Though Hurricane Irene moved through Northern New Jersey as a tropical storm, her impact on the area's many riverside communities was quite devastating.
Known also as "the Venice of New Jersey," Cranford is a humble and picturesque town, weaved with warm early 20th century homes that nestle along the winding banks of the Rahway River and divided north from south by an elevated passenger train line. It is a town that has long been defined by the gentle roll of its river, having been established in a rush of summer cottages on the riverfront and the yesteryear lumber mills powered by the generosity and the abundance of the living river.
The Rahway River is usually timid, moving along under the great leafy trees largely unheard and nearly unremarkable, a great slug. One might almost think of it as a domesticated river, castrated somehow from its more wild origins, moving as it does without a throat and without teeth, sleeping as it does when wild things should wake.
Hurricane Irene passed over New Jersey technically as a relatively fast-moving tropical storm. But its advanced northern and western rain bands lashed the state across its most vulnerable arteries, saturating the clay-based soils in its south-to-north trajectory before inundating the rivers and lakes at the state's northern edges. The rivers and lakes to the north travel a well-carved route south, and the southern route was already too wet to absorb anything more.
And so the swollen Rahway River belched and spit and plundered its banks and the mild gates that held it. It rose, rank and a fecal brown and showed its ugly gums in the smear that was the smile of it, and it came and came again in laps and in licks and carried with it what it grabbed which for too many was everything. It took and it sang in its taking, humming in the bend it made of fences and in the snap it forced on tree limbs and roots and old grips ripped and cut in the weight and movement of the water.
The lucky Cranford homes south of the tracks had four to six feet of muddy river water in their basement. Many homes north of the tracks lost everything below their second floor. Trees two hundred feet tall and saturated at their bases fell like dull guillotines through roofs, shattering what they touched as if the objects struck were all made of porcelain.
On Friday afternoon, under the grumble of diesel-powered generators and the suck and gurgle of the water pumps and the higher wails of the chainsaws, it was widely apparent that Irene had been a nasty girl.
Cranford left its windows open and ran fans to dry the walls and the floors; it cut its carpets into loose strips with short razors; it piled its televisions and its exercise machines and its sofas; it stacked its buckled wood flooring and its molding and its shelving. Cranford wore masks and deconstructed; it cried and kicked at sticks too small for the wood chippers.
And the Rahway River stretched under the sun like a long and lazy cat. It slumbered and gave nothing back, selfish and slow and infinite.
The world did not turn and yet it did, as reports emerged on Friday that Hurricane Katia was putting on its dress and putting down its lollipop.