Boom Boom, Out Go the Lights

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If you haven’t heard, there’s been a massive heatwave going through this part of the country for weeks now, resulting in some very high-power storms. One particular wave (one of the “bow echoes” you hear so much about) went through the central part of the state over a week ago, and some parts of the state are still without power. That storm passed south of us — we didn’t even get a sprinkle here in the northern part of the Toledo area — but on Thursday we had a storm develop right over us that led to some massive damage, culminating in my first ever night without electrical power here at the house. I can’t complain about what I had to go through, especially in light of what other Ohio residents are going through (to say nothing of those affected by the Colorado wildfires and Tropical Storm Debby, to name just two other recent weather catastrophes), but I’d like to narrate my own experiences all the same, to get them down in words and share them with everyone.

Because my house is just a mile north of Central Avenue in Toledo, one of the major streets in Northwest Ohio, when weather events knock us for a loop we’re usually among the first to get our power back, just because of all the businesses who are on the same section of grid as us. (This may be one of the few benefits of living so close to a Walmart, but I’d still rather they leave.) The longest I can recall having to deal with a power loss in recent memory is back in December of 2010, when a wind storm sent 60 mile-per-hour winds racing through and knocked down power lines, but even that only lasted about three hours or so. Even the big blackout that affected the Northeast in 2003 only knocked our power out for about 20 minutes, even though the problem that caused the outage originated pretty close to here.

Anyway, Thursday afternoon we were forecast for scattered thunderstorms starting at four in the afternoon. The sky seemed ominous all that afternoon, even when it was still sunny out, but then an hour or so before the storms were supposed to start, while I was in bed reading Susan Choi’s American Woman, it became clear that we were going to get hit early. We got some decent thunder out of it, and at one point the rain was really pounding on my window, but I’d been through worse. I didn’t even really look up from my book. Then the power flickered off for a bit before completely going out. I turned off my computer (I have a battery backup, of course), then tweeted that we’d lost power but that it was worth it for the thunder, as long as the power didn’t stay out for too long. Me and my big mouth.

I kept reading in bed as the storm left, until I heard the family talking downstairs. Our across-the-street neighnours, to the south of us, had had a pretty big tree branch come down in their yard, the kind that people later had to bring chainsaws to help cut up so it could be taken away. We’d had a smaller branch come down in our yard, but nothing that could have caused any real damage to anything. We’d been up near 100 degrees Fahrenheit that day, but things stayed down in the mid-70s even after the storm left, which was definitely a blessing as we waited for the power to come back on. Normally a summer thunderstorm doesn’t even knock us out for an hour, but as hour after hour passed without the power coming back, we began to wonder what was going on.

My own phone isn’t what you would call powerful — I wound up draining my battery backup just to replenish the phone’s battery later — so we had to rely on my sister to call Toledo Edison and look up local news resources to find what was going on. We weren’t what I would call well-equipped to handle a long-term outage — our pantry was pretty bare, and my flashlight’s batteries were out — but we were able to survive. I kept checking Toledo Edison’s outage report on my cell phone, and when I finally went to bed after midnight — nearly nine hours after the storm hit — my township was still 71% without power, and surrounding townships were near 50% as well. It wasn’t exactly comfortable sleeping that night because it was so humid, but we didn’t even have air conditioning here at the house until 2002, so I was kind of used to it (just not recently).

We finally got power back just before noon on Friday, and of course my first order of business — while I waited for the hot water heater to reheat the tank so I could shower the stink off of me — was to get on local news sites and catch the lunchtime news broadcasts. There are basically two stories to tell, the larger story of the storm and the more local story of my neighbourhood. Basically, because there was so much heat energy for the storm to suck up when it formed right over us, we wound up being blasted by 90 mile-an-hour winds. That explained the downed branches, and apparently so many power lines were down that it was like navigating a maze trying to get from one place to another after the storm. As I type this right now it’s about 101 degrees out and we’re due for more storms here soon. Joy.

Locally, the reason for the prolonged outage soon became apparent. The storm caused severe damage on Central Avenue, just to the east of my house, and even as the lunchtime news was airing, nearly 24 hours after the storm hit, Central was still closed off and all the businesses were shuttered. For this part of Toledo that’s like losing use of an arm. This being the age of  smartphones, of course, there were a few good videos of just what happened. Here’s one of a delivery driver that shows, about 52 seconds in, the big explosion after the initial transformer fire. (Video includes NSFW language, understandably so.)

Here’s a video from inside a car dealership right next to where the big explosion took place. The initial transformer explosion is at around the 0:18 mark, then at 1:59 things really go asplodey and buzzy. (This video also contains NSFW language, but again, understandably so.)

For all that it’s kind of awesome to look at the videos from this remove, it’s also kind of scary to think about how close we were to all that destruction. It reminds me of one afternoon in the late 1990s when I was at my father’s business and we had a tornado touch down about a mile west of us. That alone would have been bad enough, but it happened while I was in the bathroom for the longer of the two reasons people usually go there. When my sister knocked on the door and told me to stay in there (because it was a pretty central location in the building away from windows and such), I had to face the possibility that the last moments of my life would be spent, well, doing that. That kind of alters your perception of life a bit.

Similarly, this experience with losing power for nearly a day, even though it was incredibly minor compared to what others went through (at least one death’s been attributed to this storm), to say nothing of more serious problems elsewhere in the state and the country, is definitely changing things around here. We realize now that we need to keep more food in our pantry, things we can eat without use of any power, and we need to keep things on hand (and with fresh batteries) so we can stay in touch in case the power goes out for a long time again. I just wish I could afford a more powerful cell phone right now, because now I realize just how feeble mine is when there’s a real emergency.

Still, even after all that’s happened, there’s a part of me that’s sitting here waiting for the sky to darken and hoping that we get some really cool thunder and lightning from these next storms. I’ve always loved thunderstorms — it’s the nature geek in me — and even after the house fire (the cause of which was never officially determined but we suspect was due to thunderstorms that night), and this most recent episode, I still crave the sturm und drang of a really powerful storm. I just want the power to stay on this time.

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