Crisis Effect

Fifty-four straight days of rain. That’s how we roll winter in Western Washington. We can deal with that. We have our rain gear, our waterproof boots and our siped tires. We hunker down, dream of the tropics, and wait for spring, which usually shows up around the 4th of July.

Last week, we found ourselves in the cross-hairs of a typical series of winter storms off the Pacific, but this time the endless warm moisture was mixed with a strong cold air mass from Canada. Snow fell, enough to prepare the ground. Then a little more snow fell. After a pause for breath, the big moisture rolled in and dumped a lot of snow. We can’t deal with that.

By some standards, 12-20 inches of snow is nothing, but for us, life shuts down. We had one day of fluffy winter wonderland. We went sledding at the park, effectively demonstrating my own lack of fitness. We built a snowman, a process that drove Elke the dog into an obsessive fetching frenzy of glee. She was just sure we were going to lob those huge balls of snow across the yard, thus ensuring the most epic fetch of all time. When she understood that wasn’t going to happen, she settled for pre-fetching the snowballs. She dove in and grabbed bites of snow from the snowman-in-progress, then lunging backwards and shaking her head to spray snow on either side. It was a good day.

The next day, the cold began to retreat and here in the Olympia area, we found ourselves in a miserable perfect storm of ice. The trees began to load up and the power began to flicker. Around two in the afternoon, the lights went out. By nightfall the numbers of homes without power was staggering. Power transformers blew with astonishing regularity amidst the pop and crack of trees breaking and falling. We started a fire and listened to the news on the little radio we kept for just that kind of situation.

Without all of the usual electric powered distractions, there is suddenly space to think. Thinking of what it would take to restore power to 300,000 homes, for example. That thought was followed by a quick rundown of steps to take if the power was out for a full week as it was for many people in the area. In our case, the power was back up in less than 30 hours. Barely time to be a real inconvenience. We had firewood, and we had a 20-year-old camp stove for essentials like coffee and canned chili. The worst part for us was the loss of some trees and the soaking cold session of cutting one of those trees off of our back fence before the weight of the tree could crush the fence.

For others, it was much worse.

By Saturday, we were able to leave our warm, lit home to see what the rest of the area had suffered. One short drive through town and the abstract numbers became visible. The damage in some places looked like a bomb exploded. In others, it reminded me of the aftermath of tornadoes back in Tennessee. It was clear that, somehow, a herculean effort was underway. Power was being restored. Trees were being cleared from roadways. People were cleaning their yards – and neighbors’ yards – of shed branches at a rapid pace. Several things occurred to me.

First, it’s hard to imagine what the power repair crews accomplished in such a short time. I saw an interview with one last night. The reporter asked how it was for him in the past week. With a sideways half-smile, he said, “I can’t remember.” If it’s dark and cold in your house, imagine what it’s like on a power pole in the freezing rain.

Second, although we recognize that Americans are good about working together in a crisis, I was still surprised by how smoothly the recovery was going. There were clear examples of cooperation and coordination almost everywhere I looked. People were patiently adapting to the situation and working the problem. That’s a cultural value we should admire.

Third, a little preparation goes a long way. Like most people in the region, we have a kit set aside for emergencies. It’s mostly intended for earthquakes, but it suffices quite well in a midwinter power outage. It pays to give some thought to the risks that apply to your home in situations that are likely to occur and to make the necessary preparations. What’s necessary? It all depends. Are you driving in winter conditions? Make sure you can survive if the car is disabled. Are you at the end of a very long power system? A generator might be a smart investment. Does your water come from a well with an electric pump? A generator is probably mandatory, unless you really like to boil water from a nearby creek. The point is, know your situation and give it some thought. Even if all you get out of it is enough comfort to keep from strangling your spouse, it’s probably worth the effort.

It’s not all rainbows and unicorns (nods to Lori). There are always those opportunists who take any crisis as permission to prey on others. Out here, the low end of the scumbag spectrum are the jerks who just drive up and steal your fallen wood. On the high end are the scam artists who promise to help, then take the money and run. And of course, there are the looters who wait for people to get desperate enough to grab a hotel room for the night, back a truck up to the empty house, and make off with whatever they please, knowing full well that law enforcement is busy with too much to cover.

In a more benign sense, there are others who pose a danger in crisis. Yes, I’m looking at you, idiot drivers. I heard one report of over 300 traffic accidents in a single day in King County. Considering the number of cars on the road and the conditions, that may not seem like much. However, imagine that you were the State Police officer who dealt with 30 of those accidents in one shift. You would probably discover that 28 of those accidents were simply bad driving. Would you want to be the oncoming driver when an SUV plows through a pile of slush at 50 mph and shoots across the highway into your lane? Me neither.

So in almost miraculous fashion, life returns to normal. While some of us wait impatiently for someone to reattach the 600 useless cable channels to the house, let’s all just pause and consider the downright heroic efforts that are happening behind the scenes. To everyone, from overworked emergency services and exhausted line crews to the folks operating the shelters, the men cutting the trees off Bates Avenue, and the girl shoveling the sidewalk at the drugstore, thank you for putting it all back together.


Special driving shout outs –

To one of our regular mail carriers. You, oh crazy mail lady, are willing to plow into any old trashcan or parked vehicle that gets in your way, yet you are stopped by a mere foot of snow…

To the minivan driver at Costco. Princess parking is not worth leaving your vehicle tilted at a 40 degree angel on a pile of plowed snow. If it weren’t for the hapless driver in the next slot, I might have single-handedly shoved your van on its side just to make the point. Yes folks, it was that crooked.

To the driver of the massively lifted 4X4. Yes, your truck can go in the snow, over the biggest snowdrifts, even up the steep slopes in the park, but it does not stop any better than a 1983 Volvo wagon when the road is covered in ice. I’m guessing the utility pole was a pretty good hint.