Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Storm

And so it occurred that a great wind called a derecho came out of nowhere, or so claimed authorities who should know, and this wind tore through the neighborhoods and projects of Virginia, Washington DC and Maryland, inflicting great harm upon rich and poor alike.

Tree limbs crushed cars, and it’s estimated that a dozen-and-a-half folks died from storm-related causes. Electrical wires were torn from poles; raw sewage infiltrated reservoirs and vast areas of Eastern America went dark.  This happened on a Friday night, and the following days saw century-old heat records break by the hour. No air conditioning, no television, no cell phones or landlines. No electricity at all. Community and private pools closed. The lack of power led to shuttered gas stations, restaurants, supermarkets, bars, Starbucks and salad bars. In my area, one service station was open and by 6 a.m. lines of cars wound an eighth of a mile deep. The hallowed weekend leading to July 4th celebrations started a bit early as citizens franticallly lit their barbecues to grill food about to go bad in 100˚ heat.

People, wondrously, reacted in a generally civilized manner.  Where traffic lights were out, most drivers stopped, looked both ways, and proceeded forward with care. There was a rush on ice and toilet paper, the former understandable, the latter not (will 24 rolls of double-ply see you through a week of use?), but it was a polite rush, though some looked askance at those filling their shopping carts with a dozen or more bags of ice. Standing in a long line of coffee seekers, one man hissed and showed his teeth, while a woman bemoaned the lack of Jerusalem artichokes, so necessary to making the quinoa sunchoke pilaf she planned to serve that evening beside the family pool.

All in all, people clenched their jaws and got along.  They slept in their basements on air mattresses, doused themselves with tepid water from garden hoses, sucked down cases of tepid sodas and beers. Those with power invited those without to spend the night. And the only question was, when? Authorities said it might take a week to restore power. No one, it seemed, asked why, or how, such a thing could happen in this, the best country in the world…

But it did happen, as it had a few years before, this time in the winter, and a few years before that when the tail of a hurricane whipped through the East coast and brought the region to its knees. And so the real question is: How is such a lack of preparedness acceptable in the land of the free and the home of etcetera… Really!

Where I live, a few miles from Washington, DC, the traffic is rated third-worst in the country, the area is festooned with telephone poles, and the horizons boast a wilderness of cables running from poles to homes. These cables are routinely damaged by high winds, ice storms, falling trees, drunken drivers, and, on occasion, rats that eat through the insulation and short-circuit whole neighborhoods. The cables do not age well—something about ultraviolet and plastic—and an entire industry was created to replace and hoist them aloft, and patch or splice them when they break. The cables are, essentially, remnants of 19th century technology in a 21st century world. They are part of an infrastructure—roads, bridges, levies, dams and tunnels—that is falling apart beneath our feet and before our very eyes.

Oh, and yes, the 911 system set up by the various communications companies to deal with emergency calls failed too, as did the backups, and the backups to the backups. If you needed an ambulance, a cop, or a fire truck, you were sh*t out of luck.

That all this occurred in an area obsessed with terrorism is darkly humorous, Kafkaesque, one might say. Today’s Washington Post is all a-rant about the shame of it all, and an article explains why we have not buried our cables yet, thereby protecting them from the vagaries of harsh nature. It tells of costs and lack of community willingness, but I think this is nonsense. What we are dealing with here is a singularly unsexy issue based on events that, to date, have not happened frequently enough to really rile the locals.

But this might change. Last year, we had an unheard-of earthquake. We’ve had warm winters where they used to be frigid, and summer temperatures well above the norm. The climactic transformations—call them global warming, melting ice caps, a misdirected El Nino (or Nina)—are increasing, not waning and our abilities to deal with remain at best primitive.

We’re in for interesting times.

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