The Derecho Express

So the lights went out around eleven on Friday. The Capital Weather Gang — I dearly love their blog — had been warning us about this all evening:

I went downstairs and unplugged the dryer. And the washer, and the dehumidifier, all of which operate on fidgety electronics that don’t need power up- and downsurges scrambling their nerves. I popped the jack out of the laptop, aimed an apotropaic Feng Shui mirror at the half-dead Tree of Damocles in my neighbor’s yard (since there was relatively little else I could do about it), and consulted the weather radar. An ungodly blood-red bow front — I thought of the great bow of Odysseus, full of havoc ready to be unleashed — arced from points in Maryland and Pennsylvania to ‘way downstate in the blue mountain country, and it was rolling east without the slightest sign of veering or breaking up. Scouts of greenish “here there be rain” radar color-coding preceded it.

I expanded the radar image until I could see the local neighborhoods, the route numbers, even my street. Green crept toward the right side of the screen. I stepped out in the yard for a reckless moment, even though the Tweets were now telling me to get to cover and away from windows. Way back in the day I wanted to be a Thunder Goddess riding steeds of half-formed cumulonimbus, too much Wagner at an early age no doubt, but storms always make me long, even if only for a split second, to be in the center of them. You could see flushes of heat lightning to the west, but the air was deader than flat beer, thick, cottony.

I went back in. The green color was marching over my part of the map. The lights flickered and a few outlier breezes tossed the shrubbery; I saved an e-mail, started to shut down the computer, and everything went utterly dark and dead — except, weirdly, for the street lights, which went on and off again depending on the brightness of the lightning display.

Then the army passed. It was like the Dead surging out of the Dwimorberg in Tolkien, like a release of Harpies. You heard a low moan first, then everything in sight began to lean eastward — not the tossing up-gusts of an ordinary storm, but a relentless acceleration in one direction only. Rain followed it, slapping the pavement in big splashes. I think it went on for maybe ten to fifteen minutes. Only a bomb is briefer, for the damage it does; only an honest to God tornado does more damage.

I read that there were wind speeds of seventy and eighty miles an hour in the path of this thing.

You can see everywhere you go — I have taken the running shoes a couple miles in every direction, in the still breathable morning hours — chunks of tree standing on their heads in the road, hammocked on power lines, blasted apart in intersections. The split wood is white and twisted, not dead wood snapped but young wood wrenched apart by main force.

9-1-1 has been sketchy right through today, the cell networks aren’t working, the land line phones went when the power did. A million and some electric power customers went dark. My lights came back on around five today; there are still a few hundred thousand households dark, and needless to say the air is like dog-breath or a dragon’s colon.

It’s not all bad reading Robert Graves with a pocket LED and luxuriating in the absence of telemarketer calls; crap, no place I lived had air conditioning till I was eight. Yuppie men’s groups wouldn’t be flocking to do sweat lodges if we all had to face an annual rendering over the grill of a Washington summer.

But if anyone ever manages to do to us what we did to Baghdad, we’re screwed. Just sayin’.


16 thoughts on “The Derecho Express

  1. I was wondering how you made out–glad all’s well. We got the news of the event down here and you’re right about Baghdad. The whining was deafening and even the announcer said something like, “it will take some time for people who aren’t used to being inconvenienced to come to terms with what has happened.”

    • I wonder how many people, like me, secretly enjoyed the fact that doing anything about non-urgent issues was temporarily out of their control.

      Nothing funny about not being able to call 911, for people who needed to, but sometimes I think this town needs its capacitors drained on a regular basis.

  2. How is Splinter?

    I grew up on the Gulf Coast of Florida – you get used to not having power after hurricanes. Sometimes for weeks…I felt bad for Socks though, with her kid a week old and it being 100deg inside the house. They couldn’t stay of course. She’s in Walkersville so probably rather close to you?

    I’m curious, any sense of camaraderie in your neighbourhood? The big east coast blackout in, oh hell when was it, 2002? 2003? surprised me when folks were actually friendly and helpful. And that was mid-city Akron Ohio…

    • Walkersville would be drive-able but not casually, at least for me. I think my classical station has a satellite antenna in Frederick.

      I can’t remember the date of the blackout either. And possibly people were friendly etc. but you wouldn’t know it by me. Then again, I didn’t find myself needing help, fortunately. The neighborhood mailing list was very busy — I suppose some people were able to connect at work — and when I read the conversation after the lights came back on there seemed to be a lot of team feeling, but out on the roads people were still doing the same thing they always do around here, riding your bumper and honking because they felt themselves too important to slow down for barricaded intersections, signals out and downed trees.

      • Ugh, a shame about the drivers. “More important than you!” is a mind-set that isn’t localised to the US, sadly.
        I only knew my downstairs neighbor in Akron, but sitting by an open window with candles lit, reading…I had so many walk past and smile, wave, and actually talk. It felt good, and also very strange. Sort of like how Socks said it felt walking around DC after Obama was elected – people who would never make eye contact, did, smilingly.
        Hope people were at least good enough to help those who needed it. And, you didn’t say if Splinter survived okay!

  3. Air conditioning at age 8! Your generation was spoiled. When I was a kid, the closest thing to air conditioning in D.C. was the ceiling fans over the lunch counter at People’s Drug. Oh, and my great-grandmother’s house was cooled by hand-operated fans with funeral parlor advertising on them. I’m pretty sure movie theaters were the only air-conditioned buildings. The movies got AC before hospitals. It’s all about priorities.

    • Ah, leave off about my generation; I’ll be fifty-eight in November. And I do remember People’s Drugstore, in front of which I once sprained my ankle while on a mission to buy tampons which embarrassed my Transgender Ex so much that he was looking everywhere but at me so I had to lie there till I could haul myself up and go complete the mission… but I digress. Credit, or blame, the frantic social climbing of the generation before mine, which lunged and clawed at an address that wouldn’t put me in school with [censored n-word], and which came with a couple of wheezing, whirring window units on the ground and top floors.

      In my high school, only a newly built library addition, with a handful of classrooms, had AC and we all stepped on each other’s heads to get into the classes held there, even if it was in Cuneiform Sonnet Composition.

  4. Just kidding about the generation dig. I’m only a few years older. We’re both from the early part of the Boomer generation.

    When you say the “generation before mine,” are you talking about our parents? I agree completely that they increased and extended segregation by creating and moving to the suburbs, but I don’t think there was much if any malice in their intentions.

    My parents and their friends were teens during the Depression and young adults during WWII. They were the Traumatized Generation, aka the Greatest Generation. I think they emerged shell-shocked from Depression and War, and, given the expectations of the time, frantically overdue to marry. They dated and married in a frenzy during 1946 and 47. Their lives had been on hold for 16 years, 1929 to 1945. I think the mass migration to the suburbs was set off by a yearning for peace and security. Also, as Jane Jacobs has noted, the housing stock in the US was in a horrible state of decay at the end of the Depression and War — all resources had been channeled to survival — so the stage was set for a building boom, and farmland outside the cities was the path of least resistance.

    • Oh, I was referring only to the parental generation in the specific case. Everything was the suburbs, there were just the lily white suburbs and the not so lily white suburbs. You know what you find in lily white suburbs? Snotty rich kids who think it matters where your clothes came from. Bleagh.

  5. Yes, I know. I grew up in lily white Montgomery County, but in the least affluent, most working-class section. As you say, the white suburbanites of that time (1950s) were relentlessly social-climbing snobs.

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