We all know someone who specializes in spreading bad news.
In fact, there’s a little of that trait in many of us. It’s an unattractive aspect of human nature: we want to be the first to convey the unhappy tidings. It’s all mixed up with our quest, subconscious perhaps, to be viewed by our peers as knowledgeable and important.
A year ago today, my fiancée Beverly and I were married at the country home of friends in Montgomery County. It was a beautiful, sunny day in upstate New York, not at all like the North Carolina’s Outer Banks where Hurricane Irene had made landfall that morning.
The first of our two wedding trips was scheduled for November, so after our reception we headed back to Schenectady in heavy rain that continued through the night.
The next day, a Sunday, Irene was pounding our deck with a staccato beat as we monitored a scanner for news about the storm. We were also researching the historical water levels of the Mohawk River during floods and our own location above sea level. We feared we’d have to leave our home for higher, drier ground, and we wanted to be ready.
We still had electricity. It was hours before the lights would go out in the Stockade district and the police would begin canvassing the neighborhood to urge people to get out because the Mohawk River was predicted to top its historic floodwater levels.
We were listening to conversations among Neighborhood Watch volunteers who were talking on walkie-talkies somewhere in the country, and our ears pricked up at a snippet of dialogue. One of them said he “heard that the dam has busted.”
That was it. Nothing more was said about it for several minutes.
Immediately, we thought of the Gilboa, the massive dam on the Schoharie Reservoir that holds back billions of gallons of water. If it were breached, the consequences for communities downstream — including our own — would be disastrous.
We were now in a real quandary. Do we spread the word? Theoretically there would be plenty of time to get out of the water’s path and reach safety long before the flood washed away our community. But at what point would we be alerted officially?
Did the dam fail or was someone passing along unsubstantiated rumor? TV had nothing to offer. We made a few calls. Officialdom had no word on the dam. To me, that suggested it had not failed. Still, we were uncertain and uneasy.
We monitored more conversation among the volunteers, more discussion of the dam’s breach. They now spoke as though it were an accepted fact.
Was it now time for us to spread the word?
I personally wanted official confirmation. It’s ingrained in me. I could envision a panicked population fleeing the Stockade in droves, scrambling to escape floodwaters that might not be coming at all.
Still more conversation on the walkie-talkies. Someone had the common sense to ask the guy who originally reported the breach if he knew for certain that it was true.
“They wouldn’t say it if they didn’t know it was true,” was his reply.
“Of course they would,” I thought. ‘They’ do it all the time.”
Not long after, the lights went out, and police officers began driving up and down the streets of the Stockade urging us all to evacuate.
Night came earlier that usual, or maybe it just seemed that way because of the lack of lights.
One of our neighbors said he had been told the Gilboa Dam had ruptured, and that we all had to go before the floodwaters arrived.
“Who told you that?” I asked him.
“Well, they didn’t tell me, they told the lady next door.”
“Who told her?”
He said he thought it was the cops.
I was now convinced we were in the middle of a grown-up game of gossip. Remember that game where you whispered a phrase in the ear of the next player and he or she passed it on to the next and so on until it reached the last player who would say it out loud. What the final player said rarely came close to what was said originally.
We were determined to stay in our home, despite the lack of electricity, but as the evening wore on and the bullhorns persisted, we relented and accepted a friend’s insistent invitation to come stay at his house.
Beverly and I locked up the house, scooped up our dog Maggie, and headed out into the storm.
We were in good company.
At the height of Irene and the floods that followed, 2.3 million people — sometimes whole communities — were ordered to leave their homes, and 9 million people along the East Coast were left in the dark.
And, as we now know, there were precautionary evacuations near the Gilboa. But despite the word on the street, the dam was never breached.
Irv Dean is the Gazette’s city editor. Opinions in his column are his own and not necessarily those of the newspaper. Reach him at P.O.Box 1090, Schenectady, N.Y. 12301 or by email to firstname.lastname@example.org.