It’s amazing what a swath of destruction the Halloween Blizzard wrought. I’m hard-put to identify what the worst of it was. It’s easier to say what the worst of it wasn’t. This was not a storm with a huge death-toll. This was not a storm that caused massive damage to buildings. It was not a storm that washed away or otherwise destroyed lots and lots and lots of building and roads. In that sense, we got off very lightly, and I’m grateful for that, and everyone I know is grateful for that.
Still, it caused a lot of other types of damage.
It killed a lot of trees. The trees that the heavy, unseasonal snow brought down were not deadfall. They were not diseased. Those are the kind of trees one expects to come down in a storm. The trees that this storm brought down – in addition to Mother Nature’s Pruning – were thriving, healthy, big trees. Trees in the prime of life, as it were. Big, beautiful trees. Trees that you might have noticed when they were alive as providing a beautiful canopy. Trees that you certainly notice by their new, stark absence. This place isn’t like Texas, where the trees for the most part are sparse, scrubby, short, gnarled, and do a poor job of providing shade. We have huge forests in my area, partly because of the availability of much more rainwater than one sees in Texas, but largely, I think, due to the dedicated and long-term conservation efforts of the citizens of this region. Development in this area is typically concentrated, more high-density than I’m used to from home. It’s not spread out. There is little or no sprawl in this area. You’re either in a town, or you’re in the countryside, and there’s not a lot of mistaking which it is. As a result, when you look at this area from the air (and I have plenty of experience doing that) it’s hard to tell that there are nearly a million people in the region. What you see from the air, mainly, is trees. So – due to the factors that I’ve been bitching about with the weather, late onset of fall, etc. – there were a lot of leaves on those trees, and a lot of load-bearing surface for massive quantities of wet, pasty snow, and lots of trees going down for the count.
The corpses of the trees have been littering our thoroughfares. Repair crews from the power and phone companies flooded into the area – many of them with workers borrowed from other parts of the country – directly after the storm, and after about 2 weeks, they’d gotten the bodies cleared off the phone and power wires. The public works crews worked non-stop until they got the bodies cleared from the main lanes of the roads. So now, virtually all of the roads are passable, and everyone has power again, but there are still a lot of dismembered limbs littering the road shoulders, the sidewalks, the yards, hanging down from still-living bodies, and leaning up against houses. I do, still, have to be unusually alert when driving, because I never know when I’m going to come round a bend and find a huge pile of bristly branches abutting my lane – and if I’ve drifted too near the outside stripe, these things will cause me to wreck my car. Now that the Immediate Responders have come and gone, what’s left is the arborists, the landscaping crews, three guys and a pickup truck, dumptrucks, wood chippers, and other various and sundry pieces of large equipment that park in an entire lane of the road while accomplishing the job of turning the victims into mulch.
The damage was so extensive that despite the best efforts of thousands of workers, it took the better part of two weeks to restore power to everyone who lost it. At my house, we were lucky. Our property line abuts the high-density commercial zone and we’re only two blocks from the police station and the fire station, and one block from the city’s main street. Those areas – along with the hospitals and nursing homes, of course – appear to have been the priority for the restoration crews (with good reason, too – having all of the street lights out on the major thoroughfare for anyone wanting to access the towns between I-91 and the state line with New York was distinctly hazardous). So we were without power only for two days. Most of the people we knew were without power for a full week. Many of my students live in Connecticut, which just went through this in September with Irene – the same area got monstrously walloped again. I joked with a colleague who lives that that it must have felt like the power had just come on again when it got knocked out at Halloween.
I was not surprised to see Letters to the Editor popping up almost immediately (well, immediately after power was generally restored) with a few common themes:
1. The utility companies were incompetent! They didn’t restore power to my street for 8 days! We should do something to punish them. This one has a second version: the utility companies are horrible! They came out to take the branches off the lines, and they didn’t clean up a branch that was next to the lines! They were already removing limbs, why couldn’t they have cleared my sidewalk while they were at it! (Because, of course, your sidewalk is the only one that had a tree down on it, and it is more important for the workers to clear your walk than to restore power to your neighbors on the next block?)
