Two Floods Later, I'm Still Working on the Story
creative nonfiction by Laura Dennis

can only imagine what went through Ruth Dennis’s mind as she listened to her husband Bob take yet another pre-dawn call. It was June 21, 1972, a date she would not soon forget. Rain had been falling in record amounts, saturating the ground, filling reservoirs and streams. Now Hurricane Agnes was moving inland through Virginia, headed straight for the Twin Tiers of Northern Appalachia. Its timing could not have been worse.

As local reporters and regional bureau chiefs, Bob and Ruth, my paternal grandparents, would have been among the first journalists on the scene. Although I have yet to learn the details of what they covered—I was all of fifteen months old at the time—my grandmother later gave a speech to the Rotary Club in which she described how my grandfather, her partner in reporting as in life, took photos that were picked up by the wire services and later appeared in a commemorative book. Clearly, they reported from the heart of the disaster.

There was no lack of incidents or angles they could cover. They knew a lot, for example, about the various engineering projects meant to prevent the havoc wreaked by earlier floods, including a cataclysmic one in 1935. Because Bob’s family had been in the area since the end of the Revolutionary War, they had a deeper understanding than most of the impact these structures might have, the ways they could affect the direction, volume, and flow of water, which in turn could alter the land. I can only imagine the questions that must have dogged them as they left their house the morning the hurricane arrived. Would the dams, dikes, and other flood works hold? What of the places left unprotected, such as the farm at Willow Bend? Bob’s family once lived there going back generations. It was where he’d been raised, where the couple had lived in their first year of marriage. The dike meant to protect the village of Canisteo ended a short distance away. As the river rose, the water would have to go somewhere, and at Willow Bend, it could only go so far before meeting the equally fast-rising Bennett Creek. Despite hours combing online archives for stories and photographs, including those taken by my grandfather, it would be years before I truly grasped how that must have looked and felt.


In a recent contribution to Poets & Writers’ “Writers Recommend,” Joy Castro exhorts us to write about the questions that haunt us. For me, many of these involve my ancestors, especially my grandmother. Looking back through my journals, it’s plain that I’ve long been intrigued by the ways my story parallels, yet often differs from hers. For starters, we were both born outside New York State, a rare occurrence in our family. We both came to Appalachia as relatively young adults, albeit to different parts, her to New York’s Southern Tier, me to Southeast Kentucky. Prior to her marriage she had attended Cornell to become a history teacher, hoping to write for the college paper along the way. Her plans were cut short in 1943 when she had to leave to help her newly divorced mother and younger brothers. She found work in an aircraft factory in Niagara Falls as a real-life Rosie the Riveter, though she always hated the moniker. Within the year, she’d married her college sweetheart, Bob. She did her best to settle into her new role as a farm wife before he convinced her to start writing again. I, by contrast, finished college, lived abroad, earned a master’s, got married, finished my Ph.D., then later got divorced. As an academic, I have always written, though my turn to creative writing is rather more recent, less than a decade old.

While I’d long been captivated by my grandmother’s story, reading that old Rotary Club speech opened new veins of inquiry, among them an obsession with Hurricane Agnes and the flood. Although she hadn’t given many details in her wide-ranging speech, I turned up enough information to attempt a fictionalized version of those events. I wrote the opening scene twice, only to lose momentum a few pages in. Despite the hours spent perusing first-hand accounts, news stories, and haunting photographs, I couldn’t get my characters off their porch and into the rain.

They were still stuck there as I prepared to study fiction at the Appalachian Writers’ Workshop in Hindman, Kentucky, in July 2022. Although I had submitted a different story for the workshop, I thought that while there, I might find a way forward in this one as well. I’d be working with Jayne Moore Waldrop, author of Drowned Town, after all. As I loaded my bags into my car for the two-hour drive east, I thought about how my grandmother would have been 100, how it had been almost exactly 50 years since what I would come to call “her” flood had happened. The whole thing felt something like fate.
Little could I have known what fate actually held.


The rain had taken hold by the end of our second day. We squelched our way around the Settlement School campus, going from meals to readings to class. Umbrellas littered porches and entryways, leaving dank puddles behind. More than once, the director interrupted meals to announce that those of us parked in the lower lot by Troublesome Creek should be ready to move our cars at a moment’s notice. He knew how quickly the water could rise, the creek having long since earned its name.

Maybe those warnings were hovering in the back of my mind Wednesday night when, despite a raging thunderstorm and a housemate’s protestations, I slogged down the hill to move my car to higher ground. I’d hoped to park in front of the main building, but all the spaces were taken, so I found the uppermost corner I could in an adjacent lot. I hiked back, changed into dry things, and went to bed.

