When the levee breaks I can’t turn away

Disasters bring out in us what it really means to be human. Nothing reveals the essence of humanity better than a raw, destructive incident.
Take for example, the great flood of 1997. The stories of communities banding together is enough to make me puke. Hot dish flood centers and heroic rescues — that is the story that makes it to Minneapolis and the rest of the country.
However, once the sandbagging is completed and the water crests, we see the other side of humanity: the gawking side. To best witness (and, admittedly, participate) in this phenomenon of flood voyeurism, I traveled to Fargo, N.D., this past weekend.
With my interest piqued by stories of half-submerged bridges and roadways closed off with dirt, sandbags and police tape, and with a sneak peek at “The Fargo Flood Cam” on the Web (www.ndsu.nodak.edu/fargoflood/) I rushed off to the Red River Valley.
Friends of mine told me about getting out of class for three days and volunteering for sandbagging. The turnout was so great that some said they were turned away.
I had spent my last three springs in the Fargo-Moorhead area and each year saw only mediocre flooding. Now that I have moved out of town, the flood of the century rolls downstream.
The Red River has not been this high since 1897. I heard reports on Saturday that it had crested the previous Friday. I heard on Monday that it had risen another couple of feet, breaking the record that was set just three days before.
All the talk about record levels and “38 feet above normal” didn’t give me a clear image, though. I wanted to see it firsthand. Once I was there and had the opportunity to see the flood in person, I saw some more palpable examples of the flood’s effects.
I saw a sign on a railroad bridge over a roadway that read “14 feet.” The sign couldn’t have been more than a foot and a half from the water below.
On one of the local parking ramps, an exterior staircase allowed people to walk directly into the middle of the much wider river.
It was still cold enough that the tops of drowned trees were trimmed with icicles. Of course, at all the best viewing spots were groups of people, pressed up against the police tape to get a good look at the devastation.
There’s no harm in looking, but some do go too far, at least according to one police officer. I asked him if they’ve had any problems with people doing weird things because of the flood.
“Nothing much,” he said. “Just people walking on the dike.” Doesn’t sound like much, but a stroll on these man-made hills can cost you $500.
Although it is probably better to err on the side of safety, I was disappointed. I expected to hear tales of drunken fraternity pledges taking belly flops into the now submarine Moorhead Center Mall parking lot, or at least a fisherman or two trying to get an early start on the season.
But people in Fargo aren’t stupid. That weekend, the temperatures were just barely above 40, and some parts of the water still had ice in it. In this part of the country, people know better than to tempt fate with those conditions.
A healthy turnout of gawkers on the levee that day proved enough to satisfy my desire for viewing what I’ve called “the Hamner-Brown effect.”
I got the term from “Lucifer’s Hammer,” by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. It’s a fictional account of the Hamner-Brown comet hitting the Earth and bringing about the end of civilization.
Some characters in the book welcomed this calamity, especially counter-culture or poor people who have nothing to lose. For many people, however, the end of civilization was an exciting time, no matter what their demographics were.
Essentially, the characters in the book wanted a break from the routine of modern living. They weren’t anarchists, just normal people who get bored when nothing changes. They watched and waited with excitement for the imminent destruction.
They’re the same kind of people who pop in a tape and record the Weather Channel during hurricanes or forest fires (even though they are thousands of miles away).
Maybe we like to see old things destroyed because, in the wake of that destruction, new life and new opportunities present themselves.
Mass destruction takes away all the old worries: You don’t have to go to work, your bills disappear and you can finally get out of town to go on a road trip.
In the Twin Cities, where the flooding hasn’t been as damaging as in Fargo, some enterprising individuals have started businesses that cater to this appetite for destruction by taking people for helicopter and airplane rides to view the flooded areas around the city.
Their customers are most likely the same people responsible for the gawker’s slowdowns I hear about on traffic radio every day on my way to work.
What is it about fire engines and ambulances that grabs and holds our attention? It is the same quality that made movies like “Twister” and “Dante’s Peak” successful.
I’d argue that some of us in society are entranced by disasters as a natural, protective instinct. Maybe it is nature’s way of forcing us to learn how to avoid disaster ourselves.
(Of course, many times those who find disaster the most fascinating aren’t the ones who have to mop up their basements when it’s all over.)
Should we fight our instincts and pretend destruction isn’t interesting? Or should we, once every hundred years, take stock of the enormous power and will that Mother Nature has over humans.
There is a lesson to be learned, and the banks of the Red River are as good a place as any to learn it.