“When A House Meets A Bridge”
Fiddler’s Elbow Road, Hummelstown, PA
Sunday, September 11, 2011

iPhone 4 Camera, TiltShift, Photofx

I spent the day again yesterday shooting video and photographs of the effects of Hurricane Lee, all within two miles of my home.  I began shooting a few hundred feet from my lane.  Then I quickly drove a mile further to a trailer park/weekend blue-collar camp area in the shadows of a concrete bridge that replaced a steel bridge decimated in 1972 by Hurricane Agnes.  During that record-breaking flood, the ravaging waters tore away a beloved and beautiful covered bridge that was at the bottom of the hill where I grew up.  As it undulated down river in the raging, muddy waters, it smashed into another historic covered bridge just a mile away.  And then, as if that wasn’t enough to satiate the angry river’s thirst for destruction, it carried these two massive, thickly beamed structures, like a hulking locomotive on a one-way track, ominously and steadily, just another mile, to where they missiled straight through a steel bridge, twisting it into grotesque shapes as if it was a thin piece of wire.

I remember my father taking me to that place of destruction to help friends dig sludge out of their home.  It looked like a steel graveyard.  Seeing the remains of three bridges shredded by the simple power of water left a strong impression on me as a ten-year-old boy.  And returning to this very same spot 39 years later was jolting.  The same family I helped as a boy had spent $100,000 to raise their house eight feet, but it wasn’t enough to save them from the damages of this hurricane flood waters.  And many of the people who either lived in this area or used trailers here for weekend get-a-ways, were very suspicious of anyone holding a camera.  They felt violated and used by The Press who they only saw as people who didn’t care about their tragedies and violated them by trespassing into their devastated homes to shoot photographs for money.  I took time to chat with many of them and promised that I wouldn’t enter their homes while shooting.  I was searching for shots that spoke deeper into the devastation and personal loss.  And I suddenly felt a strong empathy for both the common man who feels violated by media pariah–and the legitimate journalists, writers, artists, and filmmakers who are seeking to tell stories that express the range of human emotions from suffering to triumph.

By dusk, I made my way to the location where the first covered bridge was destroyed 39 years ago.  My mother had called me on my cell phone at 6:33 PM, just when I was ready to stop shooting and sit down to eat dinner at the famous Brownstone Restaurant in Middletown, to tell me that there was a rooftop sitting on the bridge near my parents’ home.  I started up my car again and headed north.  I had to drive past a police barricade and park on a kindly neighbor’s property, then walk past another barricade, and trek down into deep mire by a limestone quarry entrance to where the new concrete bridge still stands.  Mud, branches, and debris were scattered everywhere.  One small log rested on the concrete railing as if someone gently placed it there by hand.  Several yards away massive trunks of trees breached the width of the bridge.  And as if for it’s crowning achievement, the flood waters left an ominous souvenir: a house-top sitting catawampus amidst it all, jutting out over the edge of the bridge, facing upstream.  The juxtaposition of the little log resting on the railing–against the backdrop of the the uprooted trees and roof reminded me of stories about the fickle nature of Nature’s fury.  How tornadoes have ripped away a town–while gently placing an animal or person out of harm’s way.  Or a person defying gravity, falling from great heights and somehow surviving the impact–while someone watching TV in the safety of their living room is killed when a car crashes into their home.  Or a man who plunged into an icy crevasse–at night–on one of the world’s tallest peaks, somehow lives to tell his tale–while a man sunning himself on a hot, clear day on the beach is struck by lightning and killed.

Eerie creaks and snaps pierced through the strange silence.  I cautiously kept an eye and ear out for signs that the bridge might be warning me of a collapse.  It was unnerving.  Such occurrences have sadly taken lives in the past.  Just earlier that day I chatted with one of the outspoken, backwoods campers who lost his trailer in the flood, and he told me about an experience he had while working with rescue squads: watching a man scream for help in the middle of a bridge as his buddy jumped to safety onto the mainland–just as the bridge collapsed into the deadly, watery hydraulics, consuming the man with it.  Such images do not leave the memory or mind quickly.

An estimated seven people lost their lives in Pennsylvania during Hurricane Lee.  At least two or three people were swept away and drowned in their cars, my neighbor was killed when his house collapsed on him while he was in his basement, a man who was warning drivers of a flooded road was struck and killed by a van, and a boy was tragically washed down a storm drain.  The deaths are grievous.  And no one doubts that more lives could have been taken.  Who can understand why one person is taken, while another is spared.  Why evil seems to persist, while innocent lives are taken?

On the 10th Anniversary of 911, where over 3,000 American lives were tragically lost and our entire nation was affected, it is disorienting for many to relive a similar experience: Seven lives were lost in Pennsylvania during this natural disaster, but millions are affected.  And many will be affected for years to come.  Consequently, the elegiac strains of national sorrow are mounted for the loss of lives ten years ago, along with those lost two weeks ago in Hurricane Irene, those lost in the record-breaking fires in Texas, and those lost this week in Hurricane Lee.

Prayers, gifts, donations, and helping hands will all be welcome by those in need.  Even a good old-fashioned home-cooked meal delivered to a neighbor’s doorstep might be a simple way to bring a ray of light to those whose lives have been darkened by the sudden storms of life.

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