I woke a short while later to commotion in the bathroom next door. One of my housemates was drying off, having just tried to save her new motorcycle, only to see it wash away. I was hit simultaneously by sorrow on her behalf and guilt-tinged relief on mine. I’d seen her bike parked near the place from where I’d moved my car. 

The rain was still falling, though, and the water was rising fast. Several teaching writers were evacuated from the lower level of the main building in the nick of time. Within minutes, or maybe hours—time disintegrates amidst disaster—there was talk of water reaching the kitchen and dining hall just upstairs from where they had been. I tried without success to visualize the place where I’d left my car. I walked out to the front porch, hoping for some kind of reassurance despite the murky dark of night. Lightning flashed, illuminating water where none should have been. I pulled on my Chacos—the only shoes I’d been able to wear that short, wet week—grabbed my raincoat, and headed down. Novelist, Carter Sickels, a teacher with whom I’d dined just the night before, walked with me toward the place where I’d last seen my car. I felt water wash over my toes without really registering what it was. As I tried to follow the beam of his flashlight forward, he gently took my arm, said there was nothing to be done, my car was surely lost. He hugged me as I cried, holding me up with a strength I’d suddenly lost. He later wrote an account of the episode for Outside Magazine that had the oddly reassuring effect of confirming that I’d imagined nothing, that what seemed a nightmare had happened exactly as remembered it.

I could tell so many other stories about that night. How we moved a friend’s car for fear of mudslides as she did her best not to fall apart, having nearly lost her house to lightning just one year prior. I could talk about my roommate, who found herself fighting for breath in the hours just before dawn. She feared it was the broken gas lines; it turned out to be COVID, which by Sunday I’d caught as well. I could talk about the families, complete with children and pets, who had fled their homes and waited with us to see how it all would end. I remember that someone had the foresight to fill bathtubs and other receptacles with water—if there hadn’t been a break in the rain early Thursday morning, we could have taken shelter in place to a whole new level. Through it all, poet Nickole Brown, another workshop leader, sent her service dog, fittingly named Solace, to comfort each person who broke down. 

I stared out the rain-specked window at scenes of destruction that Hollywood’s best special effects crews would have struggled to replicate. Bewildered and beleaguered, I could no longer even really cry. I had gone to Hindman in part to work on a story about a flood. Instead, a flood had come to work on me.

Dawn came and with it, more warped time. I took pictures of my waterlogged vehicle, its cargo area full of a foul-smelling mud that had washed over the hood and left dark streaks across the windshield as well. Across the lot, an empty truck’s wipers beat a hollow cadence, a ghostly movement where human presence should have been. I found just enough signal to call the insurance company, then went up to pack my things. Through the surreality of evacuation, I huddled in the back of my friend’s car, the one we’d saved from the potential mudslide that thankfully, had not come to pass. I stared out the rain-specked window at scenes of destruction that Hollywood’s best special effects crews would have struggled to replicate. Bewildered and beleaguered, I could no longer even really cry. I had gone to Hindman in part to work on a story about a flood. Instead, a flood had come to work on me.


After my return, people kept urging me to write about what had happened, especially when they heard the part about the story I’d planned to write. It was true that I now had a crucial element for said story––I knew exactly what a flood was like. It is one thing, however, to have knowledge, another to make use of it. I pitched a couple of essays and talked with an editor, but mostly, in large part due to COVID and residual trauma, I had to let everything rest. After a couple months, however, I found myself crafting the opening scene yet again, this time as part of a writing intensive. I asked what I should do with it. 

The teacher’s answer was unequivocal. “You have to go to the flood.”

Knowing she was right, I re-read my research. The photos hit me harder now, as did the various stories and the reckonings with the aftermath. I pushed ahead anyway, quieting the churning in my gut with ginger ale and crackers until I finished it.

In what for me is an unusual move, I let people read it soon after the first draft was done. The consensus was clear––I have a draft that is not (yet) a story. For all the things it gets right––the feel of a river gone strange, the suffocating odor of the aftermath––my story fails in one key respect. The protagonists never face any tangible threat. Just when the action should escalate, the narrative pulls back to focus on figures and facts. It’s like learning about a catastrophe on CNN, the only way I’d really experienced such things before that night.

