Hazel Thomas got the first alert on her pager just after midnight on a rainy Tuesday night in mid-May. It was followed by a text on her phone as she hurried to pull on her jeans in the dark. Right away she knew it had something to do with the Edenville dam. Just the day before they were told that there was some slow spillage around the edge of the smaller Secord dam upstream.
The monsoonal wind and rain had been raging non-stop throughout the middle of Michigan’s mitten for four straight days, with damaging floods as far east as Tawas on Lake Huron. The reservoir that formed their Wixom Lake was level with the top of their dock.
EJ didn’t stir. In the pitch dark of the room, Hazel could barely make out his large form under the covers as he lay in bed, sound asleep. Thank god for his meds, she thought, but she fretted and vowed to return for him as soon as she could.
On the way to the fire station, despite the risks, she continued to check her texts for information on the dam break and who else, among the volunteer firefighters, were responding.
A little over an hour later, sirens, spotlights, and a loudspeaker evacuation warning made sure EJ would be blasted awake this time. The strobe lights on his bedroom walls made it possible to see through the darkness that his wife was not in bed by his side. “Oh, shit, the dam.” Paralyzed from the waist down by Guillain-Barre syndrome, he was unable to get out of bed by himself and began to panic.
He got a further jolt when Hazel and two other volunteer firemen burst into the house. “We gotta get you the hell out of here,” she said. The two men lifted him from the bed while Hazel pushed his wheelchair through eight inches of water to the bedside. Ordinarily, she took care of all of this by herself with EJ’s cooperation, but this was far from anything like “ordinarily.”
At that moment, EJ, having striven to be as independent as possible for years, was too frightened and confused to be of much help. Without protest, he let them do with him what they would.
Hazel struggled to push his wheelchair through the flooding house, but it didn’t help that her husband was shouting at her: “What the hell is going on? It’s the dam, isn’t it.”
He was frustrated when she didn’t answer until they got him into the ambulance. “Both dams,” she said. “Edenville for right now, but Sanford next and real soon. I got the call an hour and a half ago but wasn’t sure what was going on and didn’t want to wake you and scare you. The dam broke and the lake is flooding everything downstream. Flooding now, but by morning it will probably be gone.”
“What’ll be gone?”
“Our lake. Wixom Lake will be gone, empty. Sanford Lake too.”
She gave him a quick kiss on the forehead and started to exit the ambulance. “Where do you think you’re going?” he demanded.
“Sorry, can’t go with you. These guys will take you to the high school, which is being set up as a shelter. Right now my job is to go door to door, waking people up, telling them to get the hell out.”
“Damn, Hazel, I need you now.”
“Can’t help it. Sorry. See you at Meridian High when I get a break. Love you.” She broke away and got in her car to meet up with the other volunteer, but opened her window to hear what he was yelling.
“How about your family and my grandfather in the hospital?”
“Not my job right now. They’ll be taken care of, I’m sure. You’ll probably see most of them at the school. I don’t know how things are at the hospital. That’s twenty miles downstream in Midland. Maybe Grandpa Phylo’s okay.”
As she often did since her husband fell ill, Hazel felt pulled in too many directions at once, an unrelenting knotted rope in her guts, with EJ pulling the hardest and tightest on the knot. But there was also her day job at Dow Chemical, her volunteer fire department duties, her parents (including her mother, who had been in Florida since she and her father split), and her own son and daughter in college.
On just a normal day, when she was barely one step inside the door, even Muffin, their mocha-brown miniature poodle, would have a yank on that rope, jumping on her legs, demanding to be stroked and cuddled. “Where’s Muffin now?” she thought with momentary alarm as the knot grew tighter. Then she remembered. One of the men had picked the dog up when they were at the house. Probably at the county pet shelter by now. Not a total relief but it would have to do for the now.
Everything made it difficult to breathe, but she had to put it out of her mind for the moment. Right now what was pulling on her was the need to jar friends and neighbors and strangers awake in the early morning darkness. Not many were strangers. She had grown up in the tight-knit area and knew almost everybody. Now she had to try to get them all to a safe place.
