The back of the Leviathan

I took the dogs out on the dock early Tuesday morning, before they shut the marina down.

You could see how the river had lifted everything, maybe 15 feet higher than it was the week before. But it was still well below the rim of the levee. Maybe eight or 10 feet below. If you didn't have a frame of reference, it wouldn't look strange to you. It looked like a normal dock, on a normal river.

But walking out on the pier, it felt different. It sounded different.

Though the deck was steady, as stable as if it were rooted in concrete, you could feel a deep surge thrumming in the water. You could hear it rushing in its channel, a kind of roar. Dangerous potential churned beneath our feet; it felt like standing astride the broad back of the Leviathan.

We stayed back from the edge, from the flotsam and jetsam--including a refrigerator--pinned against the northwest side of the pier. You could understand how religious meanings might be ascribed to the elemental power below us.

I looked back up at the levee and felt lucky.

A few days before I'd ridden my bike down the Arkansas River Trail, past Burns Park Golf Course. I'd seen North Little Rock police officers and their families filling sandbags and packing them around the Fraternal Order of Police clubhouse. It looked like a scene from the Great War, with the burlap sacks piled around the entrance to the windowless concrete block structure.

We walked down the River Road on Tuesday afternoon, as a line of cars and trucks--mostly expensive trucks for some reason, Raptors and King Ranches and Sierra Denalis--snaked by us to get a look at whatever they could see, which wasn't much. They'd get down to where the police had blocked the road, execute a three- or five-point turn, and crawl sheepishly out.

"Flood tourists," Karen joked, but we were doing the same thing, the only difference being that we live around here now, and it's not inconvenient for us to snoop around and mark the rising.

We're not entertaining ourselves by contemplating the violence the river might unleash on others, enjoying what Susan Sontag called "proximity without risk." We should be concerned, despite assurances from trusted sources like the Army Corps of Engineers.

So when we came to the road-closing barricade, we walked around it, past the skate park to where a couple of officers were checking on the FOP property, which at that time was still dry.

I heard Thursday that the river had topped the sandbags and that they were getting water in the FOP, though maybe it wouldn't be too bad. On Wednesday night, the NLRPD reported that the river was at 24.6 feet, expected to crest at 28 feet on Tuesday. We still have LeBron James' vertical leap to go before it starts to fall, and the fall will be gradual.

A friend told me that one of his friends had flown his plane Sunday afternoon up the river to Tulsa and back, just to see what was going on. He took some photographs; in one of them about 200 cows were crowded together on what looked like an island in the middle of a lake.

Somewhere in Arkansas, between Dardanelle and Fort Smith, someone needed to airlift hay to some livestock.

We've also seen a big increase in foot traffic through our neighborhood; some of our neighbors are joking about setting up lemonade and snow-cone stands in front of their river-facing houses. I wouldn't call it gawking, there's nothing really to gawk at, though east of the Broadway Bridge the water has climbed into Riverfront Park, making a fetid pool our little dog Audi really wants to wade in.

It's gentle, this flooding, a little spilling onto the grass. We walk along the edge, looking across at the Little Rock skyline and the brown line just below it. In my mind I calculate that it will spill into downtown Little Rock before it troubles us. I contemplate the misery of others and the sky grows bruised and fraught. A friend texts me: "Levees west of you have been breached?"

"Way upriver," I text back. "In west Arkansas. We're fine. We're going to be fine."

Still, the river has the power in this relationship. She will do what she will do, and all we can do is react.

What worries me more than rising water is the consequences of rising water: Snakes and other creatures that might make their way up the banks and into the neighborhoods. I like wild things to stay wild, to keep to their habitats, but if they've got nowhere else to go there might be some unhappy interactions. Even in Hillcrest we once approached our front door where a grumpy-looking beaver was perched on the front porch.

They say the rain we get here doesn't make much difference, and that makes sense when you think about how the river is always moving, drawn inexorably toward the Mississippi and on to the Gulf. With all that water volume shouldering through, it's not hard to see how the runoff in Colorado, Kansas and Oklahoma matters more than what falls from the skies here. But then Wednesday evening we got a thunderstorm that's described as "a five-year event" on top of the 100-year (or it is 500-year?) flood we're experiencing.

Anomalies are the new normal.

While the water fills up the street outside, an hour after the rain stops it's gone, pumped away into the river and sent downstream. It's a miracle of human engineering and design. On Thursday morning there was a little water standing in the lot across the way, but the street was dry.

We're told that had the river not been brimming the rainwater would have flowed away through a large pipe; but that pipe was shut off when the river submerged it a couple of days ago. So the river couldn't back up and flow into the street. And so the rain couldn't flow into the river but needed to be pumped away.

And so it was.

Which suggests we might push back a little with our big brains; we can have better levees and drainage systems. We can make better models. Maybe after the water and profound stupidity of the moment drain away, we can find a way to face reality.

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Editorial on 06/02/2019

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