Well, things are starting to get back to normal around here at Sandhill Flats. It’s really interesting to see how the people in a community handle the impact of a hurricane and how they fare afterwards. I’ve talked with some south Floridians who sheltered in-place during Irma when it was a Category 4, and they said “never again” would they do that. I’m just happy to have a baseline for next time. Now I know what can be expected. For a lot of us, Irma was our first real hurricane.
I think about how afraid I was having Irma come over us at a Category 1-2, and I’m totally humbled by those that had to shelter in-place in Puerto Rico, Barbuda, St. Martin, the Keys, etc. We had very little damage directly caused by Irma here, versus the trajectory of the peoples’ lives on those islands, and even in south Florida, have forever been changed.
Everything was fine here after Irma; many downed trees, metal roofs ripped up, power outage for 96 hours, some uprooted plants, had to travel super far for fuel and milk, etc. – mainly some inconveniences. I knew it wasn’t over though. I had been studying our local river gauge, how past hurricanes impacted our river, and how the topography of the land funneled the water. The river was running at almost flood stage prior to Irma. As soon as Irma dropped her 12-15 inches of rain, I knew it was going to flood at some point.
We chatted with our neighbor who has lived in these parts for his entire life, and he swore that 1998 and 2004 were good analogues for what was coming. He told us the road and our south pasture would flood, but he couldn’t speculate on how high up the water would come – he didn’t think it would come into anyone’s house.
It was pretty calm here after the power came back on, and we had a couple days of respite. Exactly one week after Irma, before we went to bed, our neighbor texted us to tell us that the neighbor on our west side had water coming over her driveway. I guess we didn’t know what to expect. We knew whatever happened, it would be slow. So, we went to bed.
I woke up later that night to a kitten meowing outside our room, so I got up to investigate. When I stepped out into the front lanai, I immediately knew something was different. It definitely wasn’t a kitten meowing.
I could hear more frogs calling than I’ve ever heard Stateside. The only thing I could compare it to was when we landed in Koror, Republic of Palau, in the middle of the night. A driver in a van picked us up to ferry us to our hotel, and the windows were wide open letting the cool night breeze fan us along with a frog serenade. I’ve never heard so many different kinds of frogs singing at once. It was a cacophony, an orchestra, a chorus – a complete and total symphony of frog-song. Here, the frogs were moving out of the swamp along the river in advance of the edge of the floodwaters. The frogs came with the water.
The water was absolutely pouring from somewhere – perhaps out of the neighbors pond and across the road into our pasture – pouring into the pond from the swamp around the river. It was like a waterfall and as loud as one, too. I ran back inside to get the Husband, who was a more than bewildered and not sufficiently worried. We stood in the lanai trying to understand what we were hearing and what we were seeing.
The neighbors with the pond were out in their backyard with flashlights, properly motivated to see how fast the water was rising, as their house flanks the pond. We could see the glint of flashlight playing off of water in our pasture where normally water wouldn’t be. (It still makes me really nervous thinking about this.) That’s when we realized the water was coming fast.
Adrenaline was flowing and I jumped into action. The sheep had to be brought in. The flock is fussy about water; they won’t step in a puddle if they can help it. I needed to get them to higher ground now before they got trapped. My Husband was more than put out, “In the middle of the night?!” he cried. “Yes, let’s do it now,” I responded. It wasn’t like I was going to be able to sleep anyways.
While we walked the pasture in the dark by the light of a very small tactical flashlight, I could see the water (which was very cold and seeping into my boots hastily donned sans socks) creeping in between the hillocks of grass, wending its way, seeking the path of least resistance, hunting for lower ground to pool in. Soon, I was trudging in it. I walked and walked to find the extent of it. It was amazing how fast the water had come in and how much pasture was already under water, albeit only a few inches.
We had to pull up the electric mesh in the dark, so we could use it to form a paddock in the yard around the house. The house was built on a mound, which supposedly is above flood plain. A GPS reading taken earlier informed us that the house sits at 73′, while most of the pasture is at 71′ down to 65′. The yard around the house slopes down to the pastures. The sheep would be safer up near the house.
Once we had the mesh pulled up, we moved the ewes into the inner yard. I can’t tell you how much I wished I had a collie then, as the one skittish ewe-lamb got separated from the rest of the flock and wouldn’t go around the flood water to follow them. Husband had to chase her out. We joked how she was earning herself cull status come Spring.
Once the ewes were situated, eating grain and munching on the rich grass on the septic drain field, we went back for the rams. The mature rams we put on the far side of the house in their own mesh paddock. We only had one working energizer, and we gave it to the rams. We aren’t breeding this year. The boys and girls must be kept separate.
