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July 02, 2012

Complacency

We had an interesting weekend around Villa Cassandranita.

Friday evening, we had invited my parents to dinner at a local restaurant here in Fredneck. When we left home to drive to the restaurant, the temperature was over 100 degrees and the sun was shining.

After several hours spent sampling different wines and dishes (we got the wine pairing, which is always fun) we left the restaurant shortly after 11 pm. As we walked to our cars, a few fat raindrops plunked on the pavement. The drive home wasn't too bad - lots of very heavy rain, but since we live out in the country there was little traffic to contend with. But what struck me was the lightning. It was nearly continuous, cloud to cloud lightning: a steady series of flashes with almost no time in between them. I have never seen anything quite like it before.

As we got ready for bed, the power flickered a few times but stayed on. I keep candles and matches and a flashlight in the bedstand next to my bed, so I got out a votive and a flashlight and lit one candle "just in case". My parents called to let us know they'd gotten home safely and we drifted off to sleep to the comforting drumbeat of raindrops on our roof. There is something about a good rainstorm. I always sleep more soundly. Friday night was no exception. Though I normally wake early (5-6 am), I didn't stumble out of bed until nearly 8:30 Saturday morning.

It was a beautiful morning - everything looked fresh and green and the sun was shining. Once we got a cup of coffee and a bite to eat, we went online to look at the news and learned a new word:

Between 9:30 and 11 p.m. Friday night, one of the most destructive complexes of thunderstorms in memory swept through the entire D.C. area. Packing wind gusts of 60-80 mph, the storm produced extensive damage, downing hundreds of trees, and leaving more than 1 million area-residents without power.

Blue marks indicate reports of damaging wind. Black squares indicate winds of over 75 mph. (National Weather Service) Racing along at speeds over 60 mph, the bowing line of thunderstorms formed west of Chicago around 11 a.m. and by midnight approached the Atlantic ocean. It left a massive trail of destruction spanning from northern Illinois to the Delmarva Peninsula. The National Weather Service has logged well over 800 reports of damaging winds.

This kind of fast-moving, long-lived, large, and violent thunderstorm complex is known as a derecho.

We spent the next hour or so calling family in the area to make sure they were OK. My parents and brother had no power, but The Spousal Unit's sister and parents were fine. We couldn't get hold of the Unit's aunt and uncle, though. We hadn't talked with them in nearly a year. My husband couldn't put them out of his mind and around 11 am he decided to drive over (they live about an hour from us) to check on them.

Without going into too much detail, it was a good thing he listened to that nagging little voice in his head. He spent the next 7-8 hours making sure they had gas to run their gas powered generator and fans and power cords set up. They couldn't go stay with relatives or go to a hotel room because his uncle has a lot of large, specialized medical equipment that can't be moved easily.

The interesting part of all of this to me was how quickly even fairly minor events (and compared to a tsunami or a major earthquake or a tornado, even a storm that leaves millions with no power is a fairly minor event) can turn life upside down. We spent the rest of the weekend finding and setting up a second gas generator and a room-sized a/c unit. The gas stations in their area were almost all closed - no electricity to pump out the gas. And the ones on the periphery of the power outages were jammed with drivers and people filling gas cans for their generators.

Ice was hard to find. The local hardware stores quickly sold out of generators. I had done some research online and then called around - our local Home Depot was sold out at 10 am but said they were expecting a truckload of few generators within the hour. I got in the car and drove to Lowe's first. They said they were sold out of room units (for reasons I won't get into here, a window unit wouldn't work for them). I looked around and found 3 more sitting all the way up on the top shelf near the ceiling, so they got me one. As we were waiting in line, I got a funny feeling and said, "I'm going to go over to Home Depot - I'm afraid they'll sell out before I get there".

As I walked through the door, they had 3 left. By the time I walked down to the Contractors desk, there were two and a couple were looking at one of them. I literally sat on the other. It wasn't even what I wanted - I had decided that a propane or natural gas one would provide more security and run longer, because propane doesn't degrade over time the way gas does and I reasoned that if everyone was out looking for gas, it would be nice for them to have another alternative that would be less in demand.

But over the course of the weekend I was struck over and over again by how much I take for granted and how complacent I have become. We're probably a bit strange in that we have hand crank radios and lights and flashlights. And we keep a camp stove (we don't camp) and oil lamps for emergencies. But over the years I've let other things lapse (supplies of canned food, water, etc.), mostly because it's just my husband and myself. When you have children, you take more precautions (or at least I did).

While we were driving around it occurred to me (duh): if we needed to take our extended family in - parents, kids, in laws - during an emergency, how would we feed all those people? As conservatives, we talk a lot about being prepared and taking responsibility for our own lives, but I realized that I really haven't been prepared lately for something to go very wrong.

It's not just the basics - food, water, shelter - that we need to think about. There's also the interconnectedness of things - the supply chain. Having a gas generator is great... unless you can't get gas. How many of us even stop to think about the various kinds of emergencies in their area and what they would need for each? What's your plan? And your backup plan?

When we lived farther away from major metropolitan areas, we were generally better prepared. Over the years we've lived in tornado alleys and hurricane prone areas and towns devastated by earthquakes and fires, but there's something about living close to cities that lulls you into a false sense of complacency. Living near a city reminds you that in a crisis, you will be competing with your fellow citizens for very scarce resources.

Scary thoughts for a sunny, hot weekend right before the fourth of July.

Posted by Cassandra at July 2, 2012 08:07 AM

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Comments

We're fairly well prepared for emergencies of this type, having land and firewood as well as two wells that can be tapped by bucket and rope if necessary. We keep dry goods on hand in quantity, as well as rifles and ammunition. Also we have horses, in case the gas runs out.

Glad to hear you're OK. I am given to understand it was a heck of a storm.

Posted by: Grim at July 2, 2012 01:40 PM

What Grim said...

Posted by: bt_109°_in_the_shade_Saturday_hun at July 2, 2012 02:25 PM

Friday night was a big, robust thunderstorm, with +80 mph winds. I was the last one at work when the power died (and it's still out today).

An 80 ft oak got knocked over and crushed part of a house around the corner from us. Trees split and down everywhere. 400 Thousand people within 30 miles of where I live are still without power (another milder thunderstorm Sunday night didn't help).
Fun times, fun times.

Not quite 109 in the shade in Ohio, but still pretty hot out.

Probably worst hit were dairy farms that have no electricity, and can't milk all the cows and refigerate the milk.

Posted by: Don Brouhaha at July 2, 2012 04:25 PM

Wow!

We hardly had any limbs down in my neighborhood - there was a lot of rain, but no real wind damage that I saw.

But over in Potomac there are uprooted trees (not broken ones, which are normal here, but huge trees literally yanked out of the ground). Trees still lying on power lines.

I didn't even think about those poor cows - I hope all our dairy farmers (we're surrounded by cows here) have power!

Posted by: Cass at July 2, 2012 04:29 PM

Imagine how much fun it is going to be if Obama wins a second term and completes his war on coal-fired generation, while also imposing draconian regulations of fracking and thereby limiting the availability of natural gas, an increasingly-important fuel for power generation.

How many people are going to be able to afford their air conditioners if electricity prices reach 70 or 80 cents per kwh? How many utilities are going to be able to maintain reliable service as safety margins are squeezed by environmentalist and NIMBY constraints on plant and transmission facility construction?

If the power of the Democratic Party is not broken, the electrical golden age in America may be over.

Posted by: david foster at July 2, 2012 04:36 PM

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