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Tamar Abrams

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Washington's Long, Dark Lesson in Powerlessness

Posted: 07/02/2012 5:28 pm

Just as the major currency of Hollywood is fame, here in the Washington area we deal in power: Who has it? How much? On the last day of June, many of us were reminded of what it means to be completely powerless -- literally -- when a huge storm took much of the area off the grid. If you are reading this, you are among the lucky ones whose power has been restored; unfortunately, many of our neighbors may have to wait another four or five days before they can feel the caress of air conditioning as they sway to the hum of their computers.

Washington's Worst Week followed close on the heels of its Best as the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a decision that would provide health care coverage to some 30 million uninsured Americans. Less than 48 hours later, high winds, massive lightning strikes and pounding rain left most of the area in the dark. By midnight on Friday, the area was apocalyptic. Enormous trees were uprooted, hitting cars, homes and rendering many roads impassable. Temperatures in the 80s left most of us sweltering in the darkness, aware that weather forecasts called for highs above 100 degrees on Saturday. I would wager that many a powerful head slept badly through the long, hot night.

As the sun rose Saturday morning, so did awareness that it was going to be a very long weekend. Residents who pride themselves on their ability to weather the vagaries of Washington politics discovered that it was far more difficult to deal with the lack of electricity. Many of us who had bragged about our decision to eliminate landlines in lieu of cell phones suddenly realized the consequences of that act. Cell phones need to be charged. Frequently.

So I was among the odd diaspora of residents driving aimlessly around at 6 a.m. on a steamy Saturday morning to survey the damage but, more importantly, to charge smartphones. Gas stations were closed, stoplights were dark, and dodging debris in the road required dexterity more common to bumper cars. I followed a line of cars into a supermarket that was using a backup generator, though I confess I was still too disoriented to consider buying groceries. But the sight of dim lights and the possibility of cool air beckoned and I followed. Most people were making a break for the freezer in the back of the store where they were stacking bag after bag of ice into their carts and then racing for the one open checkout stand. As a groggy disaster neophyte, I put one bag of ice in my cart along with a watermelon and a box of whole wheat Ritz crackers. Somehow that seemed like a good choice at the time.

As the temperature quickly rose on Saturday, so too did my wonder at the fact that my teenage daughter had not only slept through the raucous storm but also the steamy aftermath. She wandered into the living room around 9:30 to report that she was hot. Without TV or radio, I realized the scope of the damage when friends and family began calling to see if we were okay. Each call was short as I watched the power on my phone diminish. By midday, we joined traffic jams heading west toward the outer suburbs of Virginia, hoping they had been spared. About 20 miles from Arlington, we found a Silver Diner with a full parking lot. To get there we had to navigate a six-way intersection without working stoplights, which required patience and no small amount of prayer.

The restaurant was filled with refugees in various states of dress, clutching glasses of iced tea and digging into cooked food. Good-natured waitresses were warming baby formula and, for my daughter, charging her cell phone at a prep station. It was a lovely interlude before heading out into the unrelenting heat. Saturday passed so very slowly, helped by an invitation to hang out in the basement of a friend's home where the temperature was mercifully five degrees cooler.

I won't bore you with the details of Sunday except to say that I cleared out the contents of our dripping freezer (so long, Alaskan salmon!), fell into a restless and perhaps heat-induced sleep, gave up on charging the cell phone and picked at the watermelon. We rejoined the power grid at mid-afternoon, though our across-the-street neighbors remained dark for another four hours.

Washingtonians across the region are still suffering on Monday -- from West Virginia to Maryland, they are facing another record day of heat without the tools to combat it. Some are being told their power won't be restored until after the Fourth of July. So what did we learn from this? It is clear that one small but catastrophic event -- weather-induced or man-made - can take us down. We are clearly not equipped to survive living off the grid for long. Water filtration systems failed, gas was unavailable to power cars or the few generators, most grocery stores were closed or emptied quickly and the 911 system went down in Northern Virginia for almost 24 hours. In an area fueled by smartphones and tablets, can we survive without them?

I am proud to live in Arlington County, which sent out tweets throughout the long, dark, hot weekend that I was able to access occasionally. My favorite was sent out during the early hours of Saturday morning. Check on your elderly neighbors, it urged us, to make sure they are okay. On the cusp of turning 56 and with wet washcloths around my neck, I realized with horror I likely WAS the elderly neighbor! So much to absorb in one weekend...

 

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