Derecho Diary

By Qin Sun Stubis

“Crows have flocked to our area,” Karen, my neighbor across the street, said to me as she surveyed the sky one day in early July. “We have had all sorts of birds here in Bethesda, but never crows.”

As I listened, I thought about Thomas Hardy, a 19th-century English novelist, who often used ominous signs as precursors to disasters.

While a student of English literature, I used to joke about his dramatic writing style, once describing a blood-stained newspaper prior to a murderous event. Hardy is having the last laugh, though, for soon events unfolded in a way he himself might have contrived.

That night, the sky came alive and the heavens opened up. Lightning arced from cloud to cloud in a circle surrounding us like a giant necklace made of live sparks, a phenomenon that I later learned was called a “ring of fire.” My family and I gathered in front of a window and marveled in awe. We had never witnessed such constant lightning, which flashed nonstop without making a sound. The flickering became so intense our eyes hurt and the room lit up and vibrated like a disco ball.

Soon, the wind started and quickly picked up speed. Three 70-foot trees in front of our house bowed in submission, shaking and twisting faster and ever more violently. We retreated, horrified by the possibility that those giants could snap like twigs at any moment and land on top of us. Then slashing rain came down, thick as fog, bouncing back high in the air as if the water drops were rubber balls.

The whole scene was surreal. I felt as if I were witnessing the birth of the universe. Soon the lights in our house started to flicker, mimicking the lightning outside before they died out. We waited, but they didn’t come back on. We knew the power was out and stood in the dark waiting for the storm to subside.

It was not until the next day that we learned we were hit by a derecho, a “straight” version of a tornado, a long and destructive thunderstorm powered by the jet stream. Violent as a hurricane, it traveled 700 miles in ten hours and left behind a path of destruction before it sailed out into the Atlantic Ocean. A large portion of Maryland, Virginia, and Washington D.C. lost electricity and phones. Millions of residents in our nation’s capital area accustomed to steering the political, economic, and judicial course of this powerful nation, were abruptly consigned to a state more typical for the poor in third-world countries, with-out light, communication, or air-conditioning during a record summer heat wave.

I waited hopefully and patiently, staring out the window facing the street. It took me more than two days to spot a utility company truck passing by. And, for a brief moment, I thought I heard the sound of a chainsaw. Or, was it my imagination? I picked up my cell phone to call the power company, only to find the network down.

More than five days would pass before our power was restored. During those many, long, suffocating hours, the food in our fridge turned into garbage, and our living room sofas into our beds. The only relief we could find was in a cold shower.

Our experience with the derecho, something I’d never even heard of, makes me think about how delicately our modern lives are balanced on one single element that we’ve come to depend on and take for granted–electricity. All it takes is a simple act of nature to pull the plug on us, and our lives are derailed, taking away our comforts and privileges.

The final irony came one day as I sat in the sweltering heat and sorted through the various letters in my daily mail, among them an electric bill.

You can always reach me at qstubis@gmail.com

Qin Stubis, a Bethesda, MD resident, is a regular columnist.

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