For Wetter or Worse: A Wanton Excess of Water

By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Enough about the healing powers of water. No more talk of gentle rains and meandering brooks. Water can be wild, wily, wanton, wicked.

This week it is overpowering power lines, debasing basements, kicking asphalt, demeaning the mean streets. Torrential downpours and flash-flooding mussed up museums and Metro stations yesterday, turned the 12th Street tunnel into a soda straw, the National Archives into an ark and Beach Drive into a beach drive. This is Al Gore weather.

There's more Gore in store. The weather page forecast boxes look like slot machine pay-off windows -- five thunderstormy days in a row.

We've known for a while that water has a mind of its own, that it finds its level. That level, we are learning, may be malevolent. Just call your cousins on the Gulf Coast or your friends in Malaysia. They have been through a watery hell.

"One thing people don't realize is that a cubic foot of water," says Daniel J. Soeder, a hydrologist for the United States Geological Survey in Baltimore, "weighs 64 pounds. Line them up against your car and the force will push it downstream. Water has a lot of strength."

And it acts irrationally. Tamara Fennell, 32, works for NASA. She was in a Subaru when the water began to rise on the streets near Fort Belvoir. "I felt water coming into the car," she says. "It was crazy."

Destructive, powerful, unstable. Be wary of water run amok, says Trish Cornelissen. A systems analyst from Springfield, Cornelissen, 50, was sitting under an umbrella in Woodrow Wilson Plaza at lunchtime yesterday listening to a jazz band play "Misty" for her. She says she likes water when it behaves itself "at a beach or in a swimming pool."

According to Masaru Emoto, who wrote "The Hidden Messages in Water," water responds to human emotions and words. If that's so, we'd like to ask water a few questions.

What's with all your properties? You can be so cold, so tense on the surface. You run away. When things get hot, you melt. You can be slippery, shallow. You boil over so fast.

And the water table we're always hearing about. Where does that table come from? Somewhere like Ikea, so it can be tossed out when the particle board gets soaked? Do you secretly laugh every time some slick salesman tells a hapless homeowner about "basement waterproofing"? Do you lie in wait for parades and Wimbledon and PGA events at Avenel? Hydrologist Soeder says that one of the biggest floods that ever occurred in the history of the planet was caused thousands of years ago by an ice dam formed by a glacier in what is now Montana. When the ice melted, the resulting flood created the "channeled scablands" that today still cover much of northern Idaho and Washington state. "A huge volume of water totally devastated the landscape," he says.

Not that we are living in the scablands or experiencing anything close to wide-scale suffering. But we are dealing with our own small water-caused devastations.

Soeder, for instance, tried to squeeze in some exercise between storms. "I kind of got drenched on my bicycle," he says. "The damn radar said I had two hours. I got about an hour from home, then it poured.

"I thought I'd outsmarted the rain," says Soeder, 51. He's studied water for years. He should have known better.

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