If it seems like a long time ago, it’s because it was. On the Thursday leading up to the weekend before last weekend, I was trading e-mail notes with one of our local golf friends, seeking to set up a foursome for Sunday afternoon. That would be Sunday, May 7, the week before Mother’s Day. By Friday, the weather forecast had turned nasty, and my friend and I agreed to bag the golf because of rain.
The rain started late that Friday, as I remember. It has not stopped yet as I write Tuesday, May 16. This alone is a stunning experience. We’re all used to rain. It starts to rain in the afternoon, and the next day, we say, “Oh, it rained all afternoon” or “It didn’t stop raining until after dark.” Or something normal.
But eleven days! Eleven days of hard, unrelenting rain, with the only letup being squalls of mist in between downpours.
Think of it this way. If the temperature were 29, instead of 49, we’d have 30 feet of snow.
Today, the weather forecasters tell us, one of two things will happen. Either it will rain moderately, or the sun will come out for a while, and somehow the sunshine will cause thunderstorms late in the day. Maybe we’ll be out of this by Friday.
The rivers, they say, have stopped rising.
MY SON BUD AND I DROVE OUT TO LOOK at the flooding yesterday afternoon. Closest to us, the Town Pond, a cutoff pod of Lake Cochicowick, the local water supply, which is used for swimming in the summer, had overflowed its banks and the nearby service road. The Mill Pond, though very full and with its waterfall thundering down, lies very low behind old mill buildings where the New Balance offices are, and appeared in no danger of overflowing.
Great Pond Road, which circles Lake Cochicowick proper, had been closed, so we could not look.
We decided to follow Route 110, a typical piece of New England confusion paralleling the Merrimack River. (We are in the Merrimack River Valley, which you have probably heard mentioned on TV news.) We followed the ramp up to Route 495, the superhighway that leads approximately north to New Hampshire and Maine. From the on-ramps at the double-decker bridge in Lawrence, to the left, we could see the old industrial Merrimack, flowing wide and powerful through the brick mill buildings of Lawrence, which line both banks. At that point, the north bank was under water. To our right, on the other side of the highway bridge, some kind of old National Guard post, converted to a school, had been inundated with the backwash of the river.
A mile on, we exited on Route 110, approximately eastbound — westbound had already been closed by the police through Methuen — and drove the meandering road. To our right, the river looked like the Mississippi, not the Merrimack. Its timber islands were completely submerged, and near us, the water rimmed up right by the road in several spots, flooding a roadside picnic park and a number of parking lots.
Now here’s your typical New England confusion. Drive some six or seven miles what appears to be east on 110 and you run right into Route 113 — that is, 110 becomes 113, and, at that point, you cross Route 495 again, the superhighway you have just left behind. And you drive down 113, now called River Street, into the old mill city of Haverhill. Except that the police had closed River Street. The flood had already cut Haverhill off.
LATER THAT NIGHT, JUST BEFORE SUNSET, I drove 110 again, and found myself behind a dark blue Crown Vic with its warning lights blazing, followed by two troop carriers. They set up at the point where the picnic ground had been flooded, which was by that time threatening the road. No more access across Route 110.
Back in Lawrence, I checked out Merrimack Street, which parallels the river just inboard of those big old mill buildings I mentioned earlier. A substantial puddle covered the street at one point, which was the river, already broken through. Behind one set of buildings, I joined a dozen people who had driven down to take some pictures and check out the river. It flowed below us about six feet below the concrete retaining wall.
The next set of buildings upriver, however, have parking lots behind, at a lower level, where 18-wheelers park and turn around. That lot was completely flooded, up to the level of the cargo boxes of the big trucks. Two blocks further upriver, the Lawrence police had closed Merrimack Street to traffic. So far as I could see, only one of the half dozen bridges across the river in Lawrence remained open.
SO WE HAVE BEEN RELATIVELY LUCKY. Our property has not been threatened, and does not look like it will be. Towns very near us — Peabody, Methuen — have actually had people evacuated.
As of last night, the forecasters were saying that the rivers were expected to crest between two and three a.m. Sure enough, I woke up at three, wondering what was going on. No, I did not put on clothes and go out and look. But I did understand my grandfather, who used to go out when heavy weather threatened in South Dakota — tornadoes there and then — and feel compelled to look, and look, and look, and figure out what was going on. I checked the local cable TV news, but there was no live reporting at that hour. Beaten down tired by nearly two weeks of rain, I went back to sleep.
Last night, when I was driving, at one point, I thought my headlights had burned out. That much rain, that much cloud, seems to swallow up light. I thought of the National Guardsmen, whom you could identify as such only by their boots silhouetted against headlights on Route 110. It gets very dark out there in the middle of a flood. Very, very dark.
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