But, coming, as this crisis did, on top of a pandemic crisis, an economic crisis, an unemployment crisis, a racial justice crisis, could there be such a thing as a safe place? All she could think of was Job in the Bible, but she realized that this series of trials was not aimed at her alone.
She knew she had to tend to people in her assigned areas, but first, she made a short detour to check on her own Sandrick family at Sandrick Shores.
The homes of her father, grandmother, and aunt clustered in a small compound on the lake about four miles away. She had been raised in her father’s house on these very shores.
As she might have guessed, other volunteer first responders were already there. Her aunt was in tears as they led the two women to a car to take them to the school shelter. On the other hand, Grandma Sandrick, pushing her walker, smiled when she spotted Hazel. “A lot of fuss over a little water in the house,” her grandma said. But Aunt Inez reached for Hazel, sobbing in her niece’s arms. Inez was known to panic over less. “It’ll be OK,” Hazel said. “You’ll be at the shelter for a few days is all. Then back home. No worries.”
“But your grandma.”
Hazel let go of her aunt and went to her grandmother. “She’ll be fine, too,” Hazel said. “Won’t you, Gram.”
“Of course. I’ve been through a lot worse than this.”
Hazel knew she was referring to the fire. To the younger Hazel, the tragic fire was one of those vague and fuzzy stories of family lore, but for her grandmother, the fire in her childhood home and the loss of her parents still blazed in her memory. A little flood was nothing at all.
Hazel got in her car, leaving her father, aunt, and grandmother in the care of others. No way did that mean she would instantly stop worrying about them and EJ; it meant only that she would now move on to pound on doors. “They’re all my family, now,” she told herself.
Hazel hoped that daybreak might bring some relief, but, as she drove around, all she could see was devastation, a word she had once disparaged as a disaster cliche, but now thought it was the only apt word to describe what she found everywhere. The lake had vanished, with only the Tittabawassee River streaming through the middle of the lake bed, a lake bed that, among the exposed stumps and weeds, was now the repository of many docks and shore stations and sundry pieces of who knows what—even people’s underwear, maybe even hers; many of the homes and some of the few small businesses were piles of rubble, piles to which owners were already adding what had now turned into nothing but hard-to-let-go-of scrap.
She wanted to check on their own house, but their road was blocked by A-Frame sawhorses. Frustrated, she circled back to the firehouse. Chief Bartz was barking into an intercom. “Goddammit, Leonard, that’s none of our business. Just get those people the hell out of there.” He didn’t stop looking annoyed when he saw Hazel. “And you too, “ he said.
“What?” she asked.
“We all got families, you know,” he growled. “But we all got important jobs to do, goddammit.”
“Meaning while you’re off checking on your kin, you’re not helping us get our job done.”
“Arnold, you know EJ can’t…”
“EJ I get. But did it take three of you? You not only went off-book yourself, but you took two more of my men and a goddam ambulance off with you. We lost precious time and resources needed to help other good families evacuate.”
Hazel sublimated her growing anger with silent resentment and frustration over one more source of guilt.
But Bartz wasn’t finished. “So then you head off to Sandrick Shores, where I already had two other guys actually doing their assigned jobs.”
“Dammit, Arnold, I got my own area done, didn’t?” She paused to collect herself. “You know damn well that on your job a little patience once in a while might help. Maybe even help you.”
“Yeah, and you know damn well I ain’t got it.”
She gave up and started to walk away before turning back to speak between clenched teeth: “If this is the way you’re going to treat your volunteers in a crisis, you’re not going to have any left to scream at.”
The chief leaned his elbows on his desk, his head in his hands, and said in a resigned voice, “It’s awful, Hazel.”
“No shit, Arnold. Tell me something I didn’t know. You got anything in particular in mind?”
“Everything. Everything’s gone to shit. But your place too, I mean. Every house in your neighborhood. They all got it bad. Sorry to be the one to tell you.”
