How to flood a road

I used to copy edit for a magazine whose editorial standards—I’m trying to be diplomatic here, and that’s never easy—were less than stratospherically high. (This doesn’t sound like it’s about floods, but we’ll get there. Stay with me.) Editing for them was hack-and-slash work whose goal was to create something marginally coherent. I’d clear out the irrelevancies, bolt in a few bits of basic grammar, then run like hell before the whole structure fell in.

One day, because it was grammatically correct, I zipped past a sentence that said, “Water here has no choice but to run downhill.” I’d gone three sentences further on before I ground to a halt and thought: Wait a minute. What does water do someplace else? Stop and ask directions?

I deleted it and I’ve gotten more than my share of laughs from it over the years.

Irrelevant photo: thrift growing on the cliffs.

Irrelevant photo: thrift growing on the cliffs.

Imagine how I felt, then, when I found out the writer really did know something, even if he didn’t say it in a way that gave the rest of the human race a shot at learning from him: The structure of the underlying rock in the area he was writing about—a part of southern Minnesota—doesn’t allow water to filter into the ground easily, so most of it runs off.

It has no choice but to run downhill.

Well, water in Cornwall (and possibly the rest of the country, but I don’t want to go out on a limb here) has no choice but to run downhill. Some of it filters into the ground, but less than I’m used to. During the time I lived in Minnesota, I saw a six-inch rain and a ten-incher. The streets flooded, the roof leaked, the neighbors got out hammer and nails and started building an ark, and our street, which I’d have sworn was as flat as an ironing board, turned out to have a dip where the water gathered and the parked cars bobbed around in the (literal) wake of a passing bus.

Over by the University of Minnesota campus, two people canoed down the street.

In north Cornwall, we can get that kind of drama (minus the canoe) out of two inches of rain. Or one if it comes down fast enough. Especially if it falls on saturated ground. And boy, have I learned to recognize saturated ground.

So my definition of a heavy rain has changed. Even the rain gauge we bought here reflects that: In Minnesota, our rain gauge went up to six inches. Here, it tops out at two.

What happens in a heavy rain here? Drive the back roads and you’ll see water pouring off the fields, often in small waterfalls. Wild Thing once saw it bubbling up through the pavement itself. Some of that water will flow into the ditches and through them to the nearest river and some of it, in the absence of a ditch or in the presence of a blocked ditch, will flow down the road so that the road itself becomes part of the drainage system.

But before it gets to that nearest river I mentioned, some of it will form scenic little lakes in low spots on the roads, most of them shallow enough to drive through but a few of them deep enough to kill an engine. One rainy year, a low spot on the way into our village claimed two cars. The drivers either didn’t notice the flood until they were already in it (that happens surprisingly easily, especially in the dark or just after a blind curve) or they misjudged the depth.

And when the water makes it to the rivers? They rise quickly. This is hilly country, and water around here—oh, I can’t help myself—has no choice but to run downhill. Even tame little streams can go feral and flood roads, houses, bridges, fields, villages, towns. Every so often a car gets swept off the road, and people drown. It’s nothing to fool around with.

Wild Thing and I had to drive to Plymouth once just after a heavy storm, and the roads were flooded in several places. Wild Thing grew up in Texas and Oklahoma and is used to fords. She claims her parents had her wade across so they could see if it was safe for the car. She never did get swept away, so we can’t prove child endangerment. I’m guessing the water wasn’t as high as she thought, but I don’t know that for a fact.

Me, though? I grew up in New York City and my idea of what to do when the water rises is go home and eat bagels.

So even though I was driving, Wild Thing was the one who had to decide if we could get through. An orange traffic cone was bobbing around in one flooded bit, and I did have second thoughts about going through it. And third thoughts. But she swore we could get through and we did, in spite of how low our car is.

By the time we came back, the flood had drained away and the Tamar—the river that separates Cornwall from the rest of the country, which had been out of its banks—had already dropped. The writer who taught me about water and choices might well have added that it also has no choice but to flow downstream.