When the dust storms first hit, California prepared for refugees. Expecting the worst was drought in Las Angeles, San Diego, Modesto and Fresno and Bakersfield, maybe the outskirts of Santa Barbara, but nothing too serious, just that delicate ribbon down the center of the state where water was already limited, according to most projections. We could take in a few more. We had so much. Advisory boards were commissioned. Drought specialists called in from big universities with big sounding names like Stanford and Berkeley, with visiting scientists with big sounding titles like paleoclimatologist and hydrologic geo-engineer, atmospheric physicist.
Along the Eastern seaboard, most were calm. The overall momentum of migrations had always been west. Hunker down, wait it out, keep it stocked. That was the mantra.
The grocery stores were crowded. In some areas the only time you could find a case of water was between the hour of 5am and 7am when the delivery trucks arrived and customers stood waiting to buy them out before they backed into the loading dock. Water prices soared. And the analysts on television compared it to historical moments of scarcity. Some optimistically brought up gas station oil lines in the 70’s and urged patience and trust in government, while opponents, brought in for the other side of a soon to be universal problem raised up the image of bread lines in Communist Russia. They asked what our leaders in Washington D.C. planned to do about the shortages.
First in the states we all expected. Utah, New Mexico and Arizona. Kansas, Texas and Arkansas and Nebraska and Missouri. All those states we get mixed up and group up because they all have that same hissing sound of heat escaping. But soon it was Oklahoma and Iowa. Then Mississippi and Tennessee.
Already, some areas took on the quality of apocalyptic genre stockpiling. Guarding those stockpiles with men slouched down in lawn chairs, their legs widespread in a fighting stance, or would have been if they were standing. They peered out under the eaves of their baseball caps or their bucket-brimmed fishing hats they bought one time on vacation and had never worn before today. Hats and ropes and flashlights, and guns brought out of the back of the closet. Ready to hand, ready to defend, ready to sit down and rest in the heat. The buildings suffered too. Wood planks expanding in the heat pushed up against their neighbors, cracking, splitting down the middle with nowhere else to go. Pipes expanded and burst, laughing at the irony that they had not been filled in weeks. Fractures appeared in the glass running like a river across its landscape. I beams in bridges bulged their muscles threateningly and popped their concrete skin. Everything that wasn’t folding already under the weight of the sun began crumbling. The sun squeezed the dry dirt clods, spreading them underfoot to draw blood from the stone of the land and the limbs of the country hemorrhaged themselves trying to save the whole.
Dry patches began growing in previously fertile regions like age spots, brown and deep beneath the skin. A water ration was set, limiting water to all “nonessential” locations. Residences and businesses mainly. Mass migrations from south and north, east and west and anywhere that was without water, which was quickly becoming everywhere, converged.
But News cycles over-flowed with stories. Reports of the spread of impromptu migration spread. Throughout golden California hikers trekked up to Lake Tahoe and Lake Elsinore, San Antonio and Nacimiento. Campers squatting in the orange and avocado groves illegally found by the fruit pickers next morning created a snappy human interest story for local networks. In their exuberance specifically choosing workers with Hispanic names like Jesus and Guillermo to try and tiptoe around the irony without forcing the smiling woman with the microphone to ask questions about immigration even though it fooled no one, including Jesus and Guillermo (native Californians since birth) who behaved stiffly and with discretion.
Not long after that, a surgeon bent down over the microphone to describe the troubling effects of water shortages, describing how he had bent down earlier that day to turn the sink on in the ER and held his hands expectantly under the faucet. He squinched his eyebrows and felt a deep down gut grip of fear even now in front of the cameras as if reliving the event. He’d turned it off and on and off and on, staring at his patient through the glass above the sink waiting to feel a drop like expecting rain out from under an umbrella and there was none. Ten patients were pronounced dead by the end of the day, and several more were expected to follow if water conditions did not change. In the meantime, doctors were doing all they could to continue treating patients and surgeons were quaking, using hand sanitizer and prayer on patients deemed too critical not to cut. Volunteers offered their own stores of water, but it wasn’t enough. Shortly after came the story of how when water restrictions were first set by the state, envelopes full of cash were sent to certain individuals at the Department of Water and Power. A local, well-known businessman leaned into the microphone saying, he had seen no harm in it, really, just a little something to keep things flowing in the right directions, nothing too extreme, just a little diversion. And then the water had stopped flowing and the businessmen shook their heads in shock, in their own homes, stunned at what had happened, thinking they had been the only one.
It wasn’t long before hydraulic power failed. The water in the great dams, churning testaments to man’s ingenuity, sank down to the dregs and blackouts washed over the states. Then the riots broke out in full. And the serious news anchors grimly detailed every stone throw and cry and picket while the “not serious” news anchors described the controversy over celebrity water use.
The flow of water had stopped. The flow of life had stopped. People died, or they did not. And after it all, people survived. Small communities held together and struggled on.