by Mary Architzel Westbrook
A few months after my husband, Roberto, and I bought our first house, we stood together on our back deck as a team of workers yanked away our canary yellow siding. My stomach turned. Each falling strip revealed more damage: rotted wood and black mold, covered in places with more bad wood, and more mold.
Every so often our contractor called us over to inspect a particularly bad spot, shaking his head in amazement that bordered on glee – “Can you believe this?” Then he would remember it was our home and become serious and respectful again.
“We’ll fix it,” he promised, jabbing at one of the damp beams holding our house upright. Wood slivers fell off, tender as pulled pork. “Around here, water’s the enemy.”
In Tidewater, we don’t live near water. We live with it – sometimes in it.
That can be wonderful. Growing up, I spent sun-soaked summers on the Chesapeake Bay. I got married behind my parents’ house on the banks of the Lafayette River. And when my husband and I returned to the area, we eventually bought a house close to that same river. We walked our new neighborhood every night with our infant son, admiring the lush foliage and the flickering street lamps reflected in the water.
The geography that makes our region special, however, also makes us vulnerable. In 2011, a tropical storm swept through. Suddenly, our back door – newly installed by the previous owner – started sticking. Around the same time, dark spots appeared in the corners of our kitchen, telltale signs, as we soon learned from the contractor, of water damage. Our house was leaking. Fixing it proved costly, equal to about half our initial down payment.
After the repair, we walked around our neighborhood dazed, ignoring the river view, pointing grimly to sagging rooflines, muddy side yards and fence posts turned green and slimy, drawing perverse comfort at the sight of decay. At least we weren’t alone. How had we not noticed these things before? We trudged along, the threat of water looming everywhere. Even the air felt heavy.
Upon hearing our news, sympathetic friends began showing us watermarks on their walls and sump pumps in their basements. This was life as a homeowner in Norfolk, they assured us.
You don’t need to live in Norfolk long to understand the power that water holds over us, particularly during storm season, a time of year that always leaves me with a dull sense of apprehension, a nagging headache I can’t shake. I lived in Washington, D.C., in 2003, when Hurricane Isabel pushed the Lafayette deep into my parents’ backyard. Water surged against their windows, seeped under doors, uprooted trees and shrubs. My parents lost power for days. After the tropical storm that had done so much damage, I looked at my own house, less substantial than theirs, and shuddered: How will we fare in a hurricane?
Over the past several years, I’ve said goodbye to friends who traded Norfolk for other cities, worn out by the threat of rising water. I’ve also welcomed newcomers by patiently showing them a map, pointing out streets that flood and those that stay dry and reminding them to take tidal cycles into account before venturing out even in a moderate rain.
Because when a storm hits, we’re in it together: locals, newcomers, those who live near the water, and those who don’t. Some people, like me, grow anxious; we clear out grocery stores and sit transfixed in front of our TVs, searching for the latest forecast, eyeing the corners of our rooms for signs of water. Others, like Roberto, stay calm, amused by the commotion. At some point, though, we all hunker down and do what people here have done for centuries: hope the storm weakens or changes course. Wait it out.
If we’re lucky, once the wind and rain stop and the clouds clear, we’ll meet each other again, along a riverbank or beach, on a bridge or headed through a tunnel. Happy to be done with the storm, we’ll get back to the business of life in this sometimes strange place, working, reveling and living by the water – our beautiful, fearsome neighbor.
Relevant Links: On The Water –