She nodded. “Saw my road was blocked.” She walked out, tears welling.
She desperately needed sleep, but first, she had to find EJ and her family at the high school. Besides, where was she going to sleep now anyway?
It was still early and the gym had not filled up yet as it would later. Cots were arranged for social distancing, but that didn’t prevent people from milling around and congregating in close clusters, some wearing masks, many not. EJ was sitting on the edge of a cot visiting with Hazel’s Aunt Inez and a few other neighbors. Inez seemed to have calmed down from earlier in the morning but was still wearing a worried frown. They all had masks on.
“Well, look who’s here,” EJ said. Hazel guessed his greeting came with a smile behind the mask. Hard to tell these days, she thought.
“Where’s Grandma?” Hazel asked.
“She’s fine,” Aunt Inez told her. “You know her. She’s been pushing her walker around all morning, gabbing to anybody who’ll listen.”
“I wasn’t allowed to drive down our road, EJ. Chief Bartz told me our neighborhood was hit bad.”
“We heard the same thing,” EJ said. “Did the chief say anything about when we can see our house?”
“Says it might be a couple of days. But we better be prepared for the worst.”
Just then their neighbor, Harold Hatherly, stopped by. “I heard what you’re saying. Bad, eh? What else have you heard?”
“That’s about it,” Hazel said. “I’ve been out and around knocking on doors all morning, getting people out. It looks pretty bad everywhere. Even in the village. The shops and all.
“I tried to just hunker down and stay home,” Hatherly said.
“One of those guys, eh?” Hazel said.
“Yeah, I guess. But at 2 a.m. all hell exploded. I had the vac waiting. I saw it coming and it just — literally, like Old Faithful — straight poop water in my face. And it filled my basement entirely in three hours. I finally got out.”
“I hope they fry Mueller’s ass,” EJ said. Lee Mueller’s company, Boyce Hydro, owned the dam, and federal and state agencies had been after him for almost twenty years to bring the dam up to regulatory standards. He had managed to slow-walk through it all, making minimum improvements while paying only minimum fines.
“Ah, you watch, nothing’s going to happen this time either,” Hatherly said. “And, with our governor and our president in a pissing match, we might not get any financial help from the feds.. I keep telling people we’re caught between two rocks—climate change, which results in things like all the freakish amount of rain we’ve had in the last week, and a government that won’t take action on known environmental violators like Boyce. That’s two things our president doesn’t give a damn about, pun intended.”
“You’re a barrel of yuks this morning, Harold,” Hazel said. Harold was known to have strong feelings when it came to the president, especially when it involved the environment.
“And, while we’re all looking another way,’ he said, “he’s breaking through dams of his own. Look how he’s been rushing through a flood of executive orders, stripping away environmental regulations, and opening up public areas for development.”
Although he agreed with a lot of what Hatherly had to say, EJ wanted to change subjects before they got too deep into politics. He turned his attention to his wife. “The kids called. Wanted to know how we’re doing.”
“I saw on my phone that they called,” Hazel said. “But I was too busy to pick up. Thought I would call them back when things settled down a little bit.”
“Brenden can stay in his dorm a while longer, he says, but doesn’t know how long. Michigan State could be closing down and going virtual any time now.”
“Coming home soon. Her Dow summer internship starts in a couple of weeks.”
“Home? Did you tell her there is no home to come to right now?”
“Right. I didn’t know yet how bad things were going to get with our house, but I warned her of the possibility.”
“Shit. One more worry.”
Hazel phoned and was informed that Dow was granting her two days’ leave. She and EJ left the shelter so she could drive them into Midland to buy just enough clothes to get through the rest of the week, including something she could wear for work when she returned. They took a short drive around the city. Many areas looked high and dry, including the hospital, where Grandpa Phylo Thomas was recovering from the Covid. Because they were not allowed to visit in person, they pulled into the parking lot so EJ could phone from the car. He was told his grandfather’s condition was stable.
