First Time the Waters Came
Remembering the sad legacy of my old neighborhood.
“Your house isn’t there anymore.”
I had to read the message a couple of times—it didn’t make sense. A neighbor reached out on social media to tell me that my family house in Manville had ceased to exist. It was not an especially remarkable home—built by my Grandfather in 1937, brick construction, four exits, three bedrooms, two porches, finished basement and attic—okay, I take that back. It packed a lot into a small footprint.
All the more reason I couldn’t believe the news. If a house falls and no one is there, does it make a sound? Our family had sold our home in 2005, after Grandma moved into assisted living and my folks relocated to the Jersey coast. We didn’t have a stake in the property anymore, except in our memories.
Which reminds me. Something like this had happened before, decades earlier.
Our family was not enamored of summer get-away vacations. Our relatives in New York thought we “lived in a park,” and they were right. Our neighborhood was cut off from the rest of town and was dubbed “Lost Valley.” We faced an acre of land that gently sloped toward the Millstone River. Our swing set was under a spreading Cherry tree, and we enjoyed a large above-ground swimming pool. It was tranquil and beautiful.
But we did have relatives in Florida, so that destination called from time to time. In August of 1971, we packed up Dad’s Cadillac Sedan deVille for the two-day trip to Cocoa Beach. Mom made sure we brought plenty of books and games for the ride, since I’d be stuffed into the back seat with younger brothers Steve and Rob. At age 13, I still looked forward to the trip, as a break from routine.
Fortunately for everyone, we boys were pretty self-sufficient, so there wasn’t much in the way of family games or activities on the long ride. We did enjoy tracking the intermittent billboards counting down to “South of the Border,” a Mexican-themed tourist trap in South Carolina. I had great curiosity about the cuisine, which was rumored to be awful. But from the description, a “taco” sounded pretty good.
Of even greater interest were the illegal fireworks on sale there. Even though we’d missed the Fourth of July, perhaps we could get a few illicit goodies for next year. Dad promised we’d stop on the way back, but he was on a mission. The trip to Florida was calculated to be about 17 hours — too long for a single day. But he was determined to get through the Carolinas before stopping, despite the heavy rains from a passing hurricane. With the generous speed limits on the interstate — 70 mph! — he was making great time.
We pulled into a Howard Johnson’s Motor Lodge and checked in for the night. Over a meal of fried clam strips and butter pecan ice cream, the family discussed our trip. I hoped that we might visit Cape Kennedy, and see Apollo 16 on the pad. Mom said we’ll see. The news was full of Tropical Storm Doria, still heading north, but that was of no concern to us.
When we arrived at Aunt Marion’s house the following afternoon, we were met with a shock. She said we were lucky to be here, because the storm was pummeling the New York Metropolitan area. That included our home town. When Mom called her parents (who lived next door) they reported that the power had been out for hours, the river had overflowed, and water was backing up through the sewers into our basement.
There hadn’t been a flood like this for 16 years, and back then the house had escaped damage. But reports indicated that this was worse, and after a sleepless night in Florida, we packed again up to return to New Jersey. There would be no stops for spaceships or fireworks on the way back. The car remained quiet as we listened to grim news reports, trying to imagine the sight of the river pouring into our house.
What about our toys in the basement? And our drawings in Dad’s office? Could Grandpa and Grandma move everything upstairs in time? Mom reminded us that they had their own house to worry about, and it was too much to carry anyway. We still had questions, but the answers would have to wait.
Crossing the southern border of New Jersey, Dad pulled over at a general store. We bought sandwiches and bottled water. This was very strange to me—I’d never seen water in bottles before, but sure enough, there were a few large gallon jugs gathering dust on a back shelf. Dad explained that we might not have drinking water when we got home. This was getting scarier all of the time.
We pulled into town on the brightest, sunniest day imaginable. Weirdly, the ground looked dry. The rains had scrubbed the air clean and everything sparkled—at least above the rooftops. At street level, there was mud everywhere, and a gray-brown waterline on all of the houses. That line was drawn at different heights, at the front steps of some homes, midway up the first floor on others. People’s front lawns were overflowing with ruined furniture and belongings, looking strangely dull in the bright light of day. Is this for real? How did it happen?
As we pulled into our driveway, we were happy to see Grandpa and Uncle carrying stuff out of our house. Then we saw the stuff! Sopping wet, covered in mud and stuck together into an inseparable mass. A pump spewed dirty water out of our house, the steady whir-r-r-r sounding like the blood that was rushing to my head. The river had dropped, receded almost as quickly as it had come. But the results would linger for years.
We were relatively lucky to have the flooding limited to our basement, with cement walls that could be washed clean. Many of our neighbors were not so fortunate. As kids, we spent the next week scrubbing the mud off of our Tonka trucks and trying to separate the warped sticky paper of our board games. With fans running day and night, eventually the smell of muck would fade, but never entirely leave, our playroom.
The Millstone river, where we had ice-skated in the winter and gone rowing in the summer, and fished all year long, took on a sinister edge in the years to come. The excitement of the river rising gave way to dread during Hurricane season. What was the “storm of the century” in 1955 with Hurricane Diane returned with a vengeance in 1971. It would recur again and again, sometimes threatening us—and devastating others in Manville. We lived on slightly higher ground. The last “storm of the century” came in 1999, when Hurricane Floyd forced our Grandma to be evacuated by boat.
And the climate hits keep coming, more and more frequently.
Obviously something has changed. The storms are getting worse, sprawling development has eliminated the natural drainage and little is being done to mitigate the damage. My family was lucky to be able to sell their homes and move on. But Lost Valley became a FEMA case study for their Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, which “acquires land and redevelops it to reduce damage and losses.”
That’s bureau-speak to say they bought off homes at a loss and forced the families to move somewhere else.
The last time I saw our house it looked careworn, sad. The pitched roof sagged a little more than I’d remembered, having suffered one indignity too many. Sometime in the next decade the house was condemned, bulldozed, and reduced to a grassy field bordered by a row of Douglas Firs. Those trees are each a little taller than the next. We had planted our live Christmas trees for a few years, and now they stand in memory of happier times.
Looking back from San Francisco, it’s even harder to believe that our home is gone. I can still see it on Google Maps. Apparently, Lost Valley isn’t worth the trouble of an update. I have mixed feelings about that.
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