Friday night, during the days long 100+ degree heat wave, I got a call from a friend in Staunton. She was camping in her bathroom, with tornado-like winds and no power. Little did either of us know then that she was one of 1-3 million customers across a wide band of states who would be without power for the next several days, and that, indeed the winds were tornado-like, but were actually a rare weather phenomenon known as a derecho. The following morning, still with no power, she also lost her cell phone coverage, thus leaving her and many like her with no internet, tv, phone, or radio to receive outside communication, or to send it.
Late that day, with national news providing updates, I quickly and haphazardly packed a bag, and headed North to bring whatever relief I could, and the next several days became an adventure and a joy. I saw little physical destruction except for lots of fallen trees and tree limbs, but the challenges of living without electricity were apparent in every direction. Not partial to residences, the outage hit anything in the wind’s path. Traffic lights were not working, hotels were either closed down with no power or filled to no vacancy. Restaurants were either closed with no power or dealing with long lines of customers who were living in hotels or wishing they were. Some gas stations were dark. Grocery stores had perishables roped off as off-limits. Stores and gas stations lucky enough to be open were out of ice, flashlights, and batteries, which everyone needed.
But I saw something else that was quite amazing. People giving rides to strangers, a neighbor lending another neighbor her car to go to work, friends opening their homes to friends, and/or driving by to be sure they’re OK, complete strangers with nothing else to do but stand outside a restaurant or in their neighborhood street exchanging personal stories of the storm. Fascinating stories about horizontal and green lightning, about people not being able to get to their cars for days, about trees falling on houses, or trees falling on cars, even someone who baked cookies on top of her car and someone who awoke to the hissing sound of a fallen live wire and looked outside to see her car tires on fire. People who are normally far too busy to say more than a passing “good morning” to each other are now connecting and offering any kind of help they have to offer.
What a joy to be a part of such an event, where, like in the aftermath of 9-11, people forget for a time about their differences, and everyone is family. Even the closest of friends come together in new ways when faced with trying situations. These have been challenging days, but the challenges will pass, and what will remain will be special memories of pulling together and learning to laugh despite life’s unexpected detours.
This week has reminded me of the big ice storm of 2002, which memorably hit on my birthday, when I was among the thousands without power. By the second day, the inside of my house was as wintry cold as the ice-covered world outside, and there was no way I was venturing out in my car onto that ice. To the rescue, however, came some wonderful friends who took me in, not knowing they too would lose power soon after. So we camped inside their house, with a kerosene heater, and I still have the happiest memories of our time together.
I’ve witnessed in other cultures that it’s humanly possible to exist day to day as one big family. Rural Hondurans and Ecuadorians who had no electricity, running water, or personal valuables, but they were rich in family and neighbor relationships. The Pennsylvania Amish working together to raise their barns and live off the land. My own family in previous generations, working together with neighbors to harvest each other’s tobacco crops or shuck the corn. Hard work, fun times, special memories. But for us with all our busyness and our hunger for bigger and better accumulations, I think the best we can do is to look forward to those unexpected bad times when we will slow down and be reminded that somehow, mysteriously we are all connected.