the panicked feeling of perhaps injury or even death slowly crept in and then grew. In games, I’m aware enough of being a player even when I’m absorbed in my surroundings. But I’m never “in shock.” With a real life disaster, the idea of “being in shock” is paralyzing and sickening. In games, I can walk away to do an errand to clear my head. There may be dreams or nightmares inspired by games. But there’s never that feeling of being unable to move or think.

Then, I thought about the chaos of the winter water levels in Killzone 3. Hermen Hulst and his teams created a seemingly maddened ocean water that was full of danger. It even seemed hateful. But in that case, the water was too big, the John Henry meets Paul Bunyan of a perfect storm, to feel real.

And the rain, the hard rain that fell, reminded me of Red Dead Redemption. That pelting rain in Red Dead was a lot like the hurricane rain in the Catskills. The rain seen while walking or riding through the woods as rebel cowboy John Marston also sounded real, and the look of it as it came down in sheets was a very close approximation to what I felt as I tread the water-soaked property and the mountain road that ultimately became a waterfall.

In any game, I feel angrier about dying than fearful of dying, angry that I screwed up, angry that I wasn’t aware enough, angry that I didn’t have the reflexes to survive. But you respawn or get up the gumption start again. You have the opportunity to turn your failures into successes. But in the Catskills, there were moments when I wondered if I would make it, if the mountain road would rush with a tsunami-like gusher and take me, or if the falling ancient trees would drop thousands of pounds of living wood onto my body as I slept.

No game has ever given me that feeling of impending death, eight of nine of the dictionary meanings of doom, yes.

But not ruin and not death.

For that, I’m really quite thankful.

This morning, there is new flooding and new evacuations in the Catskills, this time from tropical storm Lee. I might just stay away from games with wild water features for a while, if not for a good long time. It all hits a little too close to home.

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