I decided that this was a good time to approach an independent publisher about my book, The Floodgates, which is a story of natural disaster and its social impact. I completed this project sometime prior to 9/11, but because of that tragedy and its aftermath, I decided that it was an inappropriate time to pursue a market for my book. In 2003, I returned to the book and went through the copyrighting process, which was completed in December of that year.
I wrote The Floodgates to tell two stories: my own and the Pacific Northwest's. Personal narrative and geography have always been inseparable, as anyone from the Northwest knows. I tell this story through the fictional, albeit realistic, tragedy of a dam breaking. As a young child, I was fascinated with dams-the wonders of the Northwest. The cover picture of this book, which shows the Grand Coulee Dam circa 1951, is testimony to that. I gained much insight about my topic through laboring on her in late 1970. I ended up with a healthy dose of respect for the concrete behemoth as well as the stories of the people around it. With the advent of the Mt. St. Helens eruption on May 18, 1980, I returned my thoughts to the Grand Coulee, wondering what its fate would be in the event of disaster. The thought experiment brought me to the altered social and environmental landscape. In hindsight, we live increasingly in a technological world, one using instant messaging and cyberspace and with an ephemeral quality. With that in mind, I could not conclude my manuscript without introducing Chris, nerdy, aloof, and a consummate hacker, who manages, like a Don Quixote, to tip the windmills of the BPA grids.
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Read an Excerpt
By Daniel Wagner
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2013 Daniel Wagner
All rights reserved.
In the vast Columbia Basin, farming began to spring up on formerly hardpan, sunbaked soil. The farms were scattered all over the topography of Eastern Washington, from towns as far west as Ellensburg to Spokane on the eastern side of the state. The 1940s brought in young families searching for land and a new life on the high plateaus that overlooked the Columbia River; Jake Ferguson's family was no exception. As men returned home from war, new farms began to spring up. Some were minute, with as little as a couple hundred acres. Others were behemoths encompassing large parts of counties with acres and acres of planted land. This was part and parcel of the promise provided to the Ferguson family as they took up their plot on the Royal Slope. The Ferguson family's history with the basin began after the declining years of World War II. Jake's father had spent his enlistment in the Pacific theater. On his separation, he decided to take his family to the Pacific Northwest. The family started farming on the Royal Slope overlooking the Columbia River. The farm's assorted crops ranged from corn to hay, with a small hog farm for variety. As Jake grew up, he learned the intricacies of surviving on the plateau overlooking the river. He loved the farm and grew to appreciate the benefits accorded the family from the Columbia's damming.
In the early morning, sunrise would provide early warmth up and down the valleys that run along the Columbia's course. Light would bathe the rocky cliffs overlooking the river, and slowly the canyons and chaparral would take on life as they awakened from their sleep. Jake often drove down to the river from Royal City. He would watch the coming dawn as it traced its finger from the east toward him, spreading pinks, reds, ochres, and every possible color on the palette. After his sanctuary he would slowly walk back to the old Ford F250, climb into the cab, and make the drive back up the hill to Royal City.
Jake's mornings often began on this note; he sought humility in the solace of the great river. He returned to the family farm after a tour in Vietnam with the Marine Corps. Life had never meant so much than on his return back home. He did his best to leave the war behind him, although his memories of firefights and death often crowded his dreams at night. Jake managed to find peace at home. His father was gaining in years, and the farm work was proving to be too much for him. He looked to his sons to take over the burden the farm was becoming, so Jake and his younger brother, Keith, became the inheritors of the land. They were always up before first light and never finished before nightfall, and they fulfilled their father's dream of keeping the farm productive. Jake and Keith had little trouble making their partnership work; each designated to himself the chores he was best at, whether it was mending fence, repairing the farm machinery, or inoculating the livestock. After all, they were a team.
Often, they went into Royal in the morning to grab a bite in the town café, where they ran into their neighbors. If not for the centrally located café and tavern, they probably would have gone weeks without seeing any familiar faces. The locals often would spend an hour or two, depending on time constraints, shooting the bull while digesting their bacon and eggs and keeping the one or two waitresses busy filling their coffee mugs. Life moved slowly in the basin; there was no pretentiousness, simplicity was the order of the day, and Royal City was slow and easy.
Fall, winter, and now spring of 1999 had been foul. The brothers had found themselves in town a little more often than usual. The café in Royal City was often more busy than not, as the weather fronts that passed through the area from the west brought more rain than usual. It was turning out to be one of the wettest years on record, always with the promise of one more inch coming over the Cascades from the fronts that passed over the Pacific. Always the winter meant downtime for the farmers and cattlemen who made their living in the Basin, but now they mulled over weather reports and speculated what would be in store when the spring would finally arrive. On one particularly nasty day, Jake and Keith found themselves inundated with the rains. They hurried about the farm securing equipment and tying down loose ends, as the wind had taken a notion to blow, making this particular day a little more interesting than the norm. They cussed each other above the howling wind and fought off the rain as their tempers flared. Finally, the whole exercise became one of futility, and the storm won the round. They finally gave up and drove off to town for a hot cup of coffee and a little bit of gossip.
