This Mad River Overflows: Mother Nature's Austerity Program

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Joseph Natoli, photos by Amelia Natoli, also stranded

“Stranded is a bit of an exaggeration, to be honest with you,” Mr. Shumlin told the correspondent. Word of the exchange got to residents of Rochester, and some were miffed. . . Every way to get out of town is basically blocked off.” The New York Times, Sept. 2, 2011.

Call this the coverage of the stranded.

Stranded three days in Rochester, Vermont in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene’s 24 hour downpour swelling multiple Green Mountain tributaries of the Mad River and the White River and flash flooding this town, I return to Michigan and read what the newspapers have written, hear what I had not been able to hear while stranded.

The governor of Vermont, Peter Shumlin, traces the disaster of Irene from Mother Nature to a global warming effected by humans. Libertarian Ron Paul wants the government out of disaster relief; in his view, it gets in the way of private insurance profit. Moral hazard once again threatens as victims of a disaster anticipate government relief and therefore fail to purchase sufficient private insurance, fail to get personal rescue insurance in any emergence. Victims of moral hazard, they will buy beach homes perilously close to the sea knowing that FEMA will reimburse them when disaster strikes.

I saw no such beach house prosperity here in Rochester.

I did hear in those three days stranded of a wealthy tourist who was air lifted out of Rochester and I imagine him being coptered out of the World Trade Center on September 2001. I see him flying above a nuclear mushroom cloud, flying to where no Anthrax can reach, outsmarting smart bombs, rising above a tidal wave, never treading on IEDs, never stepping into electrified waters, being lifted above the floating cadavers flung out of their coffins by the rushing waters. I see him disappearing in the clouds before those threadbare stragglers, part of America’s new vassal class, coming down from the mountains cross his path.

I read in The New York Times that only some 40% of Irene victims will receive private insurance reimbursement. Flood insurance is expensive like helicopter rescue insurance; winners have it. Austerity of no kind touches our winners. But when you’re left behind and have to endure the hard austerity program Nature imposes on us, you dig deep into the precariousness of your own mortality. I am in Vermont to celebrate my 68th birthday: I am personally locked into the dark rage of this hurricane, the insistence of the flooding waters, the feel already of Fall in my bones. I am first convinced that none of this has been real; that I didn’t feel the earthquake in Manhattan just before we rushed to Penn Station to catch the Ethan Allan Amtrak to Rutland because I was a victim of that earthquake, that I died and that everything that happened to me in Rochester, Vermont was no more than hallucinatory imagining, extrapolations of last remaining bits of information in my head. For three days I felt as if I were slowly transitioning into the world of the dead; the bodies out of the caskets a bridge to a netherworld, a bridge that no waters can knock out.

I now know, two days after getting out of Rochester on all manner of dirt roads, detours, almost washed out logging roads and road fill-ins, that the way I experienced this event extended far beyond the personal, that this sudden open window in my imagination to my own decline and my fears of my own end had much to do with a darkening of the horizon of this country.

We are now all allowed this personal, egocentric response to everything. Our freedom lies not in recognizing and understanding what shapes the personal but rather in asserting the triumph of personal response and choice regardless of the circumstances. Our opinions are ours and sacred although you may be “whatever” about mine as I am “whatever” about yours. What we are not allowed is to recognize that Nature itself is a force, not only to be reckoned with in an earthquake, a hurricane, a flood, but as a genetic force that joins social class and chance itself in forming our “winners,” our “meritocratic elite,” our vast population that cannot be “re-tooled” to achieve a middle class share of our increasingly hi-tech/hi finance complex society.

The so-called structural nature of our continuing unemployment goes as deep as this and no economic zero-sum game represents any kind of civilized response. The flooding in Rochester I experienced leveled homes and triumphed over personal choice but it also leveled the much touted “playing field.” We were all in search of eight drops of bleach to purify a gallon of water, all in need of the free food as our cash at hand ran out and the ATM’s remained dark, all in need of shelter, we shared fears and hopes, each able to empathize with each other, reduced as we were to a surround Irene had prepared for us.

What we are also not allowed ironically in this present climate of unlimited personal freedom is to point out any political or social influence upon our personal choices, our personal “take.” Conservatives/Neo-liberals refer to this “influence” as governmental interference and intrusion, a kind of bureaucratic shaping of what should always remain our own private province. Marxists of the Old School would speak of the determining power of historical, material and objective conditions in our cultural surround. All that has been reduced to mean the power of dictatorial State, of a Federal Government that takes our freedom away though it is hard to see how entitlement programs do that and easy to see how government can reign in the absolute and destructive freedom capitalism demands. Each generation since Reagan, capped now by the Millennials, seems to be moving closer and closer to Ron Paul’s Libertarianism that oddly has no problems with marketing and hi-tech’s overactive march into our lives but objects to any governmental assistance, for instance FEMA’s aid to Irene victims.

