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.
All is not lost
- 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.