One the one hand, this makes a sort of sense. It is one way my grandparents likely told it as reporters, the way I, an academic and more often an essayist than a fiction writer, tend to do as well. On the other, it sidesteps the expectations of fiction as well as life. In her article, Castro emphasizes the need for risk, not just in terms of content, but also for the writer and her craft. My story in its present form falls short in both regards. When it comes to content, I have yet to make my characters face stakes in keeping with the set-up established in the first two pages, stakes that suit the threat presented by a record-breaking flood. James Scott Bell puts this even more starkly in a 2016 piece for Writer’s Digest, saying the best stories “have the threat of death hanging over every scene.” He is talking about novels, and he does not only mean literal death; the advice still applies. I know what it means to see the world as I have known it swept away, yet my story devolves into reportage.

While this does not serve the story, I recognize now that it has a purpose, albeit a misguided one––it protects me as the story’s would-be writer. For one, I feel doubly bound by the facts and by my relationship to the people on whom my characters are based. Fictionalizing those we love, I have learned, can be terribly fraught. Even more than that, however, I am paralyzed by the fear that putting them in danger will mean reliving the ways in which myself, my writer friends, and entire communities were and continue to be as well.

I doubt I am alone in finding it easier to zoom out, to highlight society’s role in such disasters, for it creates the illusion that I can subtract myself from it. I can examine how in 1972, dams, dikes, and walls saved towns, but also pushed water to places it had rarely, maybe never been. I can study how some of these structures failed, having been built not for the worst-possible disaster, but rather what seemed most likely. I can follow the path cleared by other writers, including Sickels, and describe how destructive practices such as clear-cutting and mountaintop removal have put entire communities at risk. I can even talk about how such information should scare us into making better choices, yet the numbers are so big, the threat of loss so overwhelming that it can have the opposite effect. Rather than spurring us to action, it numbs us, creating a sort of inertia that prevents us from feeling any of it personally.

Yet how can it not be personal? From what I know of their work, my grandparents would have told many different kinds of stories as they reported on the disaster of 1972. They would have taken care to show what had been and could still be lost not just in facts and figures, but also in the stories of individuals. A story based on them needs to do so as well.

This means going where I fear to go. Not only do I not want to think about the global climate disaster that has already begun, I also don’t want to confront the way I have been cleaved into a person who destroys and one who feels destroyed. I don’t want to remember how just weeks before I left for Hindman, a neighbor’s cat ran under my moving car, which struck and killed him. I don’t want to think about floodwaters swamping that same car or the dozens of lives that water took. Since starting this piece, I have once again started waking up at night, haunted by the obscure thought that I don’t deserve a car, or alternately, that I should not have been at Hindman, that I am not meant to write. Such thoughts may seem irrational. So be it. In my experience, trauma and reason do not easily cohabitate. 

What if, though, they could? What if, in fiction as in life, the way forward lies not in separation and delineation, but rather in entanglement? I have no patience for climate change denial, for example, yet I admit to a certain empathy for those who seek the false comfort of implausible conclusions, of imposing meaning where none exists. Similarly, I better understand the lure of facile solutions, especially those driven by guilt. While the flood may have briefly obliterated an invisible line between “me,” a Yankee outsider, and “them,” generations of Eastern Kentuckians, our experiences in the aftermath were not the same. Within hours, I’d had a hot shower in my safe, dry house; within a month, I had an insurance settlement to replace my car. Suddenly hyper-aware of my extreme privilege, I obsessed over purchasing a more fuel-efficient model. I hated that I couldn’t afford a hybrid, but I still managed to get improved gas mileage with the vehicle I chose. Some days, this made me feel so smug I couldn’t stand myself; others, it felt like the donations I made to flood relief––small, insufficient—almost futile.

If only I could write what I wish were true and call it good. This, however, cannot be that story. I cannot neatly wrap up the events and impact of either flood as if this were a news bulletin or some modern-day fairy tale. We build stories both with and despite our mental blocks, those structures that, like flood walls, try to stave off the inevitable, yet can only hold back so much. When they crumble, as they’re bound to do, you’ll find me there, sifting through the rubble for the story I’m meant to tell.

Originally from the Finger Lakes region of New York State, Laura Dennis is a professor and writer-in-progress at a liberal arts college in Southeast Kentucky. Her work has been published in MER Vox Quarterly, Change Seven, Northern Appalachia Review, and Bethlehem Writers Roundtable, where she was the Spring 2020 Featured Author. Her writing was also recognized in two literary contests: the Betty Gabehart Prize (2017) and the Tucson Festival of Books Literary Awards (2019). She reviews books for a variety of publications, including Still: The Journal and co-edits book reviews for MER. When she is not teaching or writing, she enjoys music, reading, and spending time with her friends, family, and pets (three cats and a dog).