Jul 17, 2012

Illuminated: Losing Power in America

The June 29, 2012 storm that snuffed out our power for a time forming up near Chicago.

"Come now, you who say 'Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit.' Yet you do not know what what your life will be like tomorrow.  You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away.  Instead you ought to say, 'If the Lord wills, we will live and also do this or that.'" -James 4:13-15

Insha'Allah--"God-willing" in Arabic.

As advanced as we've become as a society, it still takes very little to upend our every day lives.  On Friday afternoon, June 29, a massive thunderstorm swept across the midwest and out to the eastern seaboard.  The worst of the storm couldn't have lasted more than 30 minutes in a given location, but it featured a rare type of wind event--something called a derecho--that includes hurricane strength gusts of wind.  In short order millions were plunged into darkness as mighty winds tore down electric lines and utility poles across the region.  And when the storm passed, the heat wave that had been cooking the area with triple digit temperatures returned.

Babs, Elijah and I were on the road when the storm passed--it was a nerve wracking experiencing watching the trees whip around us, branches crashing into the road before us.  We were driving over from Columbus to Dayton to spend the weekend with her parents, and we were only 15 minutes away from her parents home when we were engulfed in the storm.  By the time we got to the Leens, the winds had died down, though it was still raining quiet heavily.

We arrived to find the electricity out.  We decided to go out to eat, hoping to return and find the power restored, as would usually be the case with a run-of-the-mill power outage here in America.  But when we got home in the gathering twilight the power was still out.  Slowly we came to realize that this was no ordinary power outage and there would be no going back to normal any time soon.

When it became apparent that it might be a few days rather than a few hours before power was restored, we considered zipping right back home to Columbus but soon discovered that the situation was even worse there and  our home back in New Albany was also powerless also.  We ended up staying in Dayton because the Leen's basement provided considerable relief from the oppressive heat   The outlook for Dayton was better than Columbus--Columbus had been hit much harder--and the utility company was promising 90% of customers restored by Monday evening, July 2 and 100% by Tuesday, July 3.  Our part of the Columbus area was forecast for full restoration by Sunday evening, July 8, more than a week after the outage began.

As it turned out though, both our apartment complex in New Albany as well as Barbara's parents got their power back Monday morning and by Tuesday everything was back to "normal."  But as I reflected back on our weekend without electricity I realized that while we might have been in the dark for a few days, those days in the darkness illuminated some powerful truths about life:

1. We are extraordinarily vulnerable to things beyond our control.  You would think with all our advanced technology and scientific knowledge we could make ourselves impervious to the elements (and indeed I suspect we very well could, if we hadn't decided that the effort and expense isn't worth it  for the occasional disaster).  And yet a little wind, a little rain, a little snow and everything grinds to a halt.  We live with this illusion that we are in control.  But in truth the elements remain stubbornly beyond our control, and they can, when they will, completely upend--and in some cases even take--our lives.  I was reminded of this again more recently as our plane was about to leave for the second leg of our flight out here to Oregon where we are visiting our friends the Paez family this week.  The plane had been delayed by less than an hour due to a plane change.  But in that window, bad weather rolled in.  The rain started to come down just as we were boarding the plane.  Due to the lightning all work by the ground crew had to be stopped.  We ended up sitting on the tarmac for three hours, first waiting for this merely ordinary thunderstorm to pass, and then in the traffic jam caused by all the delayed planes.

2. We are dangerously dependent on things that are in reality very fragile.  Electricity is one of those things we take for granted, and yet we are utterly dependent on it--to prepare and store our food, to light our way, to keep us cool or warm, to enable us to communicate (no electricity means no internet).    It's not so hard to fool ourselves into believing that our dependence makes for dependability.  And yet that electric current we lean so heavily on can be snatched away as easily as one yanks a plug from a wall.   And it all felt so arbitrary.  Power was restored in haphazard fashion, and so for example, my in-laws neighbors on the other side of the street got their power back almost two full days before we did.  It felt so strange to be out in the evening walking Kimo and watching the neighbors across the street living a normal life while we remained in darkness.  Their existence, their experience felt so different from ours.  The span of the street felt like an ocean.

Storm damage from the June 29 derecho.  I didn't take this photo--I got it from the web.  Wish I'd had the sense to take photos of the huge limbs that went down in the Leen's front and backyard.

