Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The [Greek] Gods Are Angry

Image: Therma, Ikaria - pretty as a picture postcard - before the storm

Lightening dissects the sky, thunder rips the air, and sheets of water fall from the clouds, pulling a rain soaked curtain down over the hills surrounding the small village of Therma, Ikaria.

Waterfalls pour from terracotta tiles, rooftops fill with pools of water, and rivers form to wash the streets clean of autumn leaves, cat shite, plastic bags and bottles, goat droppings, loose garbage, and a summer’s worth of dirt, pebbles and powdered dust.

It is impossible to know whether the whole island is experiencing this, or just the northern side. Last night, I woke at 2.30AM, and noticed the sky illuminate with brief flashes of light. Looking out from my balcony, I could see stars and scattered clouds along our side of the island, but clearly, some other part of the southern Aegean was being washed clean of its accumulated summer detritus.

Today, it is our turn.

Mind you, it has been threatening to do this for days. The air has been heavy with humidity and dark, brooding clouds. These occasionally unleash short, violent downpours, but nothing as sustained as today’s drenching.

Looking out through the rain spattered glass of my balcony doors I can see half a dozen elderly men and women wrapped in dressing gowns. They are taking advantage of a brief lull in the storm to make their way back to their hotels and rented rooms, following their allotted session at one of Therma’s hydrotherapy centres.

They couldn’t have timed their return better.
Image: Villagers watch flood waters surge below overpass
Five or ten minutes later, my attention is drawn to excited shouts and noise from the street below. I open the balcony doors and look down onto a group of twenty or so people milling around on the small overpass below my room.

Rain water has been steadily making its way down the high hillsides. First in trickles and rivulets; then gathering strength in streams and watercourses until finally, a large mass of accumulated water has finally reached the foot of the valley where the village is located. This water is now coursing through the centre of the village along a large culvert that does double duty as a road and parking area throughout the summer. With the rain, the culvert has reverted to its status as an open drain funnelling water into the Aegean Sea.

I quickly pull on a pair of boots and head down to the street, camera in hand.
Image: In ‘clear and present danger’ these cars are at the mercy of surging flood water
Standing on the overpass with other visitors and locals, I see two cars in ‘clear and present danger’. It appears at least half a dozen cars were left parked in the culvert overnight, and now some are at serious risk of being swept into the sea by the onrush of water.

The culvert is covered from one side to the other with a fast-flowing river of dirty water the colour of chocolate. Floating and sliding, rolling and swirling, and bobbing along on this sea of brown are old car tyres, tree branches, plastic crates and bottles and large slabs of concrete that lined the culvert somewhere further up its length.

Some of the concrete slabs get jammed up against and underneath, the two cars caught in the flood. Rather than bump and push the cars further down the culvert, the slabs seem to be anchoring the cars in place, although both vehicles must have sustained some damage from the constant buffeting they get from passing debris.
Image: Flooding water gouges away at the shale supporting this car
Meanwhile, a hundred yards further down the culvert, other car owners and café and restaurant operators have not been so ‘fortunate’. One or two cafés at street level are in danger of being flooded, and one car in particular is in imminent danger of sinking into the shale twenty or thirty feet from the Aegean’s beckoning waters. The car is perched precariously over a deep gash in the shale which continues to deepen by the minute as the torrent of water gouges its way towards the shoreline.
Image: The normally clear Aegean waters at Therma covered with scum and debris

In complete contrast to the mess on land, the sea is perversely flat and calm – presumably due to an offshore breeze. Sadly, the usual crystal clear turquoise waters of the Aegean are discoloured with mud and other waste.

By midday, the storm seems to have run its course, or maybe it has simply moved offshore to drench the nearby islands of Fourni, Chios, and Samos. Eventually, the flood of water down the culvert slows to a safe negotiable flow, and the owners of the two cars up by the overpass are able to free them from the accumulated rubbish that has wedged underneath their chassis and amazingly, drive them to higher ground.

Even the car sitting perilously on the disappearing shale is pulled to a safer location.

Image: With water still around his ankles this café owner starts the clean up process

Café and restaurant owners begin hosing the mud and debris off their forecourts, and retrieving overturned plants, tables and signage.

Visitors and locals start rehearsing their ‘tales of the flood’ stories, and blog writers rush back to their computers – grateful to have something new to write about.

Image: Once the flood water recedes, cars are again parked in the culvert!

Image: This village cat is clearly not happy with the situation

Image: Storm clouds dump tonnes of water on the Aegean island of Chios

Addendum: October, 19th, 210. I wrote the above piece three nights ago. Last night another storm swept through the northeast Aegean Sea with even more force than the one described above, causing even more severe damage. Where the small white car in the image above is sitting, there is now a massive trench at least three feet deep, several yards across, and even greater in length. On the nearby island of Chios, one person lost his life when he was trapped in his car in flood waters.

Since there are only the most basic of drainage systems on many islands, storm water has nowhere to go but down hills and mountains sides, gathering force, pace, and strength until it reaches the valley floors. If there is no clear route to the sea, massive damage can and does result.

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