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Every morning I walk to the river.

I'm not educated in its ways. I don't know what I'm looking for or at. I can only see if it's crept up or slipped back by checking a few reference points. A tree branch. The closed sign at the trailhead.

We're fine. Not in the flood plain, not even close. I checked the Army Corps of Engineers' maps. You can wonder about the authoritative precision with which the maps are drawn, but they're more credible for their sharp boundaries. In uncertain times we like having someone tell us what is and what isn't, even if we know it's never that simple.

We do have a minor worry; when it rains, the street behind our house is slow to drain. Rainwater that would normally drain into the river can't, because the river is overflowing and the drainpipes have been cut off. The water has to be pumped into the river, which is slower.

So the neighbors hold a meeting to discuss this. We decide to, out of an abundance of caution, run what they call a hydrostatic berm between our houses and the street that might flood. The fire department and our contractor are going to do it that afternoon, with the help of the neighbors.

A hydrostatic berm is a couple hundred feet of plastic tubing that expands when filled with water from a fire hydrant. I'd guess its circumference to be about 50 inches--a big white sausage casing lying across driveways and the green spaces between our houses.

We made a few miscalculations setting it up, so we had to cut the berm in half, drain out the water, tie off the ends and start again. So we ended up with two overlapping berms. I was proud to have helped in a small way. I am pretty good at pushing and lifting things and putting sandbags where I'm told to put sandbags. When we were done we all looked at each other and thought that our precaution probably ensured it wouldn't rain for a month.

Then came last Thursday. Rain began to fall as I drove home, and by the time it started really thrumming down I was upstairs in my studio, playing guitar. Every once in a while, I'll walk to the window, look out and check the street. I saw the rain collecting there, but only a couple of inches, not nearly enough to threaten the berm. When the downpour reached its peak I went downstairs and looked into the dog run, where an inch or two of water was standing, but no harm, no foul. I went back upstairs.

About 5 p.m., Karen came home and told me our neighbor John was outside in the rain, battling with the berm. I didn't understand. I could look out the window and see that the water in the street hadn't breached the curb. So I put on my rain poncho, a promotional item for the 2000 movie Unbreakable that I've only worn twice before, opened up the garage, and waded into AquaHell, where John was struggling to kill the great white worm with a shovel.

This bewildered me at first until I looked behind the berm and saw our trash can floating in two feet of water. "I'm trying to save your air conditioner," John shouted through the howling rain. So I grabbed my shovel and joined him, flailing away, trying to dig a trench beneath the berm.

It took a moment before we realized what had happened. While the water from the street hadn't risen high enough to bring the berm into play, the berm had blocked the water draining downhill from our houses toward the street. We'd effectively dammed the run-off and made a reservoir of the common space between our houses. All we needed to do was remove the berm and let the water drain into the street.

But that involved moving the berm, which was filled with water and secured by sandbags. We couldn't push it down far enough to let water escape over the top. If we cut it we'd have all that water rushing out at once, and there'd be no guarantee it would drain away quickly enough to do any good. While we'd only have to lift a section of it a few inches, we weren't sure we could do that. Did I mention the berm was very heavy? I considered lying down in the cool, cool water.

It's funny how impending catastrophe and adrenaline can concentrate the mind. We remembered Archimedes of Syracuse and the amplifying power of levers. We had a place to stand and access to our contractor's construction site stocked with two-by-fours and concrete blocks.

About that time our friend Jim showed up to help--he'd come straight from some burgers-and-margaritas deal at the Chamber of Commerce wearing what I'm going to insist were expensive Italian loafers. It took him a while to get there because of the traffic from the Jimmy Buffett concert going on at nearby Verizon Arena that evening--traffic that was starting to flow down our street, evidently because some people had mistaken it for a short cut to the arena. They were plunging and pluming their way past us, probably gawking at the curbside circus.

We finally got the two-by-fours under the berm, levered it up and piled sandbags on the low side. We did this in a few critical spots and the water drained away. The air conditioner was saved. The garbage can stopped floating. Our contractor, whose materials we had pilfered, arrived by Uber from the Buffett concert to bless our efforts. Jim, still in his expensive Italian loafers, had turned his attention to the street drainage. I peeled off my sodden clothes in the garage and hung the Unbreakable poncho on a hook.

I'm not much for making what ought to be obvious even more obvious, but there are some lessons to draw from this little story. First of all, we saw danger in one direction and never thought about what was sneaking up behind us. What we thought was a prudent action had unforeseen consequences. We proved ourselves human, we were well-intentioned but we made a mistake.

But we were able, because we acted decisively and rationally, employing common sense and science, to solve a clear and present problem. It felt good to actually do something about something.


Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at and read his blog at

Editorial on 06/11/2019

Print Headline: PHILIP MARTIN: Doing something


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Archived Comments

  • GeneralMac
    June 11, 2019 at 9:36 a.m.

    THAT is why you don't put AMATEURS in charge of flood control !

    It sounded like something the 3 stooges would do.
    Set up a berm that stopped heavy rain water from flowing down hill off your yard.

  • bork
    June 11, 2019 at 10:15 a.m.

    Ah c’mon Fake General... here's a quarter, go buy yourself a sense of humor. And stop missing the point.