They sat down at a booth. Already they could see that the rain and wind had brought many of their neighbors in to share in their discord. Many were grumbling about the mud and equipment that had become bogged down. The rains were unforgiving; even the Columbia was looking wider and a little dangerous. Most of the old cowpokes and farmers stayed at the café longer than their usual two cups of coffee and scoffed at going back to their spreads and tackling the weather again. As morning ticked away, newspapers were discarded. At one end of the counter, a Spokesman Review lay in a heap, crumpled with the exception of part of one article: "YORK—the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has suspended any Y2K testing at the Peach Bottom nuclear plant after the facility's monitoring computers crashed for seven hours during testing last month." The article finished by adding that technicians were testing new software that monitored one of the plant reactors. The plant was almost three thousand miles away, and on a shitty day in early March it was not of much interest to these locals ruminating over their quandary with nature.
The rains that lasted through the end of '98 and well into the beginning of '99 brought much concern and speculation to the hydrologists and reclamation experts, who watched as the Pacific Northwest took beating after beating of torrential rains. The water had no place to run off and clogged storm drains in low-lying areas, rapidly filling them to excess until cities and towns alike found themselves with streets flooded. Mudslides prevailed wherever the rains had fallen. The calamities continued well into March, when a somewhat ominous tone had taken hold in a region already known for its above normal precipitation.
The Columbia, too, had become more vigorous, its strength embellished by the weather fronts that had provided the rains. The dams that held back its confluence now had waters lapping high upon their spillways, pushing hard at the barriers that kept back the river's flow. Reclamation districts intent on irrigating a once-arid land were now faced with a new dilemma, flooding. Sound decisions and reasoning gave way to abstraction as policymakers tried to figure their way through a multitude of problems that seemed to rise faster than the water level of the Columbia.
The Henderson farm was fast becoming an exception to the patterns of family farms in America, most of which were lingering bastions of debt. Often the families were delinquent in the bank payments owed the land and machinery they used to cultivate and harvest their crops. Speculation on fall crops often led to failure; banks would foreclose on a minute's notice, and a family's home for generations would fall to the auctioneer's gavel. Jake and Keith witnessed this often around Royal City. They went to the auctions themselves, sometimes in hopes of picking up used machinery at bargain prices but more often than not out of curiosity about who had lost the latest round to the bank.
This year was proving to be more difficult for the farming and cattle ranchers in the basin. Many had hoped for a little less of the rain that had wreaked havoc on their land and livestock. Jake himself became more cynical about the future; they also were under a mountain of debt, with unpaid bills for seed, machinery, and other miscellaneous items needed to keep the farm running. Often, they were overwhelmed and could have used an extra man to keep things running smoothly. Downtime on machinery was difficult to absorb, and when parts were needed for repair, it was often cash that had to be used and not credit. Finally, on a Friday morning in late January, Casper Henderson had his first stroke.
Jake and Keith were always up before 5:00 a.m. They began the morning ritual by milling around in the kitchen, stretching, scratching, and often going outside to catch a glimpse of daybreak or take a smoke. There were no women in the household. Their mother had died long ago, a statistic to cancer, and both sons had failed marriages. As they got the coffee ready, the old hound began scratching laboriously at Casper's door.
Their father was always up long before the household stirred, often frying up bacon and eggs, but today silence greeted Jake when he came into the kitchen. Nothing was suspect until the dog's scratching became more desperate. They entered the room and found Casper on the floor, one side moving and the other paralyzed. No sound issued from his lips, just drooling and heavy breathing as he tried to mouth words. Jake noticed that the left side of his face seemed to be frozen in a drooping position. The brothers hurriedly picked him up and carried him through the house to Casper's car in the front yard. All their movements were deliberate and methodical as they positioned the old man in the backseat as comfortably as possible for the long drive to the nearest hospital, some thirty miles away.
The morning moved at a fast pace. After they found Casper on the floor, minutes became hours. They didn't have the option of making a 911 call; they were too far off to have the intervention of an emergency team to be effective. Time was of the essence, and they parlayed what little they had into immediate action. They drove as quickly as possible to Moses Lake with Keith keeping a watchful eye on their father and Jake doing the driving. They got there in record time. Casper had survived the stroke up until this point, and they were able to get him in the hospital in the ICU. The brothers stayed in the hospital waiting room for the rest of the day while the doctors did a battery of tests to determine the extent of the stroke and look for other clots that could move and threaten his life. By six o'clock, they had been at the hospital all day. They checked in on Casper to find he was sleeping and returned home.
