After the deluge

In the ancient Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, the title character and king of Kish, meets Utnapishtim and his wife of the city of Shurruppak, the survivors of a massive flood. 

The flood story told by Utnapishtim to Gilgamesh (written about 2500 BC) predates, and is commonly regarded as the basis, of the story of Noah and the Great Flood, which was adapted from the original Sumerian version into a morality lesson. This shouldn’t be too surprising since all civilizations throughout the ancient Near East had their own versions of the flood story.

In Utnapishtim’s story, the gods were moved “to inflict the flood” against mankind because of their constant and irritating babbling. The god Ea wanted some remnant of humanity to survive and selected Utnapishtim and his wife, along with his “kith and kin” and those who had helped him, as well as “all the beasts and animals of the field,” to ride out the coming deluge in an ark.

When the flood came, it lasted for seven days and “humans were once more clay.”

After Utnapishtim’s boat ran aground on Mt. Nishar, he let loose a dove which was unable to find land and returned. Then, he let loose a raven which found land and did not return which alerted Utnapishtim to the receding of the floodwaters.

When Enlil raged that some of mankind had survived, Ea said to him that all should not be killed for one offense and the punishment did not fit the so-called offense. At this, the chief god’s rage subsided and to atone for the flood granted Utnapishtim and his wife immortality, sending them to dwell where “all the rivers come together.”

Watery deluges and fantastical weather have always moved people to create and put down in writing some of the great tales and myths of history. It’s the danger of a flood which instills both fear and awe — and today is no exception.

Even 1997’s Flood of the Century has  inspired its own mythology. And what will people say of the spring and summer of 2005?

It’s not so much a fear of flooding or continual rainfall that motivates people to tell tales of their experiences, but the very  fact of its apparent uniqueness.

We have already survived the spring/summer of 2004 “that never was,” and are smack dab in the middle of another spring/summer “that may not be.”

Last year, Dave Phillips, of Environment Canada, classified the spring/summer in Winnipeg as “the coldest since the last Ice Age.” Considering that the Ice Age began to abate some 14,000 years ago, that’s quite a claim to fame. In 2004, it was almost a degree celsius colder the coldest average for May to August (13.4°C) since weather records started being kept in 1872.

Everywhere one goes, people are talking about the “summer that never was,” and making statements that this summer may be a repeat. The only thing slightly different this year is that there was actually more rain in 2004, although that is hard to believe.

I and a few hearty souls were at The Forks the day the gates were being raised to allow Red River water to flow through the floodway. It was 5:30 on Tuesday  morning and we were there to attend a fishing derby that we had not been told was cancelled. While at The Forks, we witnessed what the continual rainfall had wrought. The Red had swallowed up the walkway and the floating docks were marked with a sign declaring them closed and that no trespassing was allowed.

What I saw at The Forks was akin to a torrent of water — the current was quite formidable and sweeping along with it numerous pieces of flotsam. With these conditions, the wisdom of the cancellation became quite evident — anyone who accidentally fell into the river would have their life immediately imperilled. The current would have made a rescue with even a well-powered boat extremely difficult.

The province announced that the Red River would rise to crest in Winnipeg at about 17.5 feet at James Avenue if the floodway was not in operation. “Above 14 feet, the capacity of the city’s sewer system will be exceeded if heavy rain develops over the city,” according to the press release. At the time of the announcement, it had been steadily raining for hours and water had risen to 14.8 feet.

“With the prevailing weather conditions and the expectation the river level will be above 14 feet for the next three weeks, there is a significant likelihood of a rainfall event that would cause widespread basement flooding in the city.”

While the city will undoubtedly be saved, farmers in southern Manitoba  haven’t been so lucky. They have no floodway to protect them and previous seedings have been inundated and become useless, or seeding has been delayed to wait for the sun to emerge and dry up the land. 

Remember, it’s now mid-June, so for some farmers this will probably be the “spring/summer that never was” because it will no longer be economically viable to either re-seed or seed without the skies clearing and the sun beating down its warmth sometime soon.

Fortunately, the sun finally broke through at the end of the week. But, for how long?

In the future, people may be relating the stories of the two springs and summers “that never were,” just as the Sumerians remembered in the Epic of Gilgamesh a time when the Euphrates River overflowed its banks following a deluge of rain which resulted in a massive flood.