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.




8 thoughts on “Crisis Effect”

  1. Love it! I lived through a couple of these myself. One memorable storm, I was seven months pregnant with my 2nd child and absolutely, positively, without question, had to leave the house for a gallon of milk or someone would have been shot. Thanks to all the peeps who got me out of snow drifts! (what did I know about driving in the snow I’m from Miami!) And I am happy to have amused the neighborhood when walking the dog and she decided it would be a good idea to take off like a shot, thus dragging me across and down the street on my 7 month belly! Good times! 🙂

    p.s. I love that I almost always get a perfect timing post from you to cheer me up on a crappy day, which we could call today a bad hair day. Like I thought tarantulas had invaded my house bad hair day! On a good note, my best friend promised to buy me (if I can find one) a corn-rowed wig if I will dress up fancy and go out in public and talk with a British accent. She is crazy that way! LMAO

    • 🙂 We have a dog that has accomplished the same feat on dry ground.

      I’m glad I posted, then. I wonder if tarantulas in the house are worse than fire breathing lizards in the barn. In either case, it sounds like your best friend can handle the situation with skill and grace. A friend indeed.

      We’ll need photos of that wig.

  2. Jim, as fellow western Washingtonian I found your report of the situation to be well conveyed. Yes! BAAAAAD drivers, indeed!

    I really enjoyed the Renewal series… Thanks for your quality product. Looking forward to what’s coming next.

    • Thank you, CplHoratious. I learned to drive in Tennessee, where it was every driver for him/herself. They were at least uniformly dangerous. Out here, it’s a weird combination of recklessness combined with poorly timed overcautiousness. The only unifying theme seems to be the complete lack of situational awareness among the bad drivers, and the cardinal rule… There’s always someone in your blind spot. In Tennessee, riding in someone’s blind spot means you are losing the race. 🙂

  3. I am one of those who had it worse. I live in a suburb south of Seattle and I was without power for eight days. One good thing about that time is that I discovered your books and read all ten in three days. Good way to pass the time. 🙂

    I learned to drive in Minnesota and just laugh at the idiot drivers around here. You are right about the combination of drivers here. I am not sure which is more dangerous.

  4. WHERE to start? Oh I could go on for days but I won’t. Lol I think part of the problem is that we has become a self-centered society. We have become a people who only care about ourselves and what is in it for us and not for others or society in general. We will not sacrifice anything for fellow mankind, the word compromise has become a dirty word and forget about things like sharing and the greater good.
    We are conditioned to think of things being easy to get and easy to replace. Things are created to be disposable and not to be repaired, all in order to get us to get another that the endless commercials have convinced we need, and add to the big bonus the execs that created this will get. What happens when you can’t just go to your local big box store and get another?? We would/will become helpless. I think we need to start thinking in a new way and letting the government and businesses telling us what to think and even how to think and think as citizens of this country and the world at large and not only of ourselves..

  5. I hate fiction, in fact I hate fiction so much I rarley read it, why read made up stuff when there is so much history and interesting stuff that happens in real life! normaly when I have read a fiction story I do so holding my nose at the end and just read through as fast as possible. For some reason this story resonated with me and I could not wait to keep reading it. You have written a story that was intresting and I read it with enthusiasim. Good job, you have converted a die hard non fiction guy with an intresting story! looking forward to reading more.

    • There I go, corrupting the innocent… Thank you! That’s a mighty compliment, and I’m honored. It may interest you to know that every bit of fiction I’ve written comes from grappling with our non-fiction world. I look around every day and see something that makes me want to dig a little deeper. I care deeply about the tapestry of real life, how it came to be, and where it’s going. For me, fiction is entertainment, sure, but it’s even better as a way to tap into the human tradition of imparting important information through story. Thanks for taking the chance on Renewal.

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