How to Destroy a Modern City

One week ago, on Monday, January 26th, our local weather forecasters started spending a lot of energy on a flurry of updates regarding their forecast for Monday night and Tuesday.  “Road Crews Prepare for Winter’s Fury” read one headline in our paper, The Courier & Press.  Winter’s fury?  Were they serious?  Let’s bear in mind that Evansville, while not quite a southern city, is seldom dumped on by snow.  We receive, according to the chamber of commerce, a total of eight inches of snow per year, but even that is misleading, since those eight inches typically arrive in small one- and two-inch doses, with complete melting betweenwhiles.

Needless to say, I was not especially concerned.  Still, the consistency of the reporting––the updates focusing not on severity but on exact totals and timing––did slowly catch my attention.  I made sure we had a few days’ worth of groceries on hand, picked up my children from school, and enjoyed the remainder of the day.  At about my bed time (elevenish), a light snow did begin to fall, but it didn’t last; I thought we might even have school the next day, despite the fact that the Evansville-Vanderburgh School Corporation has been known to cancel school based solely on forecasts (and erroneous ones at that), leaving all the city’s children at home with not a snowflake in sight.

Tuesday dawned not snowy but wet.  Freezing rain spat from the skies all day, and slowly but surely, the ice began to take over.  Branches sagged; trees tipped.  Footing and roadways turned slick.  Even so, this was hardly newsworthy.  The promised snow and sleet consistently failed to arrive.

This all changed after dark, when the rain turned to sleet, and then, with a certain wintry glee, back to freezing rain.

The first limb to fall was a white pine branch.  It landed on my neighbor’s utility shed with a booming crunch that sent me scurrying out of the basement at about ten p.m.  I discovered my cable and power lines lying slack in the branches of our crepe myrtle, looking like long strands of icy black spaghetti.  I phoned our neighbor, Cindy Witmeier, told her what had happened, and asked her to inform her husband, Gary, who works for Vectren.  (Vectren is our local power company.)  “He’s already out,” she said, meaning he was on the job, at work, “and probably will be all night, but I’ll tell him.”

Pleasantly surprised that I still had power in the house, I got ready for bed.  Still no snow.

I woke, at two twenty-three a.m., to a loud and accelerating groaning sort of crash.  Assuming we were about to get hit by the massive black maple in the back yard, I leaped across the bed onto Diane, yelling her name at the same moment.  What good this might have done, I’m not sure, but in that groggy moment of instantaneous waking, it’s what my danger sense told me to do.  Well, it wasn’t the black maple toppling but a much smaller, ice-encrusted dogwood just outside our bedroom window.  From what I know of the previous owners (and now from the tree rings), I’d say the dogwood was pushing into its fifth decade.  Now it’s pushing up the daisies.

The dogwood did not split.  It simply upended, root base and all.  The upshot of this mighty crash was that neither Diane nor I got back to sleep for at least an hour.  We might have slept sooner but for the continued crashing noises from outside––glassy slitherings first, then mighty whumps of impact––as our ash tree started coming apart, limb by limb.

And still, judging by my peek out the window to see the defeated dogwood, no snow.

When next I woke, jolted from dreams by another huge glittery crash of a falling tree, I tried to see what time it was, but the clock wasn’t in view.  Very sleepy, I demanded of Diane, “What did you do with the clock?”  Nothing, as it turned out.  We’d lost power.  Back to sleep.  Deal with that in the morning.

On waking, the boys were ecstatic to see the mounds of new snow, and equally happy to be told there wouldn’t be school.  (For once, I didn’t even have to check; it was that obvious.)  I got up, determined we still had no power, and bundled the boys into warm clothes.  We had hot water, which was nice, but that was all.  Once we were all up, the question became how to keep ourselves warm, possibly for several days, and how to deal with our tropical fish.

We have four fish.  They don’t like massive temperature swings, but I nevertheless proceeded to empty a third of their tank and to pour in steaming water in an effort to get their tank back up from its current low of sixty-nine degrees to its gold standard of eighty.  I succeeded, then wrapped the tank, by way of insulation, in just about every bath towel we own.  We then set off, with a toy- and food-laden 6,800 cubic inch backpack loaded on to me, bound for the University of Evansville’s newly built Ridgeway Center, where we were assured they not only had power but “normal operations,” which meant a dining hall with food.

