So there we were, peacefully watching Bill Maher get laughs with cheap shots at public figures when my smartphone beeped with an urgent text from Fairfax County (Va.) Emergency Services: a ferocious thunderstorm with winds up to 80 miles per hour was just a few miles away and closing fast.
I stepped outside to take a look and, sure enough, in no time rain-driven wind was hitting me in the face. Horizontal rain is something you see in hurricanes but not very often in thunderstorms, so I knew this might be a Big One.
As those who have over the years sent me dozens of pizzas, crates of ballet shoes and huge tubs of cheese know, I live in a place called Oakton, Va., so named (one assumes) because it is infested with towering oak trees. Houses are slotted in-between. This normally works pretty well, except when the trees fall over, as they do quite often.
Very dense wood
Oak is not called hardwood for nothing. It is very dense and, therefore, heavy. When you have a lot of trees clustered together, as we do, they grow up but not out. What you wind up with is an awful lot of weight without a broad enough base to support it when the winds begin to blow.
So anyway, Bill Maher immediately flipped to black, as did everything else electrical. A dark and stormy night ensued, and a very hot one too. As day dawned, the scene was the usual horror show -- trees down everywhere, power lines dangling and sparking and, perhaps worst of all, traffic signals not working.
This is not intended as a political comment but here in the Washington, D.C., area we have a higher concentration of idiots than in most of the country. In years past, after hurricanes and huge storms, our friends and neighbors for some reason known only to them drove confidently, and quickly, through busy and complex intersections suddenly deprived of signals. The result was, of course, carnage.
If anyone has learned anything, it appears we have learned that dark intersections should be treated as four-way stops.
What else have we learned? Well, here are a few things from the latest episode:
- Take cover. The basement or a room without windows is where you want to be in a raging storm. A second-floor bedroom is the worst place to be. Obvious, but ...
- If the power is out, your phone won't work if it's on your cable system or FiOS. It may not matter, since Fairfax County's 9-1-1 system failed for unknown reasons. We were advised to drive to the nearest fire or police station if we needed something.
- Your cell phone most likely won't work. The towers are run by, guess what, electricity. No electricity, no signal.
- Your friends and family around the world will assume the worst. We heard later from friends in Peru that they had written us off.
- Mobile broadband won't work either. See above.
- You could listen to your local all-news station for information, though when we tried this, it was wall-to-wall commercials, interrupted occasionally by sports scores and learned political commentary.
Having learned from previous episodes, however, we were prepared. Or so we thought. We confidently took our dead cell phone out to the garage and plugged it into the mobile charger, only to learn that -- at least on our Samsung smartphone -- the battery has to reach a certain charge level before the phone will work. What? You thought you could just plug it in?
We then plugged in the inverter we bought after Hurricane Whosis, hoping to get our laptop working. We actually had to start the car to get enough juice, but quickly discovered that a.) without the Samsung smartphone we had no hotspot for the laptop to log onto; and b.) without electricity, we couldn't raise the garage door, leading to fears of imminent asphyxiation.
(Actually, yes, we can raise the garage doors manually but every time we do so, a small bolt shears off in the gears, necessitating an expensive visit from the up-and-down guys.)
All is not lost
But wait. Despite the lack of landlines, wi-fi, 3g and 4g, all was not lost. Upon raising the garage door, thereby doing $78.90 worth of damage, we found that the information deficit we had been suffering was solved. There, in their usual positions, were The Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and the Washington Post.
Yes, there amid the dead trees was news printed only a few hours before on, what else, dead trees. And wrapped in plastic bags suitable for collection and disposal of canine wastes to boot. What a deal! (The Times and Journal for 25 years have been placed in the dead, unbiased center of our driveway. The Post is always thrown far to the right (yes, the right, never the left) into the woods, the ditch or, when the carrier is exceptionally dedicated to making his or her point, into the drainage culvert that runs beneath the driveway. But that's another story).
Everything new had failed. Everything old had worked.
We were able to loll around all morning, relaxing in the 100-degree heat and reading everything except what we wanted to read, namely directions to the closest operating Starbucks. Trying to make coffee on a propane grill is possible but not my idea of fun.
Other things that worked/didn't work:
- LED flashlights. They're great. I had absent-mindedly bought a three-pack for a few bucks at The Home Depot. They generate a lot of light and last forever. Highly recommended. Much better than candles. Safer too.
- Chain saws. They work and many neighbors were cheerfully using them, while clad in shorts, flip flops and baseball caps. Their three-year-olds played nearby. So damned dangerous. Like SUVs, chain saws should be sold only to those who have passed a stringent test demonstrating their knowledge of eye shields, steel-toed boots and protective gloves.
- Generators. Lots of people have these things now. Like snow-blowers, you only need them once in a while and, almost invariably, those are the times they don't work. The gas is too old, the spark plugs are fouled or the starter rope is shot. Want to go buy new gas? Yes, but the gas stations are closed. No power. When the power comes back on, you don't need the generator.
What's most important in times like these is to think of those who may been in worse shape than we are. The elderly and those with chronic conditions, like asthma, cannot tolerate sweltering heat for days on end. They need to go somewhere cool. If there are people like that around, we should go check on them and help them get someplace that's safer. Later is the time to complain about how various agencies did or didn't function.
Likewise, families with lots of kids and, perhaps, a father who is deployed overseas or off working somewhere, will be grateful for our concern and whatever help we can render.
The Red Cross and other relief organizations probably need our time and treasure. It doesn't hurt to call and ask.
I don't expect you to find any of this particularly useful, or original. It's just that, having been in the news game for several decades, I have been present at all kinds of disasters and have come to the conclusion that all you can do is be patient, be careful, think twice and watch out for those around you. This isn't the time to assume someone else will take care of it.
So there we were, peacefully watching Bill Maher get laughs with various cheap shots at public figures when my smartphone beeped with an urgent text from F...