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Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Show me the light(s)

One of the great ironies of working for the Foreign Service is that you stand a greater chance, statistically speaking, of getting killed here in Washington, D.C. than you would in some dangerous Third World hotspot. Now it appears that the same holds true when it comes to a stable supply of electricity. In many overseas posts, electricity isn't always guaranteed, but after 74 hours without power, starting from around 10:45 p.m. last Friday and lasting until 11:50 p.m. last (Monday) night, the situation in northern Virginia isn't that much better, either.

The cause of our three-day outage was a sudden, violent storm called a derecho that struck this area without warning late Friday evening. The combination of wind, lightning and rain knocked over a number of trees and downed power lines across a wide area of northern Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia. Upwards of a million people were without electricity at one point, and as I write this, there are still people suffering through the stifling heat without any power. Here is the view of the derecho from our apartment balcony:

This video was taken after the wind and rain had downed down somewhat, but the lightning continued to increase in intensity after I had stopped filming. And as you can see, the power had already gone out.

At first, everyone assumed the outage would only be temporary, but by the following morning, as the temperature started to climb and the radio was reporting the true extent of the damage, it became a race against time to salvage what we could from the fridge before everything spoiled (first priority was the beer, of course). Our lunch on Saturday consisted of everything that could be grilled in the outdoor BBQ-pit area (the propane for the grills was exhausted by the late afternoon). Then came trips to whatever stores were open (Safeway was closed, for example) to buy non-refrigerated items such as Spam and bread (our Saturday dinner consisted of peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches and raw carrots). We also filled up several empty milk jugs with tap water, which turned out to be a smart move as warnings were issued the following day against drinking it. The water did remain flowing throughout the weekend, but the lack of electricity meant having to take cold showers. In some respects, having the electricity go out during a heat wave, as opposed to a snow storm, was a blessing...of sorts.

In truth, while it was inconvenient not having power for three days, it was just that - an inconvenience. The biggest challenge was finding something to do to fight the boredom. On Saturday evening, the three of us took a walk around the neighborhood, surveying the damage. Downed trees and power lines could be seen everywhere:

The lack of lights and air conditioning didn't seem to bother my daughter much - she had a great time that evening catching fireflies. You can see one on her hands:

The power outage caught us unprepared, as we didn't have any candles or a flashlight. A trip to Target took care of that problem. The cheapest candles had Jesus pictured on them, but my wife opted for the Dove of Peace to show us the light:

The view from our balcony of the darkened apartment complex:

What was really frustrating was that the swimming pool was closed throughout the weekend, as the lack of electricity meant the pumps couldn't work. If you look in the photo above, you can see some lights on in another apartment building on the left. That complex was across the street from ours, and had full power restored by Sunday evening, whereas we were left in the dark for another night and the following day. Our area appeared to be one of the last to have the lights turned on - even the cemetery next door had its juice back on before us!

Speaking of the cemetery, one of the biggest victims of Friday's storm could be seen on its grounds:

This has nothing to do with the storm or its aftermath, but while I was in the cemetery I couldn't help but notice this tombstone:

So, how do you kill the time for three days when there's no electricity? You locate places where the power is still on or has been restored, and make your way over there, by car or Metro. We spent time in shopping malls, having cooked meals and enjoying the air conditioning:

Amber proved impervious to the heat and misery, though she was as happy as everyone else to wake up this morning (Tuesday) to full power. Yesterday, she even went out bike riding in the afternoon heat:

So now life is back to normal. Obviously, we're going to have to prepare ourselves better for the next time there's a power failure, which won't be a long time coming, if recent history is any guide. In the meantime, welcome back my good friend Electricity - we'll never take you for granted again!

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