Reading on this site about the devastation of Adriana Luque’s market and restaurant in New York City’s South Street Seaport summons up memories of a similar disaster I experienced 40 years ago. In June 1972, the Susquehanna River, swollen to a record level by a tropical storm with the ugly name of Agnes, sluiced through my family’s brick ranch house a short block away. When the water receded we returned to find an upended piano, rotting fish and all the belongings we hadn’t had time to move coated with a thick, foul smelling layer of river mud that quickly turned to choking dust in the blistering summer air. After stripping the house’s interior to the bare walls it took six months to make it habitable, without the once finished basement my mother liked to refer to afterwards as “the only paneled swimming pool in Harrisburg.” There was a low-interest government loan, but no flood insurance in those days to replace all that had been destroyed. It was a long, dismal summer before I returned to my senior year of college, one that saw us move four times, the last to a cramped trailer wedged into a small strip of land between our house and our next door neighbor’s.
When these disasters strike, a mayor or governor will stand before a bank of microphones and announce, “The people of [insert city or state] are made of strong stuff. We’ll be back better than ever.” And when I hear these pronouncements I wonder what it is that makes the residents of Staten Island or Atlantic City more resilient than any Americans, or, for that matter, people anywhere. The truth is we all react the same way to this kind of adversity. We grieve, we assess, we rebuild. Even as we worked to restore the house my mother would live in for another 28 years, we mourned the loss of precious items—photographs, report cards, letters—that are the soil out of which memory grows. But we moved on without them. Forty years have passed and in that time we’ve experienced births, deaths, weddings, days of joy and times of profound sadness. We’ve built a life rich with new memories. And we dare to imagine we can fend off catastrophe, even as we know the next one already may be lumbering toward us out of the darkness on the water or the wind. “The shock is beginning to wear off and we are ready to move on,” Adriana Luque writes. “The only question is how?” We do. Somehow we do.
–by Harvey Freedenberg | Susquehanna near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania”