Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Jasmine Scented Evenings - and a Flood - September 2003

Dear all,
As the temperatures have cooled down to a comfortable 70's and 80's, I
suddenly have more ambition and desire to do things. As I write this, the
crickets are happily chirping away in the 76° evening. All my windows are
open, letting in the breeze an occasional faint scent of the lovely jasmine.
Just before dusk, I went for a short walk around the neighborhood. Boys were
outside on the street playing soccer, and the girls chatting away as they
congregated on their roller blades and scooters. More and more of the
buildings in the area (I live in a suburb of Tunis the capital) are
progressing along, some with their cinder blocks/cement being painted and
others receiving decorative trim. Most of the homes are multi-level with
balconies and a walled/gated entrance. Extended families are quite typical.
Covering the tops of the wall and cascading down are bougainvillea other
flowering hedge-like plants. My favorites though are the jasmine plants.
Tonight, the gentle breezes waft with the scent of jasmine.

Ah, what a difference a few days make. Since starting this email, things
have drastically changed at school and elsewhere, due in part to the
weather. Earlier last week, it began raining. First it was just at night and
then an occasional shower during the day, then it decided to rain (including
lightning and thunder) hard and for several days straight. Just as Italy had
its worst flooding in 50 years, Tunis had record flooding (the government
doesn't publish those figures nor does it notify the public that a bridge
was taken out, etc.). Thankfully, my apartment (the school provides housing
for overseas hires) remained rather watertight. Unfortunately, the school
did not fare as well. The force of the water pushed the front gate from its
hinges. The water went up to the old buildings and portables (remember that
our school doubled in size since last school year and we have a space
shortage), but the "newer" building, finished just a few years ago,
sustained flooding in its lower floor. Personnel who did manage to arrive on
Wednesday waded through waist-high water. The lower shelf in the library was
under water and printers and other items stored on the floor in the computer
lab were floating. Breaking through a window, they managed to move some of
the brand-new printers (the computer shipment from the US had just arrived
not long ago) to higher ground.
On Friday, we drove to work (school was cancelled but we wanted to
assess the damage), flooded streets were still evident. Water bubbled up
through man-holes, three-lane highways became one-lane in areas, and large
trees were uprooted. Already forewarned by the Director, the librarian knew
that the books and videotapes on the lower shelves would be a total loss.
After peering into the flooded computer lab, I proceeded to help the
librarian and many members of the school community reluctantly take the
soggy bottom books outside on carts or wheeled chairs. As some continued
bringing out the damaged books, others wrote down the barcode number and
book title, shaking their head in dismay as damaged books began piling up.
Some of the books (many of them brand-new reference books), had just been
placed on the shelf the prior week. Others carried the books to a huge heap,
ready for trash removal. Had we been in the US, lamented the librarian,
perhaps we could have been able to save the books by freezing them quickly
or by other means. Here, they will quickly mold and mildew. It was difficult
throwing away Janson Art history and other reference books, many of which
were purchased through a special grant.
After the list of damaged books was compiled and a few mildly affected
placed in the sun to dry, I went to the computer lab to see what I could do
in there. Wading through water, I began to throw away cardboard, take out
the rug, and remove the lower drawers of my cabinets. As the flood shorted
the electricity, I would have no idea the extent of the damage. Two servers
had some water inside around the hard drives, so we promptly removed the
hard drives and placed the items out in the sun to dry. I learned that the
computer equipment would be covered by insurance, but the insurer wasn't
sure about the books - a potential blow to a school struggling to
accommodate the needs of its larger population.
Elsewhere, first floor elementary teachers began the process of cleaning
up, throwing away, hanging up to dry, and moving items - things many of them
did about a week earlier when a strong rain/wind storm went through. It is
especially difficult for these teachers, as they were already short on
certain supplies due to the doubling of classes and students.
Later the insurance assessors came, noting the damage of items. They
could not go down into the basement where the circuit breaker, some
furniture, and the school's nice sound system was held, as the basement was
totally under water. Levels had started to recede some through pumping, but
the stench of floating paint was horrible. The embassy health nurse came
over and gave instructions on how to properly sanitize the rooms to help
stop the related problems of mold and mildew and advised that the affected
classes not be held on Monday. The ever optimistic director didn't think
that it was necessary for school to be called off for anyone on Monday -
we'll see who won out tomorrow.....
Although I don't know the full details (not all the staff was there), I
did hear that some of the support staff lost everything. A few teachers
found their cars submerged and one couple (their first time teaching
overseas) found their house flooded and refrigerator floating, along with
the newly purchased school furniture and personal wall hangings they had
intended on hanging this weekend. Others lost irreplaceable teacher
materials and other items. But in the end, we realized that they are all
material possessions - and not nearly as valuable as human life. I'd like to
hear how the farmers fared, as agriculture still is an important part of the
country's economy.
It will likely be a very different start of school tomorrow, especially
for the classrooms affected. Hopefully it will be the last time we have to
deal with such a disaster.

Until later (and hopefully drier)

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