Some areas of the city were not so well off. There were blockades around Dow’s main building, which sat right on the Tittabawassee River; the lower floors of the county courthouse were submerged, as were the popular Dow Gardens and Currie Municipal golf course. In one residential area, they were able to get close enough to see a woman kayaking on a city street, her neighbors, out piling debris, smiled and waved to her.
The third morning after evacuating they drove out to survey the damage to their area. Sandrick Shores was in pretty good shape, the houses intact.
On their own street, the blockade was gone but cars full of curious gawkers made it almost as difficult to get to their house.
“Jeez, look at what happened to Ron and Pat’s place,” EJ said. “There’s Ron in their yard.”
“Can’t look right now,” Hazel said. “Too damn many cars.”
The man had his head down, ignoring the traffic, carrying what looked to be a mangled bicycle, throwing it on a pile of rubble at the side of the road. It was only the first of several such piles along the way—piles that would continue to grow over the next days and weeks.
When they finally made it through to their own place, their hearts sank before they even got out of their car. EJ’s pride and joy, their beautiful lawn, was covered in lake bottom mud and weeds; their dock was destroyed, only a few broken planks and pieces of metal piled up near the shore. The lake itself had vanished, leaving only stumps, weeds, old trash, and other shore-line rubble and detritus.
Hazel’s head was on a swivel as they walked toward the house. “Oh, my god,” she said, managing a sheepish laugh as she pointed to the yard next door, where a pair of her red tights with black polka dots was strung from a branch on their next-door neighbor’s tree. “Just what I was afraid of.”
EJ’s laugh was more raucous. “Look around, you may find more of your underwear out here somewhere.” She scowled at him but couldn’t resist scanning the lake bed just in case.
She opened the hatchback of their SUV to remove his wheelchair. He had opened his door and got himself turned sideways so she could help him into the chair, then tip-toe around and through muddy, grassy debris as she wheeled him up the driveway. She took the remote clicker from her pocket and opened the big door to their spacious garage.
There were still a few inches of acrid water on the garage floor, but they could see a water line at shoulder height on the still damp walls. The lawn tractor had tipped over from the rising water and EJ’s golf clubs were spilled out of the bag and floating. They had not come out of the garage in the two years since his paralysis set in. “Damn, I was going to hit a few on the range today,” he said.
“Right. So much for that.”
They had both tacitly surrendered to whistling in the dark.
The side door to the house was one step up, so the remaining water was not quite so deep, but that was the only plus. The tell-tale flood line on the walls was at least four feet high, and because, rather than simply rising, the water had rushed in with a surge, they could see where it had splashed even higher in spots. In some places, it took the texture off the ceiling dry-wall. Above the waterline, the nice dishes—a wedding gift from Hazel’s grandmother—that had been on display in an open wall-cupboard, were still intact, while other ceramic pieces below that line lay in shards on the mucky floor.
There were more muddy splashes on the furniture, cupboards, and appliances. The refrigerator was lying prone in the water on the kitchen floor. The bedroom television was found in the bathroom, having floated there by some circuitous route. Any clothing hanging below the waist level in their closets was either damaged beyond salvage or was missing entirely.
Something that they hadn’t noticed when they first approached the house via the garage was that the surge had apparently forced open the double front doors, the one on the right hanging from its hinges.
They spoke very little beyond grunts and groans and curses. Finally Hazel asked, “What do you think? Bad as you expected?”
“Worse. I expected bad, but this is way worse.”
“Same here. It’s going to be a long time before we can live here again.”
“If ever. I mean, what the hell, you know me. I’m usually more than ready to take on a big project even with the shape I’m in, but I wouldn’t even know where to start with this glop.”
“Honey, I’m not sure you could do anything with this glop anyway. Either one of us. Guess we need to call Lewis.”
“Yeah, like everybody else around here.”
