A mighty crack seized then jolted me from my writing repose that early afternoon. I ran to the living room, peered out the rain-lashed, wind-whipped picture window as a second, fiercer explosion of sound erupted, this time with a near-blinding flash of light. The rooms blacked out. I fell to the floor and rolled but glanced outside: a power line whip lashed toward the building. Eerie metallic sounds unreeled beyond the walls. Bordering weakened trees would have to put up a fight. These were the expected high wind gusts brought by the tail end of Pacific Ocean’s Typhoon Songda. And I thought I was prepared. I had felt the changes in barometric pressure, watched intense shudders of wind grab and toss about tree branches and treetops for the last 24 hours and was calmly waiting things out. I had just put away the balcony chimes, chairs and tables. Now I wasn’t certain of anything as adrenaline pumped full force to every sense and my galloping heart.
The transformer right by our building had blown; the pole was tilting toward pavement. As I got up on hands and knees for another look, more power cables and lines crashed down on each other and into tree limbs, flailing every which way. That orange spurt–one big sweet gum treetop was aflame. I grabbed a cell phone but my fingers fumbled tapping out 911. More lines whined complaints and there came continued cracking of branches. I thought I heard my spouse yell my name; he’d left earlier to get supplies. His voice startled me; maybe he’d returned. But where was he? I succeeded with 911 and got through. The dispatcher gleaned details and reported a fire engine was on its way. She must have heard my nervousness; she informed me as if I didn’t realize: “Well, now, we’ve got a big storm.”
I flung open our front door, called into the pitch-black hallway and stairwell. “Marc! You there?”
“Yes, I’m trying to get upstairs!”
I found the banister, made my way down, checked on his physical state. He said he was alright but sounded spooked. I grabbed a couple of grocery bags. He panted as he climbed steps. My heart carried on its pounding as we went back inside.
“I was right outside the outside door,” he said, “when that huge tree branch crashed and the transformer blew. Knocked me right off my feet– maybe instinct to move–and fell right into the doorway just opened. Only a few feet away from those downed lines…I felt stuck there. You okay? There are other branches down–those damned trees! The earth is sodden, we’ll be losing more here.”
We could hear the fire engine, then police sirens and watched through windows, huddled together on the sofa in the windswept afternoon. It had been raining buckets the past 24 hours but now the downpour had ceased in our neighborhood while winds gusted to 40-50 mph. There are dozens of old trees around here, majestic and comforting. But even though two unhealthy sweet gums were removed over time, there remained a couple around our place that needed serious reconsideration. It was up to the building’s owners; the city, though they actually owned the curbside grassy area, did not remove trees. Now more than one person had to deal with the precarious state of affected power lines.
And at that moment it was the firemen who stepped up, but the small blaze had luckily extinguished itself and smoke curled upward and away. They walked the perimeter of the area and talked at length. There seemed to be great concern for the already multiple downed wires and cables and others in peril. The huge fallen branch, big as a small tree, leaned from the ground into more lines and was trapped within another tree. The police taped off the whole block on both sides of the road; our building was additionally taped off. They stayed to guard each end of the block. This would not be an easy fix.
We were, it occurred to us, prisoners in our own place with lines dangerous, sprawled out, waiting for utility company personnel. The initial fear I felt would not be fully shaken until they arrived. I of course respect electricity, am grateful for its aid in our daily activities. We take it for granted and should not. But it also is so powerful that I’m never at ease if something goes awry– if even sparks are involved or threat of worse–until professionals arrive like the heroes they are even when it’s minor. (My spouse is great with numbers/statistics/various technologies but he’d admit he’s not such a handyman. Nor am I.)
We were fixed at the window until the police looked up, waved us back. We managed to watch from a bit of distance as six trucks and fifteen power company workers arrive. They set to assessing and planning. The decommissioned transformer’s impact on things appeared considerable; the downed lines were not yet grounded. Though we would hear from them that between only 50-100 had lost power from it. Our neighbors to the west and east had lights blazing while our refrigerator had long stopped humming and electric baseboards were cool. The apartment grew duskier, dimmer, though the repair process captured our attention.
After a half hour, a policeman knocked on the building’s entrance. Marc answered it and returned.
“It’s strongly advised we vacate. There are branches hanging over the rooftop and the storm isn’t over. They have a lot of work before we’ll be safer and finally get power.”
Since our place is on the top floor I agreed that was wise. We have previously had roof damage from crashing limbs; cars had also been dented by broken branches. And it would be good to get out in the air and away from the hullabaloo now that a newsman and plenty of gawkers were about. I decided to pack a small tote bag with a few things–my heart medicines, a change of clothing–just in case we had to stay out overnight. And as I did so, I recalled the sense of foreboding I had experienced in the morning upon awakening. I had nearly packed a bag then as the wind howled and my chimes on the balcony rattled and clanged. The week-end forecast for Oregon and Washington had not been good.
I grew up in storm-prone Midwest. I had been trained long ago by a mother who had grown up in “tornado alley” Missouri before moving to mid-Michigan. I learned to go on high alert when stormy skies changed from slate grey to turbulent yellow to alarming green-black. Tornado watches were common each spring and summer. The warning siren struck panic in me as we opened up windows to alleviate pressure, then traipsed to the basement with radio and supplies to wait it out. Fortunately, no serious harm ever came to our house. And so far we’d been more or less okay in Portland. Oregon has very few tornadic cloud formations and they rarely make landfall.