They returned using I-90, and as they finally came in view of the Columbia below, Jake told Keith that the river looked higher than normal. His eyes had grown accustomed to seeing the river at all angles and depths. Keith shrugged off his comment but took a sidelong glance and agreed. Then he decided that it was the way the moon was hitting the surface, casting an illusion of sorts. They got home at about eight. The house and outbuildings were eerily silent at first, but when they got out of the car the dog came around the house barking and curling up his lip as if to say hello. The pigs started grunting loudly in anticipation of finally getting fed.
At fifteen, Chris was tall and slender, with striking features that appealed to the attentions of girls in his class. He would have preferred that they not notice him, but that proved to be folly. He was often absorbed and moved in a small circle of close friends who had similar interests and aptitudes. They were considered the nerds of the high school, as it is customary for adolescents to label the extraordinary kids who didn't fit in or moved in different directions. Chris's group consisted of six boys, all of approximately the same age and intellectual capacity. They were the brightest of the bright, and their worlds consisted of their preoccupation with lofty goals and quantum mechanics as well as the computer keyboard. Chris early on had exposure to the realm of cyberspace; he found it fascinating and became mesmerized by all the information he could gain with no more than a few typed commands. He would often spend hours at the keyboard on weekends. Instead of going out to the nearest mall with friends, he would be surfing the net.
Chris's preoccupation with computers was in part the doings of his parents. Both had been transplanted to the Seattle area in the late eighties, and both were in lockstep with many other young and middle-aged professionals who fell into the technological fields. They felt at home in the Pacific Northwest among big companies such as Microsoft. They moved from the smog and overcrowding of the LA area to live quietly in the Queen Anne neighborhood of northwest Seattle. Their view afforded them a sweeping panorama of the Puget Sound and the Space Needle. They could watch the ferries as they floated back and forth between Bremerton and the San Juans. In reality, they were living the dream of many others who had pursued this vision but were unable to obtain it.
Chris grew up pampered as the only child of Dave and Celia. Like other children of the new age professionals of Seattle, he often got what he wanted, when he wanted it, and discarded it after the novelty had worn off. He was a spoiled child and at times difficult. As Chris reached adolescence, his interest in technology began to become insatiable. His father purchased a computer and printer for Chris's room. At that point his world took a sudden change that would forever impact his life.
The colossus that would run the great works of the Northwest, oversee its dams and its river navigation, and run the power grid that provided electricity to four western states and beyond was the BPA, the Bonneville Power Administration. Its influence was felt throughout the West, as it dictated the policies and outcomes of millions of lives and businesses. The BPA has long been the envy of its East Coast neighbors, who for years had fallen prey to the greed of corrupt politicians and other savvy opportunists. The BPA had its fingertips on the natural resources of the Columbia River and its tributaries. It was with this great river that would eventually empty into the Pacific that the administration could feed the hungry consumers who longed for electricity to light their cities with a cheap source of energy from its harnessed currents. From its headquarters in Portland, Oregon, the BPA would delegate its authority, make policy, and implement change that affected the lives of so many.
Dave sat quietly at his desk in the waning hours of daylight; he stared resolutely at the screen in front of him as night started to cast its first pall over Portland. The city outside his window was starting to bristle with nightlife, honking horns, and pedestrians hurriedly making their ways to dinner dates and bistros for entertainment or a round of drinks with colleagues at the corner bar. Dave was working late and had been for several months. After his separation from his wife, he found no reason to go to an empty apartment that offered only drab walls and not the squealing and playing of his two small children. The custody of his children was already predetermined: Dave decided that a legal battle would be too costly and settled for visitation. He quietly got up and walked over to the hallway as if to search for life. At this time of the day, the BPA administration building was a study in shadows, dim except for a few offices.
He returned to his screen and keyboard to make further inquiries about the Columbia's currents and depths. He was extremely thorough, as he was troubled by the amounts of rain and snowfall that could impact the region's capabilities to handle the excess when the spring warmth returned. The Cascades had record snowfalls, along with the several hard rains that had pelted the Northwest. He eagerly searched through data to gauge what the near future would bring. As an engineer, Dave was well versed on the hydrology of the river. He knew that there was more-than-adequate flow through the numerous dam generators to keep the area lit, but in the recesses of his mind a more ominous question was being formed. He typed in more information and patiently waited for the responses to materialize. The answers confirmed some of his worries. Most of what he asked was hypothetical in regards to El Niño, but in combination with the Y2K question, he decided further research was needed.
Excerpted from The Floodgates by Daniel Wagner. Copyright © 2013 Daniel Wagner. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
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