Lewis Jones, who lived just a road further back from the lake, was their builder. Lewis had become something of a friend but was hard to pin down, even to himself. Full of ambivalence and self-doubt, proudly proclaiming his home-building prowess, yet worrying about where his next customers were coming from. And not even sure he was in the right vocation. He had recently returned from a Mormon retreat in Utah and told Hazel and EJ that he went to a session with a speaker addressing the matter of career choices. It hit home with Lewis when the guy talked about “choosing which wall you put your ladder on.” Par for the course, Lewis told them he was concerned that his ladder was on the wrong wall. “May have to find something better to do with my life,” he said.
The Thomas’s had to laugh to themselves at the time; now, however, when they desperately needed his ladder on the walls of their house, they were not laughing. “Better call him right away, get in line,” Hazel said.
EJ tried but only got voicemail. “Lewis, this is EJ. Our house is in terrible shape and we need your help. Don’t know where to start.”
“Good luck with that,” Hazel told him when he hung up.
They left to find a storage place for whatever it was possible to salvage, then drove back to the high school to check in on the family once again and have some of the lunch provided by the combined area churches.
When they headed back to their house, they saw that the temporary barriers were up again at their road. A man and a woman in contract security uniforms were standing guard.
Hazel rolled down the driver’s window. “We live here,” she told the woman.
Hazel handed over her driver’s license. “What’s going on?”
“Thank you, ma’am. Just trying to keep out the gawkers and looters. You can go ahead.”
“You never know, ma’am. Your homeowner’s association hired us.”
Hazel thanked her. As she drove on, EJ said, “Looters. Never thought of that. Did you?”
“No, as a matter of fact, but, like she said, ‘You never know.’
“People,” said EJ with disgust.
Even with the blockade, Hazel and EJ were amazed at the number of cars and people crowding the road, even more so when they reached their house.
People were actually going in and out oftheir house!
“Jesus, what’s going on?” EJ said as he saw strangers walking out with trash and throwing it on a growing stack at the side of their road.
Hazel couldn’t believe what was happening. “Who the hell are these people, and what do they think they’re doing? I can’t even get in our driveway.”
“Just leave the car here,” EJ said. She double-parked and started for the hatch and the wheelchair when one of the men who had been carrying the trash came over to the car.
He smiled. “You the Thomas’s by any chance.”
“We are,” Hazel said. “And who the…”
The man laughed. “Don’t blame you for wondering. Lewis Jones asked us to pitch in. You can talk to him. He’s in your house right now.”
Lewis laughed too when he saw them inside. “Whaddaya think?”
“What is going on, Lewis?” EJ said, his eyes wide at seeing tens of people at work.
“All Mormons. Most anyway. Came from all over the state. Even Ohio and Indiana.”
“Mormons?” EJ asked.
“It’s what we do. Just relax and enjoy it.”
Some were mucking out the floors, others had strung a rope across the living room where they hung clothes and towels for drying, while others collected trash of all kinds for the piles outside including their flat-screen TV as well as the one that floated into the bathtub from the bedroom.
Hazel pointed out that they weren’t all Mormon strangers. Lewis’s wife was there along with other neighbors from Lewis’s street a block back. These were among the same neighbors who had sniped at each other at the recent homeowners association meeting, some of whom had even complained about the fact that the Thomas’s had won the “Yard of the Month” award way too often for it to have been an impartial decision.
Hazel and EJ didn’t know what to think.
“You okay?” Lewis said with a smile, his eyes darting from Hazel to EJ and back again. “Hope it’s alright. I got your phone message.
“Okay?” laughed EJ. “You have to be kidding. It’s amazing. Thank you so much. And please thank them. Like I said in my message, I had no idea how to even start.”
Lewis turned more serious. “Speaking of starting, I’m not sure when I can start the rebuild. Some guys have told me it will be harder to rebuild than to do it the first time. Maybe more expensive too.”
That sobered Thomas’s up a bit. After a short pause for processing, Hazel said, “Come on, Lewis. The foundation and the frame are still good. Those things took a long time and a lot of money the first time around. You don’t have to bother with them this time.”
Lewis looked sheepish. “Okay, we’ll just have to see. I got other houses on this street, too.”
