Some kind soul wakes up before the rest of us and gets the coffee going so that we can grumble into it as we assemble, shrugging into boots and cargo pants and ballcaps with short brims, bought or modified to fit underneath helmets. We're congregated loosely and waiting for the word of the day. Rucksacks covered in nylon webbing and lashed with demolition tools and rope and first aid pouches litter the floor.

Tasking comes in. Strike teams are assembled and briefed. Vehicles are selected, loadouts are prepared, and we roll off into our respective areas of responsibility, ready to secure objectives. We know it will be a long day. We know the risks. We are glad to be here.

In the real world, everyone changes the channel and looks for something a little more upbeat, unconcerned, now, for the plight of faraway strangers. By and large, the only people who even remember we're here are the ones we live with, when we're at home.

But we are not at home. We sleep among rows of cots set up in an abandoned library in the suburbs of Detroit.

The city came in and turned it all back on for us - power, water, natural gas - to be a headquarters, staging ground, and berthing all at once. The place has been disused for years, and it's quiet as a tomb. Outside of the corners we've reclaimed for the living, the ghost of old paper still lingers, and cobwebs hang from blandly lettered signs like Spanish moss.

I sleep in the reference section, just beyond the checkout counter. Just walk in and hang a left at Juvenile Fiction.

We play with a frisbee in the evenings, in the main hall, and watch through the picture windows as a whole city molders. Detroit is its own crypt, I think, and there will come soon a time when reclaiming it will be more expensive than moving on and building a new one.

But until then, people here need help. All kinds of help, and especially now with a quiet, hard to sell, and hard to profit from disaster ruining lives faster than urban blight or gangs or police corruption ever could. It's not a tornado, or a hurricane, or an earthquake. It's not something that the news crews can show endless footage of, picking and snuffling through the remains of the lives of a dozen strangers at once.

In case you hadn't heard, unprecedented rains caused a backup of the city's sewage system that exceeded the worst case planning of just about everyone. Essentially, thousands and thousands and thousands of people, in six major cities, woke up one morning to find that their basements were three feet deep in raw sewage.

You can't see, from the curb, what has happened. So the news coverage has mostly tapered off, except for the occasional mention of continuing shortages of respirators and paper towels and latex gloves at the local home improvement stores.

The city and the insurance companies are all calling it an act of God. A special legal term that means that it's nobody's fault, and you're all on your own. You'd be better off trying to get your homeowner's insurance to pay for meteor damage, and the talking heads repeat that there won't be any federal assistance.

So, anybody with money or family or at least a strong back shoveled everything out, tore the walls down, and called in the professionals within a day or two. But those aren't the people we're here to help.

By now, the standing sewage and water damage have started to mold over. Punishment for the indecisive or the lazy. A mounting torment for the poor and disabled.

So we arrive in the morning with work trucks and plastic bags and bilge bumps, dressed in Tyvek and duct tape, festooned with hoses and respirators. They're always happy to see us, the first people to really help. Most have no idea that they're about to lose everything that was closer than 36 inches to the floor.

“My husband,” she says, “Put them down here so they would be safe from a fire.”

She pokes at a lace-frocked photo album full of disintegrated cardstock prints. The lace is old enough that it is handmade. The photographs may very well have been tintypes.

“Those were our wedding photos. Oh, I was hoping this one would be okay, but it's not.”

We're standing in a graveyard of memories. Plastic bins are scattered around us in a lake of filth like the bayou crypts of New Orleans. She gets a faraway look in her eyes, milky cataracts cloaked by the mists of time.

“I suppose it doesn't matter anyway. I haven't looked at them in years, and they would have thrown them away when I'm gone anyway.”

So I shovel the whole box into a fifty gallon contractor bag, and put it out to the curb with the rest. She is already adjusting, already coping. I do not believe a person hangs on for 80 years without learning to adjust quickly.

The feeling, here among the team, is familiar. Austerity, overwork, and forgotten toil. But the people standing next to me with wrecking bars and shovels have given me somewhere to be, and something to do, while I'm there, that doesn't just feel like taking up space or standing in line.

When I leave a house behind, walls torn out, a lifetime of memories to be hauled away from the curb, and a homeowner breathing easy despite this, I carry with their gratitude the reassurance that I can still burn bright without burning out.

I've bought them some time to save up for a professional recovery crew. I've bought myself some time to consider what I might still be able to get out of this life.

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