I flew home to the Washington, DC, region one hour after the derecho storm hit last week. For those of you who don’t live here, or haven’t been paying much attention to the complete undoing of our nation’s seat of power by what was essentially a sideways tornado, I have one thing to say to you – be grateful.
When the pilot announced in San Francisco that there were thunderstorms awaiting us in DC, I knew it was bad news. But I had no idea truly how bad this time. There has been many a storm that has knocked down our power, cut us off for days at a time. Our little two-block street was off the grid for nine days in the wake of Hurricane Isabel in 2003. I know what it’s like.
But no one was prepared for the wrath of the derecho. And this city, the nation’s capital and the heart of political power and machinations, as well as one of the most affluent areas in the country, was knocked to its knees.
Trees were felled in seconds. As I drove home from the airport on the Beltway, our most heavily trafficked highway, I could have been killed 20 times over by the fallen trees and debris blanketing the road had the police not already have set up flares to mark the spots in the pitch black.
And when I drove into my neighborhood, which I already knew had lost power, (thanks to being able to connect with Facebook friends from the runway) it was like entering a ghostly war zone. No light, just streets filled with fallen branches and downed wires hanging everywhere.
I was sure we were down for the count.
My next door neighbors have a generator that powers their whole house and they are incredibly generous with their space, their ac, their electrical outlets, their refrigerator and freezer space, and just about everything. Everyone on our block was immediately invited to come on in and share whatever they needed, and a party was planned for the evening. All of us on our little street hunkered down and prepared ourselves for a long, painful slog back to civilization.
And then a miracle occurred. For the first time in the 20 years I lived on this block, we were among the first to have power restored. By the time I had unloaded our fridge and freezer and begun to store things in my neighbor’s, our overhead lights flickered back on and all of a sudden, we had power. None of us could believe it. It took several hours to feel that it wasn’t a fluke and that we were going to be able to keep this rare gift from the electric company gods.
Once we were sure, we invited over hoards of friends who weren’t as lucky. In an emergency situation like this, if you’ve got it, you’ve got to share it. It’s as simple as that. We couldn't help with the hundreds of traffic lights out all over the region, or the gas stations running out of gas like the 1970s energy crisis, or the water pump stations being knocked out so that there were mandatory water restrictions. But we had power.
So my story has a happy ending. This time. I am writing this five days after the storm, and there are still over 50,000 people without power in our area, in unending 100 degree heat, some of my friends among them. And with the crazy weather patterns completely changing the ecological nature of our region, there are bound to be more and more situations in which those services we take for granted, like electricity, will be in question.
So what do we do?
First and foremost, we must learn how to take care of each other. So many of us live in silos, sitting in big houses, never bothering to get to know our neighbors. We live self-contained lives, very, very busy (as per this New York Times blog that has gone viral, on the busyness of our lives, a topic for another day) but never really taking the time to step outside and just enjoy sharing space with those around us. But when we're faced with the breakdown of the societal contract and the are forced to fend for ourselves, Mad Max style, we need to watch out for each other.
We must think hard about our utter reliance on technology. I am grateful that technology affords me the opportunity to work flexibly from home, to keep up with both work and home when I’m on the road, to be in touch once again with people I lost many years ago, to gather information at the touch of a button and to drive my car in a city that I don’t know with a sultry voice giving me directions.
But all this technology is useless when faced with a dearth of electrical outlets with which to charge up. You should have seen the mall on Monday (when I stayed home from work because my kids' camps got cancelled -- for the week). People on the floor everywhere, desperately trying to charge up their phones, computers and iPods.
We must figure out what kind of infrastructure is needed to keep us moving forward in this still-new century. I am not deeply involved in the environmental movement, and I don’t know a lot about the arguments and demands just made at Rio, but I wonder if there is a need to refocus. While it is important to think about reducing pollution, saving species and preserving natural resources, this cannot be done in a vacuum in which human enterprise is sidelined or ignored.
If we keep having storms like last week’s derecho hit Washington and other places, our utilities will never again catch up, our electricity and water and sewage and all those unseen buttresses of our modern day lives will start wearing thinner and thinner and at some point, we will have to find another way. Part of this question is the resource question (i.e. do we drill, what about fracking, etc.) but part of it is simply the issue of crumbling infrastructure across our country and our world, signaling the need to rebuild, retool and rethink how we live our very human and very vulnerable lives.
I am grateful that I have a safe house, two intact cars, a family and a community of wonderful friends who have taken care of each other during this disaster. No tree hit anything or anyone in my life. And despite the power outages during an unending heat wave, the emergency has brought out the best in people for the most part.
But I am increasingly worried about the future. There is clearly no solution in sight for fixing the problems of inadequate utility upkeep in our region. One of my good friends is talking about a bunch of us buying land together in Wisconsin (arable, fresh water lakes and far from the coasts) so that we have a place to move when our city is partly under water. And she's not joking. It's scary.
It may be time to start putting my money where my mouth is – while I still have the power, literally, to do so.
Photo by AmandaB3 via Flickr