My Mostly Happy Life: Autobiography of a Climbing Tree CHAPTER 21

Updated 2 years ago By Shelly Reuben
My Mostly Happy Life: Autobiography of a Climbing Tree CHAPTER 21

Illustrations by Ruth McGraw

Chapter 21 The Storm

Now I will tell you about the storm.

Most weather catastrophes have names, like Hurricane Wilma, Cyclone Grace, or Hurricane Sandy. Ours did too, once. But the name was soon forgotten, because the event was so singular in our lives, we came to think of it only as “The Storm.” There never was one like it, and we hope that another will never follow in its wake.

Since ours is a coastal city, we are accustomed to hurricanes. Every year, we take precautions. We nail boards over the windows on buildings near the shoreline; we remove hanging plants from balconies; we put potted geraniums and yard furniture inside the garage. Some people buy extra canned goods, flashlights, and bottled water in case the utilities go off; but most don’t bother. If a tree falls on a power line, we might lose electricity for an hour or two, but rarely more than that. 

Our shoreline is seven-and-a-half miles long, but the better part of the city is on high ground. The Samuel Swerling Park is even higher. According to our historical society, our city has been subjected to pretty rough weather in the past, but we’ve never been flooded. As such, our river has always been our friend: A plaything for our children, a mooring for our boats, a conduit to commerce, and the shimmering expanse upon which the sun so beautifully rises and sets.  

It was always that way. 

Since the storm, it has become that way again.

But the year that Esther Swerling met Merritt Jones and Meg Fitzgerald decided to become a writer, an unusual confluence of events turned our streets into rivers and our basements, subways, and underground malls into holes through which water poured like a sieve.

After the storm, I heard Esther and Meg talking about what and why the disaster had occurred.

“I don’t remember ever hearing the term ‘tsunami’ when I was growing up,” Meg said.

“Me neither,” Esther agreed. “So I asked my father about it. Since he’s a pilot, he knows about weather. Dad said what happened here used to be called a tidal wave, but that nitpickers kept insisting waves that big aren’t caused by the tides, so the term fell out of use and was replaced by the Japanese word tsunami.”

Meg grimaced.

“Tsunami sounds too raw-fishy for me, so I’ll stick with tidal wave, thank you very much.”  She looked down at and wiggled her toes. “So where did that miserable monster of a wave come from anyway?  And what caused it to submerge my beautiful city and get my pretty feet covered in muck?”

Esther sighed. “Bad luck.” 

“Is that the meteorological description?”

“And bad timing.”

“Go on.”

So Esther told Meg what she had learned from her father, from newspaper articles, and from a visit to the library.

Tsunamis, she explained, are caused by underwater earthquakes, volcanoes, or landslides. In the case of our storm, it began with an earthquake about a thousand miles away. The quake sent a wave 125 miles wide speeding across the ocean at 500 miles per hour. After it reached our continent, it entered the mouth of the river, sped a few miles upstream, and by the time the wave hit our shoreline, it was over 35 feet tall.  

Thirty-five feet, to give you a frame of reference, is a little less than the height of a four- story building.

My Mostly Happy Life: Autobiography of a Climbing Tree CHAPTER 21

Added to the turmoil of underwater earthquakes was the bad timing that Esther referred to, because the tidal wave occurred in the middle of a hurricane, which was already depositing torrential rains and 75 miles per hour winds on our doorstep.  

The city had known about the hurricane in advance, so when it hit, most people were safely at home. But the tsunami was a surprise. Esther, Meg, and their families were in their respective apartments, and from their windows at 6:00 o’clock in the morning, they watched in horror as a moving mountain of water washed over the riverside promenade.

Esther worried about Merritt Jones, because Merritt’s firehouse would be a first responder to extinguish blazes and rescue stranded citizens from the flood.

Meg worried about the Pigeon Man and the Movie Star Lady.

Both Esther and Meg worried about me and my fellow trees. 

They also worried about Alonso and Hercules Hannah, because father and son had planned to wait out the hurricane in the greenhouse at the Samuel Swerling Park. The sides of the greenhouse are paneled entirely in glass, so they also worried about that, too.

Water from the tidal wave submerged our coastline. 

It swept over our sidewalks and streets. 

My Mostly Happy Life: Autobiography of a Climbing Tree CHAPTER 21


It continued inland, and did not peter out until several yards from the north/south runway of the municipal airport, six miles west of the river promenade.

When at four o’clock in the afternoon, the rain finally stopped falling, the wind finally stopped blowing, and a first ray of sunshine peeked through a cloud, the area surrounding the Samuel Swerling Park was inundated in water over two feet deep. The basements of all the buildings in the area were flooded, and water in all ground floor stores and apartment buildings extended three feet up the walls.  

Because of our elevation and drainage system, however, the Samuel Swerling Park remained high and, if not dry, at least undamaged.

Not a tree fell.

Not a park bench was overturned.

Not a street lamp was broken.

Not a stone on the stone bridge over our little stream was dislodged.

Herk Hannah, with the help of his ninety-year old father, had covered the exterior of the greenhouse with tarps, and roped them tightly in place. Consequently, that beautiful and venerable structure survived intact.  Many twigs and branches had been torn off our trees, but Hercules, Alonso, and their helpers were able to clean them up and cart them away before the deluge of refuges began to swarm in. 

And come they did, for in the immediate aftermath of the storm, the Samuel Swerling Park became something in the nature of a shelter, a sanctuary, and a haven.


Copyright © 2017, Shelly Reuben


Originally published in The Evening Sun, Norwich, NY - Shelly Reuben’s books have been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falcon awards. For more about her work, visit

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