Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Alluvione: Reflections on an underreported natural disaster

I haven't posted in a while but I wanted to write something about the flooding in our area, which is causing such hardship and hasn't been covered much in the international press. 

In one day, the Grosseto area of Tuscany received the amount of rain that normally falls over an entire winter. Flooding reached three meters in some areas, at least four people were killed and nearly 3,000 left without water or power in the area of Albinia, the epicenter of the damage. Most of the people that were received by the hotel where I was when the flooding started -- and which opened only to receive the flooded and emergency workers -- were elderly women, many with disabilities. Towns throughout the area, including ours, remain largely isolated by closed roads and washed out bridges. 

It’s November.

The water is cold.

Every surface is reflective, glassy. What overrides is the unrecognizability, an unfolding mental failure that, burrowing deep, conjoins nodes of doubt, panic, any spare psychological detritus, and renders the world as strangeness in the sense of étrangeté -- unknown and outsider.

Nature, confident, exudes no great effort, but neither is deterred. Just blooms, engulfing.

The rest, instead, uprooted. Unlighted.

Thereafter, every high-pitched swish, every tenor of rumbling – rain? Thunder? Thankfully now just phantoms.

I wonder, Sandy, is this like you? Are we made distant Atlantic relatives, similar not in magnitude but in how we receive you, in ginocchio?

What we feel, what is dismissed, what merits newsprint and ambitious, white-teethed telecasters. And what does not.

Where are we? 

No sight of civil protection, no coordinator. Where are they?

For now just the unsteady, expanding of human emotion, scavenged constructions of care, the humble offering of our imaginations, of seeing ourselves in one another.

I understand more by watching than by hearing. It’s too hard to piece together through the layers of dialect, my own ignorance, confused retellings. But my gaze is less encumbered, and I watch the firemen’s eyes as they trudge in with midnight, glistening with fatigue, their gaits weighted as though by the mud they have battled since dawn.

It’s the hair that gives them away, the alluvionati. What is normally a source of Meridional pride now juts out in frizzy tufts, bathed but unwashed. The new snug-fitting, Red Cross clothing, awkward and transgendered, seems unmatched with its wearers. But what their usual attire is, I have no clue. They are all strangers to me.

A handful of weathered Maremman women populate the lobby of the (until now) shuttered Park Hotel. They converge in a corner, take up position, keep company. Maybe there were family invites, entreaties, insistence, stay with us. Some have accepted, but the few who remain seem resolute, even as they ask us again where they are. Gli uomini duri fanno le donne forti.

Two scale across submerged mulberries, loose their grip on the only donkey. One fights cancer; water reaches her chest. Another braves the window of her drowning car, never wavers that her husband is at home and safe.  

At the end of a long, shocked day, we sit together, unknown, unknowing, unrecognizing. Refugee upon refugee, fleeing, but with an expectation of return. Some flee floods, gather courage to face down loss. Others shirk shadows, duck ghosts, and slowly, gingerly, locate nodes and begin to untangle.