We had one more pair of sheep, Fennel the ram-lamb, and Fox the wether, to bring in. We quickly built them a hard-paneled stall against the inner fence to rescue them from a mostly already-flooded paddock.
If the sheep didn’t love grain, we could have never done it without a collie. This is why I feed a bit of grain regularly – to keep them motivated – even in the middle of the night.
In the midst of all of this, our neighbor saw us outside and drove over to us. He was about as freaked out and flustered as we were. He was quite possibly more anxious than we were. The water was rising fast around his house and he was concerned, and rightly so, that his house would get flooded out. He wasn’t sure what to do. He wanted to know if we were going to leave, and we said we had talked about it, but we weren’t sure how high the water was going to come in the end. We didn’t want to overreact. We said we were going to keep an eye on the water, and he agreed. Any upward movement of the water would be slow as it had a lot of ground to cover first.
It’s hard not to overreact after what we saw Hurricane Harvey do. I suppose it was hard for Texans not to overreact after what happened with Hurricane Katrina. However, what was fresh in everyone’s minds was people sitting in floodwaters inside of their house, waiting until the water rose up to under their chin before they were allowed to call 911. People were camping on their roofs during tornado warnings. People were hanging out in their attics with axes. People in Texas were just waiting around to get rescued, risking their lives, because they had been told to wait as the emergency lines were clogged and they didn’t have enough emergency responders to get to everybody right away. Unfortunately, if they wanted help, people had to wait their turn. How could they not overreact? We hoped our flood water would rise slower than with Hurricane Harvey. Slow enough so we could outsmart it.
After the sheep were safe and bedded down, we tried to catch a few hours of sleep, but the sound of the rushing water and singing frogs made it hard to get more than just some rest.
Everything is easier when there’s light. In the morning, we could see the extent of the flooding a lot easier. Over the next few days the water rose even higher to 17.67′ on our local river gauge, a crest only comparable to 1950. The flood that our flood plain is calculated on was circa 1933 with a crest of 20.63′. Water starts flooding us here at 16.50′.
By the day of the crest, we had gotten used to the flood water, even though it was lapping right outside the sheep’s electric mesh. The water came into the yard, and encircled the mound the house sits on. The garden went underwater, the driveway went underwater, the base of the well went underwater, 75% of the pastures went underwater. Half of the horse’s pasture was underwater, so we moved her feed bucket and trough up onto higher ground to keep her out of the water. We don’t normally have any riparian features on the property. We had an empty pond (where they gathered dirt to make the mound the house sits on), and now we have a very large, full pond.
We drove in and out of the property through water up to our running boards in our F-150. Soon, it got harder and harder to get through the water. Then we got high-centered in our driveway, with water right up to the door. Even a millimeter more and water would have come into the cab when we opened the door. Our neighbor had to pull us out with the tractor.
Then we kayaked in and out of the property. Then we had to wade. The sheep were in the yard mowing and fertilizing our lawn for two weeks before their pastures dried out enough for them to go back out. Even then, we had to build them new temporary shelters because their shelters were still full of water. Even then, Fox still got scald on his feet because the paddock held the water longer.
Our driveway ended up ruined with long, deep ruts in it. We had to drive straddling the ruts for weeks before it was dry enough to hold up a dump truck load of dirt to fill the ruts in. We spent a whole day with shovel and mini-tractor trailer filling in the ruts before our neighbor came with the tractor to level the remaining dirt over the driveway.
Our greatest angst was that even at a Category 1 hurricane, we are basically stuck here with all of the animals. I can’t imagine what anything higher than a Category 1 would be like. The driveway was impassable by the crest of the flood. There really isn’t an easy way to evacuate (everyone would barely fit into the horse trailer) and where would we all go for weeks anyways?
All in all, we did pretty good sheltering in-place. We have a beautiful pond now. We were glad to have our gigantic fly zapper, which we turned on every night all night, while the sheep were in the yard. We didn’t have as many mosquitoes as our neighbors further down the road (we were told they were absolutely unbearable). We were lucky to have kayaks. We were very glad to have internet, power, and well water through the whole ordeal. Others along this river that flooded were not as lucky. Other houses were fully flooded for weeks. People had to go to shelters. People moved away, assuming total losses.
We learned a lot. We are very thankful. However, it has been very stressful. And, personally, I’m more traumatized by the night of the flood than the night of the hurricane. There’s something about a slow-moving flood that is completely unnerving – if you turn your back on it and pay it no heed even for a little while, when you turn back around it can be lapping at your toes. It’s best to be proactive. Loud frog song at night will forever give me goosebumps and make my pulse quicken.
The “ewes on Campaign (mowing & fertilizing)” in their campaign tent in the front yard.