Hazel and EJ gave each other a knowing look. Just Lewis hedging again. He looked at them for a response but after an extended pause, said “I’ll get on it as soon as I can. As soon as all these people finish what they’re doing.”
Hazel looked around again at the energy and focus of friends and strangers. A woman who was hanging things on the line happened to look her way and gave Hazel a smile. She smiled back and then turned her smile to their builder. “We know you will, Lewis. Thanks. Thanks a lot. Thanks for all this too.” She left EJ and Lewis to themselves while she joined in to help sort through a pile of wet, dirty clothes, even though there was little hope of resurrection.
She had phoned her Dow office again to give them an update on the house situation. A short time later, she got a return call telling her that the company said, starting the next day, they could stay in the same intern’s apartment as their daughter. “Nine hundred square feet is all—two bedrooms, one with bunk beds,” she told EJ.
As he reached for her hand, he said “People,” quoting himself from earlier
She laughed. “Yeah, that’s what you said about the looters, right.”
“Right. But just look around. Thank God for the ‘Swarmin’ Mormons,” he said.
A few hours later, they drove back to the high school for another church-lady meal. They sat with Inez and Grandma Sandrick and some neighbors. This time Hazel’s father was there as well. “He was just hanging out at his good-old-boy’s store in Midland last night, just like nothing was going on,” Inez said.
“And nothing was,” he said.
“Just you and the boys eh?” Hazel teased.
“Poker night. Almost as many guys as always, but they didn’t want to drive home in the storm, so we all just camped out.”
“Had a big-time, I’ll bet,” EJ said.
“Well, we do sell beer in the store, you know. And, like always, we had a lot of the same old lies to tell. Kept us going until some guys just put their heads down on the table asleep and the rest crashed right there on the floor. Of course, I had my bed in the back room.”
“Of course,” Hazel laughed.
“You wouldn’t believe what happened at our house,” EJ said and told them about the Swarmin Mormons.
Hazel explained the plans with Allison and Brendan. Hazel’s father said, “That apartment sounds tight, but Brendan can stay with me when he’s ready. I’m not there a lot, so he would have the place to himself..”
Hazel wanted to hug him but the Sandrick men were not huggers. “We’ll see,” she said, taking a deep breath, her first in a while. “I’m sure Brendan will be happy to take you up on your offer.”
Hazel became aware of her jaw and shoulders loosening a tad as a result of all the family banter.
When they finally made it to their cots for the night, she told EJ she was feeling at least some small amount of relief.
“Good,” he said. “But it ain’t over yet. Like your dad said, it’s going to be tight in that apartment, and we’re probably going to have to be there a long time yet. A long road ahead, with a lot of potholes, I’m afraid.”
She poked him in the ribs. “Gee, thanks a lot. I was just starting to feel a little better.”
“Me too, but…”
“Right now, for tonight, I just need you to promise me one thing,” he said.
“Just promise me no sirens or loudspeakers, and promise you won’t leave me in the middle of the night.”
She poked his ribs again.“Dammit, that’s two things at least.” she said.
Tired as she was when she turned out the light, Hazel still couldn’t sleep. Her mind churned over the past few days, over her daughter living with them, over who was going to sleep where, over what she would do with EJ if there really were another emergency in the night? And his warning about potholes ahead—for them, for their families, for their neighbors. He was right, of course. He was right about all of them, all the people she had scared awake that night…all without a home…what will they do?
Richard Ault: I’ve written fiction since my third-grade teacher, Mrs. Ferguson, praised my story.. Writing, however, was not my career until I retired from many years as a private consultant on organizational change. Before that, I was in public education as a teacher, principal, and college professor. I was the principal author of a non-fiction book on change, and have written and published two novels, an essay, a poem, and numerous articles, papers, and book chapters. Until recently I lived in northern Michigan with Pennie, my loving wife of 50 + years. When she died last year, I moved to be near my son’s family in Pennsylvania, not far from another son in Manhattan. That third-grade story was about the hardships of a pioneer family in a wagon train headed west. I still have the original copy of that story in my file cabinet, and I am still writing stories about people taking life chances.