On Friday, June 29th, the Washington, D.C. area where I live experienced a storm, one I’d never heard of before, a derecho. From The Washington Post, July 1, “Derechos occur only about once every four years…[are] fast-moving, long-lived, large violent thunderstorm[s, which] create wind damage along a swath of more than 240 miles and produce wind gusts of at least 58 miles per hour.” The derecho in our area clocked 80 mph, knocking out power lines and stations in its straight path (distinguishing it from the circular path of tornados) from Indiana to the Chesapeake Bay where it went off-shore, but not before killing five people in the D. C. area—four from fallen trees, one drowned from a capsized boat. Derechos form from hot air masses and develop along the jet stream. Our hot air mass topped 104 degrees and during these hot days, we lost power for 48 hours—a radical experience for the suburban dweller.
The police cordoned off intersections since traffic signals were not operating. It felt as though we lived in a demilitarized zone. Travel to a local grocery store took an hour because of blocked roads and time to figure out which three rights would equal one left-hand turn. We were lucky since we already had:
· A generator with long enough electrical cords to power our chest freezer and refrigerator—but small mobile generators aren’t meant to be run 24/7 so we operated the generator three hours on, one hour off not only so it wouldn’t overheat, but also to conserve fuel. The noise from generators in our neighborhood was deafening. Those without generators eventually cleared out their appliances making for smelly garbage in the 104 degree heat.
· Water since our pumping station wasn’t affected. If not for this element, we would have had to evacuate our home. With water, we could drink, bathe, clean and hose ourselves off to keep cool. We donned our bathing suits, drenched ourselves and hoped to catch a breeze on our porches.
· A basement, which stayed cool. We could have sat in the basement for the entire 48 hours, but since it was dark and we had to operate the generator, it wasn’t a great option. Sleeping there was a blessing. Some of our neighbors do not have basements.
· A premise I had cleaned just before the storm hit. Even with clean bathrooms and a clean kitchen, we noticed that within 24 hours, our house began to stink in the heat. Any bacteria in the house multiplied quickly. Our soiled clothing added to the sour atmosphere.
· A gas grill with two propane tanks to cook all meals.
· Flashlights with fresh batteries.
· Nearby communities that still had power, fuel and groceries.
· Paper reading material (like all those back issues of Ellery Queen that I hadn’t yet read), which kept me from going crazy, taking me to other places for mental relief.
· No elderly family members living with us, and neighbors we’ve known for over twenty years. I have allergies, which were exacerbated by the heat and lack of filtered air. With a newly filled prescription, I faired fine. But it reminded me that the elderly wouldn’t have done as well. Our neighbors provided comradery and comic relief.
Unfairly, I compared myself to ancestors, who never knew of electricity. They lived on more land without the interdependence of neighbors and community. Yes, they knew more about the fundamentals. They also possessed the tools and commodities to survive. But, their life expectancy was much shorter than our life expectancy. We are limited in our ability to survive because our communities are developed with the assumption of access to power. Without that assumed power, we, like our ancestors, would be able to survive independently, but I fear—not as happily.
Post Script: Now that our power has been restored, temperatures are expected to be in the lower 90s today, ten degrees less. I fail to appreciate this perversity.
Pictures courtesy of the Capitol Weather Gang and The Washington Post.