Well, we had a basement here, too. Or we could hunker down in darkening rooms and hope for the best. But the more sensible and pleasant action to take was to head to our coffee shop, Peet’s. Plus, a lice of pumpkin bread or cake would rejuvenate– if the place was still open. The car could not be moved, however, as it was behind police lines. We donned raincoats and walked the few blocks, damp and wind-blown. All the way there, to our surprise, people walked and even cycled as if not too much was going on. Was there not a big storm in our area? Yes, we routinely get windy, rainy weather in fall and winter. This was different, right? Turns out, as always, it depended on where you lived. Many were battling flooding and worried over landslides. High winds in the mountains made roads impassable. In coastal towns, two tornadoes hit, heretofore unheard of. Other areas had few issues, not even power outage.
The chipper young barista listened to our small tale of woe. “Yeah, my Grandma is in the west hills and she’s out of power. Typically it takes three or four days to get it back on.” She shrugged. “She’s lived up there for decades; that’s how it is so she’s prepared.”
A bit chastened, we sat and respectively enjoyed the pumpkin bread and a marionberry scone with hot beverages in the cozy, classical music-infused shop. It wasn’t too bad to be put out of house.
I talked about about those who’d had their homes, their countrysides demolished by hurricanes so far this season in the USA and other places. Who were still homeless or trying to make do in terribly inadequate conditions, who were hungry, ill, injured. Who had died. My sending money to organizations did not alleviate the pain experienced–how much did it truly help people in the end? Our experience was nothing at all.
I recalled the few times I’d briefly experienced homelessness when a young woman. There had always been some place to take refuge, someone who could put me up a night, a bowl of soup or sandwich or even a meal shared, relatives or friends who allowed longer stays if necessary. It was uncomfortable, disheartening, scary. Humiliating at moments. But it was not even close to what the victims of monstrous weather’s vagaries must feel.
Sitting in a coffee shop with others chatting and laughing was at odds with my discomfort and a heightened sense of what is really happening to this world. But I started to breathe more easily as Marc and I talked about how to handle the night. We could rent a hotel room. We could call on relatives or even a friend. We could go back home. After close to an hour and a half, we decided to return and ascertain what had been done to restore things to more normal status. We noted it was much quieter outdoors, too. It was darker, gentler as we made our way back.
But our neighborhood block was buzzing with utility workers and impressive, active trucks, some outfitted with “cherry pickers’ to propel linemen to the pole’s top and into the trees. It appeared the worst weather had advanced in another direction. Rain had slowed to a near stop; the wind now rough up the air, as if stillness was a right result of its passing. Tree branches looked less threatening, whether or not that was so. We eased behind police tapes with approval and entered home.
The first order of business was to locate all the candles and light them up,, perhaps twenty of different sizes. Main rooms filled with a softening yellow to apricot light. We avidly watched the men work; it was so foreign to us, and garnered our respect. It took eight hours from start to finish. The crew cheered as lights came on, one room after the other, near eleven p.m. It was almost as if I could see current move, like magic, and the workers’ excitement spilled over to us. I waved and nearly ran out to hug someone but instead checked our living spaces.
We were lit up–except in the bathroom and one bedroom. And the stove top hood light and fan didn’t work. Nor the inner and outer hall lights, for that matter. But I read my recently favored novel by the light of a blue candle while propped up by my cushy pillows and drifted off, relieved.
The next day following a review by one of the owners of the building of the havoc wreaked, the errant branches was removed from a cable and the other big tree. More were deeply pruned. There were many trees uprooted by this storm, and homes damaged. The landlord was unhappy about the expense of it all, with the additional need of of an electrician to replace circuit breakers and review other issues. I later bore his incensed irritation on the phone until I offered sympathy about his troubles while also insisting he not target me with his anger. I’ve helped pay off his mortgage for many years. And those last two unhealthy sweet gums have been left to break apart, storm by storm.
On a walk we found numerous signs of wreckage, mostly strewn tree branches and other plant odds and ends, deep puddling about storm drains. It happened in a day or so; for us, it had happened in a literal flash. And I will miss the trees we continue lose. Marc’s shiny newer car had been lashed by a cable and the windshield was cracked, the roof and hood marred. Still, I pondered how one might feel to awaken to see much worse, to lose it all, and knew it had to be hell. This was distressing to a minor degree.
Weather does seem to be more treacherous everywhere (at least windy and rain storms) than years back. As a child I played Scrabble by flashlight or sang songs with my family in the fruit cellar while major thunderstorms blew. We trudged through hip- and even chest- high drifts of snow, shovels in hand as icy wind scorched cheeks and noses. Weather was nature and nature was beloved by all I knew, if occasionally anxiety-provoking. But in the past couple decades my country has gone through much with increased wildfires, droughts, hurricanes and tornadoes– and earthquakes. I happen to live in earthquake country, along a major fault line and sometimes I do think: is this the day? It all does give one pause. From earth’s beginnings weather has dictated human agendas, even survival. It is awesome to behold, at times daunting or worse.
As for today, I’m grateful for what did not occur over the week-end, for the safety and pleasures of another autumn day. For this singular moment comprised of shale skies and impetuous spittings of rain, vibrant leaves that litter streets and light up a cloudy horizon–it makes me happy. I’m blessed to sit covered with warmth, to write as I look out the window. Who can know what will blow this way next? You’re only as ready in life as you try to become; the rest may be up for grabs.