2. The utility companies are heroes! They worked 24/7 to get our power back as soon as they could! Hurray! (Heroes? Hard workers getting paid lots of overtime, and generally decent citizens, but heroes? I don’t know about that.)
3. We should never have lost power at all! In Civilized Areas (like Texas, I presume?) the power lines are all buried! Ours are all above the ground where they can get damaged by ice and falling trees! Bury them now! (I’d be willing to bet that most of the people singing this tune would be start sending Nastygrams to the Editor as soon as they saw what that kind of capital investment would do to their monthly power bills as the costs got passed through.)
and 4. This just shows how dependent we are on electricity! Back in the day they weren’t this dependent! We should be working to get less dependent! (and a whole lot of other moralizing, usually).
I find all of these bizarre. I’m not sure why they’re taking the form of a Letter to the Editor in the first place.
The authors of Stock Comment #1 display an awe-inspiring, breath-taking sense of entitlement, self-absorption, and privilege, as well as a complete ignorance of how businesses operate.
The authors of Stock Comment #2 display a charming naivete, but at least they’re not coming off as total jackasses.
The authors of Stock Comment #3 show a little good sense – I, myself, am accustomed to buried power lines, and it was absolutely shocking to me when I moved up here and saw power lines out above the road, with wires coming off them and stuck to the house. It just seemed so…rickety and unsafe. Not that I have any reason to believe it’s unsafe, because I don’t know jack about these things. It was a weird visceral reaction. So I share the believe that – given the nature of the events that cause power failures here – it would have been a good idea to have buried lines. But – and this is a pretty big “but” – the average building in this area is a lot older than the average building in Texas, but a factor of a century at least, and I’m pretty sure if the technology had existed when these power lines were laid, they’d have buried them. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that a wire hung 20 feet above the ground is going to be a lot more susceptible to damage from ice storms than a wire buried 10 feet under ground. So, yeah, buried power lines would be great. Problem is, doing that would mean ripping up a lot of streets, sidewalks, and a few houses, because houses here are a helluva lot closer to the road and to each other than they are in places that have buried power lines. I don’t know that it’s doable and even if it is, I’m sure it would be expensive as hell. And someone has to pay for that. Like, the customer. I can’t see enough people being enough long-sighted to be willing to shuck out that kind of semolians to bury the power lines. I give it no more than three years for people to pretty much forget this whole event.
The authors of Stock Comment #4 – which I should say is the most common of all these Stock Comments display a highly unattractive combination of self-righteous ignorance. Duh, dudes. People back in the day wouldn’t have been so inconvenienced by the freak storm and the power outages…because a lot of them would be dead. They’d have died when their flimsy house got nailed by a fallen tree. They’d have died of exposure when their woodpiles gave out, because the storm hit early and hard, before all the winter stocks were in. A bunch of them would have died earlier this fall in the flooding, and then later from starvation because the hurricane hit in the middle of the harvest. And even with our space-age satellite technology, highly sophisticated computer modeling, and 24/7 rapid-update information net, we were stil caught by surprise by this thing. How much more so without that? I was out and about before the storm hit, and if I had not known better, I might have thought that the mountains would have caught a little early-season snow. And possibly that we might have seen a flurry if the temperature dropped another 5 degrees. But I would not – even with a good quantity of experience and a smart weather-eye – have anticipated two feet of wet snow. Nor, I suspect, would the people back in the day. The freak spring blizzard in 1888 killed 400 people. There is no point in the history of freak snowstorms that they don’t cripple the community.
If you want to know what unexpected major storms do to populations that aren’t dependent upon electricity (and all that implies), just watch the footage of any major storm that hits a third-world country. Or read Little House On The Prairie.