The walk over showed increasingly bad news.  This wasn’t just our yard or our block that had been hit by nature’s “fury.”  Several cars lay under large trees, including a red Saturn belonging to our friends the Meachams, and Walnut Avenue, a designated emergency service route that is supposedly always kept clear, was solid white with a single lane of ill-made tire tracks down its center.  The traffic lights were out.  Not a single house showed a light on anywhere.

The Ridgeway’s food service wasn’t quite as up and running as we’d been told.  The coffee shop was closed for want of staff, as was the information booth.  Half of the food kiosks were deserted.  The college students present seemed oblivious; their dorms, and the university in general, had power.

Day One passed in the game room area, with my children getting far too much television and computer gaming.  (On the plus side, they practiced ad nauseum their billiards skills, which are sadly lacking.)  Two other refugee families joined us, and by and large, the building proved to be an excellent shelter, certainly better by far than a tent in Darfur or a seat in the Louisiana Superdome.  Along the way, I trudged home to collect some tools and, together with five others, effect a rescue of the Meacham’s car.  It sported a dented roof but not much other damage.  Another woman I passed along the way informed me her entire windscreen was gone.

The car rescue gave me a chance to fire up my chain saw, a purchase I’d made last spring to deal with a pesky crepe myrtle.  The saw had stalled out on the next to last branch, and I’d made no attempt to re-start it.  Somewhat cowed by its difficult starting procedure, I hadn’t wanted to have anything to do with it since.  Now, however, and with the entire technical staff of the University of Evansville’s theater staff on hand, I gave it another go.  It started.  I wondered if I would shortly be missing a leg, and bent to the task at hand.  Turns out, chain-sawing isn’t so bad.  Just watch the wood; it’ll tell you what’s about to happen.  Kickback.  Binding.  All that.  The bottom line: The invention of the chain saw is surely one of technology’s most practical boons.  With just two saws and six pairs of hands, we had that car cleared in under fifteen minutes.  Given that it had begun the day with one third of a vintage silver maple splayed all over it, this seems to me to be quite impressive.

Each of the Ridgeway families elected to try sleeping at home rather than bedding down at the university, heat or no.  I walked back with the boys (Diane had rehearsal and had to stay on campus; some things are never interrupted), and to my great surprise and delight, we discovered on arriving that our power had been restored.  Remarkable, especially given that the pine tree’s opening salvo still lay atop both my and my neighbor’s power lines.  Our four frigid fish certainly appreciated the renewed heat; I’d had to dump hot water on them again at midday, in an act I referred to as “reheating the leftover fish.”

Our phone line had now joined the power lines on the ground, and it lay looped like a snake in the snow, with massive sections of the ash tray sprawled all over it.  Even so, the phones still worked.

I then made a mistake.  I assumed, in the midst of my children-go-to-bed duties, that if I had power, so did everyone else.  I called the Meachams and left a message telling them we had lights and heat, but that was my only overture toward rescuing anyone else.

Next morning, I learned that I had left a message not on a machine but on a remote answering service; the service had power, but the Meachams did not.  I also learned we’d had an overnight house guest, Jeremy Winchester, UE’s lighting designer.  By nine a.m., we had far more refugees than just Jeremy.  We had the entire Meacham family, Maryann O’Connor (Karen Meacham’s mother), the entire Renschler family, and all of us.  That’s a total of eleven extra bodies.  The mayor had now officially declared a state of emergency and asked everyone to stay off the roads.  We gathered from Vectren that power “might” be restored to “most” homes by the “middle of next week.”

A blow by blow account would take sixty pages, so I will say this: We hosted many, many people by day on both Wednesday and Thursday, somewhat fewer on Friday and Saturday, and began to empty the hotel on Sunday, as various people, house by house, got their power back.  As of last night, only one guest of the Hotel Spring, at which I am chief concierge, remained: Jeremy.

A word, then, about changes of clothes.  In winter, when I almost never sweat, I often wear the same shirts and sweaters and so on for two days at a time.  Thus, without really thinking about it, what I wore on Monday went right back on for Tuesday.  Because it was dependably dark on Wednesday (no power, remember), I threw on the same layers all over again.  Two of these layers were pretty dressy, owing to a meeting downtown from Monday with (ironically) the city’s Director of Transportation and Services.  This led to my getting my first taste of real chain-saw work while wearing a very pricey gray cashmere sweater.  It has survived nicely.  The wood chips come right off, further justifying its initial expense, although yes, I admit to wearing a coat over top.

I estimate that I have hauled and carried some three thousand pounds of wood since last Wednesday, possibly more.  At least three quarters of that was in our yard.