I suppose the mantra “What Doesn’t Kill You, Makes You Stronger” combined with the notion of Moral Hazard (in an interesting reversal of the Bible, only the poor now face a moral hazard while the wealth of the rich trumps both morality and any notion of hazard beyond investment) shapes a response to the devastating scene of which I was part. Within this Libertarian framing of reality, call it “coverage” of reality, Vermonters supposedly will learn to be more self-reliant, more industrious and innovative so as to earn enough to pay for flood insurance, more able to assume personal responsibility when they detach their fate from any influence from the political/economic surround, and more passionate about a sense of personal freedom that asks nothing of others and in turn recognizes no obligation to others.

Beliefs, ideologies, mantras, truisms such as these have more to do with the darkness of my response to those three days stranded in Rochester, Vermont than does the inevitable darkening of my own aging, my own transitioning to that last stage in a cycle Mother Nature has designed for us all. I see my personal “coverage” of this disaster – as surreal and Kafka-esque as it is -- as immediately infused with my own beliefs, ideologies, mantras, truisms. I cannot at any moment relate the rain, the river, the flooding, the houses and cadavers floating, the deer wrapped around a tree, the dazed and exhausted look in my sister’s face – any or all of it – without interpreting in some desperate effort to understand. I realize also that in our deeply divided ideologies the meaning of anything, how anything is to be understood, is no more than a juicy bone thrown into a pit to be fought over.

I came to understand all that I saw and felt and imagined as a disclosure of not only what we have become but how far backward we have gone and therefore how threatened is our future. How far back? I see the feudal domain of lords, vassals and fiefs but without the strong economic ties that created an interdependence not obviated by the hierarchy of class. While our meritocratic elite, our professional class, is tied to the top 1 % who earn as much as the entire bottom 60%, some 80% of the population are economically detached, moveable pieces in a globalized chess game which no longer, for bottom line reasons, chooses to move them.

It is certainly now as if the majority of Americans have been thrown into an after an earthquake, hurricane and flood bewilderment. Those who were strongly attached to Obama are now confused; those who would never lean an inch toward Obama no matter how far he leaned toward them smell his defeat and their own victory in the air; and Obama himself appears confused as to why a pragmatic approach fails to rationally negotiate with the hurricane force of an unbridled globalized techno-capitalism.

There is a dumbness of our response even in the eye of all the over-stimulation that cyberspace offers us; a social detachment and obliviousness not remedied by any social networking, such networking seeming to lead to the sort of isolation that I experienced in those days we were all cut off from any society but our own. In the faces of those who came out of the Green Mountains, I saw the new medieval vassal but one cut free from any protocols, obligations, securities of fiefdom or Church. We have thrown millions into the roar and surge of rushing muddied waters and wonder what they will do, wonder if we can anesthetize the faculty of wonder itself in the victims that a horrendous economic system has created. We are rushing to dumbfound, seduce, entrance and over-stiumlate the millions thrown on the extinct pile, the “creatively destroyed.”

I wonder what happens when the video game connections go down? When poverty makes ATT and Verizon services unaffordable? When cell phone service costs too much? When the former middle class and the long tenured underclass can no longer fill their days re-tooling with online IT skills, surfing porn or following sports statistics or updating a Facebook page? What will there be to update? What will happen when they cease looking for work because the work has gone very far from what they recognize as work? How many will aspire to be one of the 25 hedge-fund managers who earned $25 billion without knowing what sort of work this is?

I see this degraded feudalism on the horizon in which the few fear the many more than they fear Mother Nature’s visitations upon our travel itineraries.

There is then no incentive among those who have the political power that emerges from wealth to redeem, rescue, reroute a society that has grown more unequal than France’s ancient regime. There is no incentive among the wealthy and powerful to interpret and understand anything that this hurricane reveals, unless it is a call to raise the price of energy, to raise the price of insurance premiums, to insure one’s vacation with a helicopter evacuation policy. The power of the hurricane, the power to flood and destroy is what the wealthy already possess.

And yet what will happen when the reality of a middle class life washes away? What force will break through the guard rail almost at once and set bodies churning toward bodies?

I saw the Mad River overflow the fields and topple the homes and set the populace adrift and I scribbled phrases that marked a dark horizon in a not too distant future. Mother Nature twisted by our own toxic intrusions imposed severe austerity measures upon all the victims of Irene; ATM’s and gas stations weren’t powered; food had to be conserved, water sterilized, shelter provided for those whose homes were underwater, shopping was limited and chaperoned, cash on hand diminishing, school generators refused to work, work went on ceaselessly. How long this austerity would last no one knew or questioned the justice of it. Nature demanded a price to be paid though the very many did not incur the debt. What is harder to accept is not Nature’s imposed austerity but our own country’s, an austerity that those left behind must endure while those who champion it but have created the financial storms which have imperiled us all, copter out.

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