3.  Our best-laid plans can be thrown aside without warning.  I remember feeling such a sense of dislocation as the power outage continued.  We had a plan for the weekend, and for the coming week and suddenly all of it was up in the air.  For awhile, I literally didn't know what to do with myself.  I found myself reading a lot just to escape the feeling of uncertainty.  Gradually, we began to develop a "new normal" and plans once again began to emerge.  I made it a habit to head out to civilization twice a day-once in the morning and once in the late afternoon.  I'd find a Starbucks or some other restaurant and hang out for a few hours, charging my phone and laptop, checking out the latest updates from the utility companies.  Then it was back to darkness--hanging out in the basement to avoid the heat of the day, going over to the church--which had power-- to cook our meals, going to bed with the sun, and getting up early to get stuff done before it go too hot.  We started plotting our return to Columbus-found a few places we could stay overnight--friends that had power, so Babs wouldn't have to endure the heat.  I was particularly protective of her as being pregnant made her especially susceptible to the heat exhaustion.  By the time the electricity was finally restored Monday morning we had a plan in place that would have allowed us to limp through the week until we could get on a plane and fly to Florida--ironically a place of cooler temperatures (by comparison anyway) and plentiful electricity.  But even so, the power outage had taught me to hold on to my plans a little more lightly.  After all life could throw me a curve ball at any moment that would change them completely.

4.  Losing power reminds us of where the only source of power truly is--the only source of power that allows us to thrive regardless of circumstance rather than be defined by circumstance.  We substitute a lot of things for God but when those things are gone we are reminded of who it is that really sustains us and provides for us all along.  During what was really a pretty minor ordeal for us considering the real tragedies that befall people all over the world every day (after all, even this storm cost 22 people their lives) we were reminded of God's continued care for us even when the world we'd taken for granted had gone dark for a time.  Consider these two blessings of the blackout:

--If we hadn't lost electricity, we likely would not have gone to the potluck hosted by the Centerville SDA Church adult Sabbath School class I often attend when we are visiting our in-laws.  Further, if the power had not been out the potluck would have been held at the home of one of the members of the class rather than in the church fellowship hall, making it even easier for us to attend.  The potluck turned to out to be feast for the spirit as well as the stomach,as members shared beautiful and moving testimonies of God's goodness in their lives.  It provided both Barbara and I with a much-needed spiritual boost and encouragement in our own walk with God.

--At one point we were considering trying to get a hotel for Saturday night.  The heat was really getting to Barbara--she was dehydrated, both by the heat and the onset of severe diarrhea.  A comfortable night in an air-conditioned hotel seemed to be just the trick.  But virtually every hotel in central and Southern Ohio was booked.  I finally found one just a few miles from home that was going for $200 a night--a plain jane place that normally wouldn't have been more than $65 a night.  I hesitated at spending so much, and I remember praying as I clicked the purchase button on the Expedia site that if this was not the right move that the hotel would be unavailable.  The reservation went through and I thought we had our answer.  Then about about 30 minutes later an Expedia representative called to tell me that the hotel was in fact fully booked all ready.  The rep, an outstanding young man, did his best to find us another place but there was nothing other than an Econo-Lodge that in their own words offered nothing more than "a bed and a light" much less air conditioning. Which was a good thing, because we ended up taking Babs to the emergency room late that night for an IV drip due to her extreme dehydration and continuing diarrhea.  If we'd had the hotel it would have been much more difficult to do that, and we might not have taken her in at all.  I shudder to think what the consequences of that might have been.

When the power finally came back on, it was remarkable how quickly we reset to "regular life."  We returned home to Columbus, and it was as if nothing had happened in our absence.  The apartment was cool and welcoming from the air-conditioner, the refrigerator was humming contentedly, keeping our fridge full of rotten food nice and cold.  Within mere hours, the whole ordeal was nothing but a distant memory.  Hopefully though, the lessons we learned during our time without power will stay with us.  Muslims have a saying that they often tack on to the end of discussions of plans, dreams, and desires, that essentially means   "If God wills it."   I think it's a healthy thing to keep in mind as we immerse ourselves in the rush and bustle of this thing we call our life.

We are excited to be here in Oregon during this the second week, of our official Family Vacation of the year.  We had a wonderful-but-far-too-short visit to Florida with my family last week--a blog on that will be coming up soon--and are looking forward to spending some special time with the Paez tribe this week before we had back home early this next Sunday morning.  Insha'Allah, of course.

1 comment:

Mai said...

Crazy!!!! Good lessons learned though. The university got hit by lightning last week and since we were taking a technology class, there was nothing we could do - nothing at all - until the internet came back on!! It's crazy how much we rely on technology and electricity!!