The authors of Stock Comment #4, however, appear to believe that there is some Golden Age where we were less technologically dependent, and where a freak, major, out-of-season blizzard was a cause for cuddling up by the fire and getting in an intergenerational hand of cards or doing some knitting by candlelight…instead of this event being a cause of panic, fear, destruction of property, major damage to the food supply, and crippling the infrastructure for weeks, if not months. Oh, wait. That would be today. Everyone I know who has trees close to the house spent a very uncomfortable few nights listening to creakings and the crashings of falling timber, and thinking “Oh, no, what did that just destroy?”
On the scale, my Personal Misery quote is pretty low. We have one tree near the house, and it’s an evergreen – designed, as it were, to shed snow. It didn’t fall. We didn’t have any structural, or even cosmetic damage to the house. We got our power back fast. We were able to host friends for dinner and heat who didn’t have it. None of this is due to any characteristic of personal superiority (other than a taste for very urban living). We were lucky. We were fortunate. We benefited by proximity to socially-important stuff.
That is not to say that we escaped entirely unscathed. I’m teaching a major overload right now. My contract calls for teaching six sections in an academic year. Right now, due to the rising popularity of the graduate program in which I teach, I am effectively teaching five of those six sections right now. All of them feature a substantial online component, and four of them are almost entirely online. All of which means that when I was knocked off-line, it was a problem for a hundred other people, many of whom were also knocked off-line. Mine isn’t the only class any of them are taking, either. The power outage, all by itself, threw my schedule for all of the classes into chaos, and has totally disorganized things for me. I’m giving out assignment extensions like lemon drops – a very unusual occurrence. Just now I had to completely revise the schedule for the rest of the term for one of my classes, due to the impossibility of the students making the (original) revised deadlines. Nature just rose right up like a giant fly swatter and WHAPPED us all right properly.
What is surprising to me is how long it’s taking to get this piece of it sorted. I’ve been through natural disasters before, so I know how disruptive the can be. But this is the first time I’ve gone through a natural disaster with oversight responsibility for a hundred other people. It’s completely insane how much more complicated that makes everything.
From the perspective of a professor (or college student) this thing couldn’t have happened at a worse time, either. November (and April) is when the ka-ka really starts hitting the fan, academically. It’s the time when we’re far enough into the term to have dispensed with any review or overview material, and are starting to really dig into the challenging material for the course. It’s the time when students who have fallen badly behind still feel that there might be enough time left in the term to catch back up. By December, that dream has faded, but right now, it’s still viable. It’s the time when students realize that they need to get cracking on term projects. It’s the time when the second mid-term exam – for classes that have one – is held. In short, college students are usually on Maximum Stress Load at this point in the term anyway. I remember the corresponding point in the spring term a year or so ago, I left my classroom to get a drink of water, and encountered an undergraduate in a wife-beater and boxer shorts racing through the hallways carrying a pizza box. At 2:30 in the afternoon. Kind of says it all, really.
So to take a bunch of students who are already starting to red-line on stress, and then knock them totally out of contact with their professors, render them unable to do homework that requires computer and internet access, rend them from Facebook…for a week or more…has had the predictable result of detonating the Ultimate Stress Bomb in the classroom. These days, I consider it a good day if I only have 2 students go to pieces. It’s a great day if it’s only one. And now, there’s a further predictable phenomenon, as the students are starting to get sick. They’re getting sick from the stress, and from not enough sleep and too much contact with other stressed-out students. Dorms are giant Plague Ships under the best of circumstances, and these are hardly that.
I’m getting reluctant to check my work e-mail, because I know it’s going to be full of distress. I’m cutting endless quantities of slack because, really, I’m not teaching brain surgery. I’m not teaching anything that’s got to be taught-and-learned-completely-without-error-right-this-very-moment and no chances for getting it later. But it’s easy for me to say that, I don’t have to worry about my GPA or my graduate school admissions test or the CPA exam. I have a lot of sympathy for these guys…first the hurricane and then the blizzard and now the economy, and then who knows what next. I hate it that they’re having to deal with all that stuff on top of the ordinary mondo stress of demanding college courses.
At the same time, I can say with Perfect and Total Honesty: Yea, verily, enough. I cannot wait until this semester is over.