I ventured out on Friday.  Out, that is, by car.  I had a number of eBay-related boxes to mail, also an issue with the bank that demanded my presence.  (Diane’s card had been used in Lebanon––the nation, not the Ohio city of the same name––to the tune of five hundred dollars.)  So out I went.  Driving in rutted snow is fun, hardly worth mentioning, but I was struck as I went by how little debris had been removed from the roadways.  By the time I reached the intersection of Southeast Boulevard and Rotherwood, where we used to live, I was downright angry.  The entire street was closed from a tremendous downfall of trees and branches, but not one of these was sufficiently large that an able-bodied human couldn’t have shifted them out of the way.   Where were the homeowners?  Where was the city?  Surely not everyone on Southeast Boulevard is a senior citizen or a child?  Just how easily are we willing, we Evansvillians, to surrender our city?

The bank manager who handled my case was living at her son-in-law’s house along with nine other adults, several children, and a good number of dogs.  My friend Ann, whom I’d called to check on earlier, had nine adults and eleven dogs.  Her house is not large.

At the post office, one of the two tellers on duty ran out of change.  His cohort, Dave, whom I know somewhat (we both have kids named Evan), told him he’d have to “run out to the bank,” apparently because the usual managerial staff hadn’t made it in.  The teller responded with “I’m not making a run to any bank,” slammed down his “Next Window Please” sign and stormed out of the room.  Just as I reached the front of the line, the man stomped back in, announcing to the room in general, “I’m out of here.  I’m out of here for like a week.”  And sure enough, he left.

The man behind me in line was angry with Vectren.  Vectren built a multi-million dollar facility downtown two years ago; it is one of Evansville’s largest, tallest and most lavish buildings.   My line-mate put it this way: “What really gripes me is you can’t account nothin’ there.”  The fact that the building is a corporate office and not a pay-station did not seem to him to be a salient point.  No doubt both he and the fuming postal worker were both spending a lot of time at home in sub-zero temperatures.

And it was cold, too.  The morning all this began, it was sixteen degrees.  It went right back down to sixteen on Friday, and never rose above the freezing mark until late Saturday afternoon.

On the way back from my postal excursion, I drove over several long extension cords spanning the streets.  The houses on one side had power, the houses on the other did not; the extension cords powered, presumably, space heaters and a light or two.

The roads were in poor shape until late Wednesday (and most side roads are still like a slalom as I write this, but then side roads have always been beyond the scope of road-clearing equipment down here).  A newspaper reporter, asking about the state of the roads, got this quote from a highway official: “We can’t do anything about the side roads because it’s in the concrete.”   By “it,” I assume he meant sleet and ice.  It makes me wonder why the city spent so much money on their much-ballyhooed “pre-treatment” of all the roads back on Monday, before the storm.  It obviously didn’t work.  Perhaps next time they could spend the money on post hoc sand instead?

Everywhere I’ve been, power lines lie on the ground in tangles.  The same goes for phone lines and our era’s ubiquitous cable TV lines.  I did see one worker up on a pole and thought, “Oh, good, it’s Vectren.”  No dice.  The worker’s truck identified him as being from Insight Communications; his goal, then, was to restore all-important cable service to his frigid Tri-State fellows.

Late on Thursday afternoon, I encountered my neighbor, Cindy Witmeier, out shoveling her driveway.  Recall that her husband, Gary, works for Vectren.  He is, so he tells me, a “line worker” or “lineman,” meaning he repairs and sets up the actual power lines for Vectren’s energy distribution.  I asked Cindy how Gary was holding up and she said, “He’s asleep.”  Small wonder.  He’d put in a mighty long opening shift.  Nevertheless, and despite the Herculean efforts of men like Gary, the comments I heard out in the world were uniformly negative towards Vectren, as if Vectren as a whole had either conspired to cause the power outage or was somehow in the business of intentionally perpetuating it.  If the papers are to be believed, Vectren claims that this storm is the worst natural disaster ever to hit the area, leaving at least 75,000 households without power.  Evansville’s population is only about 140,000, with 200,000 in its “metro” region; by my estimates, this storm left over three quarters of the area’s homes without power for at least part of this past week.   Across the river in Kentucky, Governor Steve Beshear claims this storm to be the worst natural disaster ever to hit the state at large, and as evidence of this, the small city of Madisonville has been completely evacuated, its residents told not to expect a return home for at least a month

So here stands Vectren, scrambling to turn the lights back on, and the hand that feeds it (the people) starts biting back.  A letter in today’s paper reports that Vectren employees standing in line to buy a lunchtime sandwich were harassed for taking a break instead of working.  Frustrated people always evince tunnel vision.  Still, the nay-sayers were right about one thing: Vectren clearly needed help.  They got it.  Convoys of repair trucks began arriving on Thursday.  One person I spoke with said she saw a line of forty trucks coming in from the north (Chicago and Michigan), and the official count of out-of-region workers still on the job as of this morning was four hundred.  Company logos I’ve spotted include Nesco, Serco, Henkels & McCoy, INDOT and USDOT––the cavalry of our electrified age.

Reports began filtering in on Thursday that the Red Cross had overflowed as a shelter, and the National Guard had been activated to round up those who had, for whatever reason, been abandoned in their unheated homes.  I saw no evidence of the Guard until late Friday afternoon when, on a short drive to take Corey to an already postponed birthday party, he and I did see a lone camouflaged Humvee stopped at a light.  The birthday party, held at a sort of Chuck-E-Cheese restaurant/arcade called Gatti Town, was not well attended.  Most of the boys were missing, and the mother of the birthday girl not only thanked me for bringing Corey, she sounded downright relieved that we’d put in an appearance.  Gatti Town, possibly the loudest place in Evansville outside of the airport, was almost pleasant that afternoon, with perhaps one sixth of its usual population scarfing pizza and diving headlong into computer generated mayhem.

Gatti Town was not the only deserted locale.  The outdoors itself remained all but unused for the first days after the storm, even by those children who, like mine, had been pining for a proper snowfall for years.  The cold was startling, perhaps, and the consistency of the snow was also disappointing, with powder on top and sheets of hard-packed ice beneath.  Useless stuff by any standard.  And then there was the very real danger of falling limbs.  Trees kept right on crashing down through Thursday noon.  But, by late Thursday, it was finally possible to make a snowball.  I took full advantage, happily assaulting five of the six children stationed at our house.  Had the battle remained a united front, adult against children, all would have been well, but it wasn’t long before the supposed allies turned on one another, capriciously ignoring me while sneaking up on each other.  One boy, after getting a snowball in the face from his sister, yelled an indignant “I hate you!”  I shamed him into a quick recovery by pointing out that while his sister probably shouldn’t be aiming for his head, he did not appear to have suffered any permanent damage, and that he was hardly the first to take a snowball in the nose.  The battle raged on.  I won.

A cheerful Thursday night fire in our refurbished fireplace turned into a bizarre disaster when we discovered water leaking into the basement, not from the walls or up from the drains, where such things might be reasonably expected, but directly down from the guest room ceiling.  This was doubly awkward as the guest room was very much in use as a guest room, with the entire Meacham clan already bedding down for the night.  I tramped outside, set up a ladder, and started smashing icicles off the roof, thinking that maybe the ice on the roof was somehow backing up and sending water under the shingles and tarpaper.  As I stood atop my ladder, flailing around with my snow shovel, a very impotent thing to do while on a ladder, in the cold, next to a roof, I realized I could actually see a patch of bare shingling, adjacent––of course––to the chimney stack.  My cheerful and welcoming fire had melted a section of ice, sent it downhill against an unmelted ice dam, and the resultant fifth-column pond was now doing its level best to destroy my ceiling from within.

I tossed my shovel to the ground, leaped off my ladder, and raced inside to fill a bucket.  Armed with the half-full bucket, I doused our cheerful fire as fast as I could, sending clouds of ash and steam all over the living room.  My quick action did require some clean-up, but it was worth it; the drip did not saturate the drywall, as I’d feared it would, and the ceiling still stands.  What suffered in the end was the homey atmosphere of a crackling fire on the hearth.  Our guests, already deprived in so many ways, were once again forced to live without.

In my role as concierge, I did make lunches, but others provided crock pots of soup for all-out suppers, and I never felt over-worked.  (Not that I got any of my own work accomplished, but then, neither did anyone else.)  Plugs and cords kept me busiest.  Everyone over the age of nine now comes equipped with iPods, cell phones and laptops; in order to get work done or stay in touch with colleagues, we lean heavily on our gizmos and gadgets, and since everyone who stayed with us lacked power at home, they arrived in need of immediate recharging.  The number one worry on the way in our door was not “Where is my next meal coming from?” but “Is there someplace I can plug in my phone?”  One iPod cord remains, abandoned, looking lonely and limp in a corner of the sun room.

The issue of dogs grew larger as the interior temperatures dropped.  Maryann O’Connor has two dogs, both small, and Diane remains highly allergic.  We offered the garage, which it is possible to heat in a feeble way by turning on the microwave; the vent leads straight out into the garage.  The dogs did spend a day out there, in Maryann’s car, and seemed not to mind.  I suspect they enjoyed the smell of cooked food more than the heat itself.

My work with Congregations Acting for Justice and Empowerment stopped in its tracks.  My co-chair disappeared, our local organizer moved in with her future father in-law (he had heat, she did not), and my ability to organize my thoughts and time for productive work evaporated.  Not so the redoubtable Elzie McBride, who in the midst of the storm went right on calling up Human Resources managers on Evansville’s north side to survey them about the potential usefulness of expanded bus service.  Elzie called me on Thursday, asking esoteric questions about fax numbers and the timing of a second, follow-up survey.  I said, “Elzie, you never lost power, did you?”  No, he responded, he hadn’t.  And so it went across the city.  My friends Howard and Shannon, who live far out on the north side and had not been in to the city limits since Tuesday––and why should they, with work and school both shut down––had no idea how many people had been affected.  They’d never lost power themselves.  So it goes with homo sapiens: We are hard wired to see only our own condition, and it is only with great effort that we look beyond our immediate circle, no matter how empathetic we may pride ourselves on being.

To a large though not exclusive degree, this storm was the province and problem of the rich.  Power lines didn’t fall exclusively from ice, they fell when fallen on––by trees.  Downtown apartment complexes and subsidized housing have few if any trees.  Adjacent (poor) neighborhoods have houses packed tightly together with little room for trees.  Those areas generally lost power briefly or not at all.  Only in the middle class and wealthy neighborhoods do trees have space to flourish and mature, and it is those places that are still under repair today.  Massive trees are a source of pride in this city––we boast the state’s largest cherry bark oak, also a record-setting linden––but I predict that in spring, a good many of the largest behemoths will be coming down at the direct order of their “owners.”  Evansville had an ice storm last winter, too, and over the summer we suffered the wrath of “Hurricane” Ike; trees are fast becoming turncoats, fair-weather wolves in leafy sheep’s clothing.

Generally, the weather remained cloudy until Saturday’s sodden melt, which put a consistent dent in the potential for spectacular natural lighting.  The image of headlights coming over an otherwise darkened hill top and catching the ice in the branches above was startling, and Friday morning began with a brief gleam of coral pink in the tree tops.  Chain link fences running east-west got an eye-catching facelift: The freezing rain, as it fell, painted the fencing in diagonal and irregular swaths, making each section its own unique artwork.

The lesson, then, if any, is that with infrastructure comes enormous cost, and it is not the cost of regular maintenance but of widespread replacement following some upheaval, be it war or the “fury” of nature.  The U.S. is a wealthy country, well able to manage such things if it wishes to put its shoulder to the wheel (as it did not after Katrina).  A poorer country, slammed with a storm like ours (which, let’s face it, was minor in the long-term scale of weather related phenomena), has no chance of recovering on its own.  It is likely easier and cheaper to totally abandon a city if it receives sufficient damage.  Rebuilding elsewhere is simple, the path to doing so clear and definable.  Infrastructure from the ground up, that’s what people do best.  Fixing what we have, and planning for the guaranteed future when such things go wrong, well––that we have yet to fully behold.  I note that the trend is an old one: Nobody dug up Pompeii in order to re-inhabit it, they simply built another city over top.  Moundbuilders abandoned their mounds and built more downstream or up.  “Abandon ship” seems to be, all too often, humanity’s clarion call.  The grass will be greener further elsewhere.

As I finish this epistle, Vectren continues to report that 10,000 remain powerless, and just over the border to the south, Kentucky has 300,000 without light or heat.  The temperature outside is nineteen and fresh snow flies.  The accompanying wind has the chill factor set well below zero.  It will be a long day for many––as it always is, every day and especially every winter, for the homeless.

One duty remains on my particular home front: To purchase a very large “Thank You” card, to have everyone I know sign it, and to deliver it, by hand, to Gary Witmeier.  Not all linemen play in the NFL.  Some earn their keep on poles, in the dark, in the worst of conditions.  I doubt he’s ever been properly thanked in his life.

That’s one piece of infrastructure I can change.

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