There’s no place like home

July 2nd, 2004  |  Tags:  |  3 Comments

On Wednesday of last week, Andrea and I had our friends Jamie and Chad over for supper. (for food-curious readers: I made penne alla vodka, milk-braised pork, and sautéed broccoli.) We cleared the table in time to hear the Emergency Alert System on WPR. Ordinarily, this means that there is the “possibility” of “mild to moderate rainfall” in “Nowhere City, WI,” so I am wont to disregard it altogether. However, Andrea — having grown up in the upper midwest, where weather is a topic of serious amateur inquiry — turned on the TV to see if we could get some more information.

Medium-market television weather broadcasting is typically abysmal. Even worse, it exhibits an inverse relationship between urgency and quality. Once they have you as a captive audience, any potentially worthwhile accidents of presentation are cast aside in favor of a full-on barrage of drooling, brutish, unpolished, and nasty weather coverage. Apparently, this was urgent, because the report — interrupting an episode of Law & Order: Parking Enforcement Unit — was nearly unwatchable. The weather reporter was practically foaming at the mouth, thrilling to describe the Impending Tornado Doom that faced someone, somewhere in Dane County, WI. I started to get annoyed that I hadn’t remembered to refrigerate any more cans of beer.

We’ve lived in Dane County for almost four years. It is a large county, and whoever is in charge of weather alerts has an itchy tornado-siren-finger, sounding the alarm whenever it appears that a tornado might spring into being. (This is analogous to Otto’s ability to sound an alarm whenever conditions conducive to squirrel formation obtain in the front yard.) When we heard the tornado siren, I suggested that we head down to the basement. We have a TV and a fridge downstairs. I thought I had a good opportunity to play some video games with Chad while “waiting out the storm.” No one else in the house thought it was necessary to go to the basement. Andrea ran outside to move some plants to the garage in case there was hail. We stood in the kitchen, where we had a good view of the storm coming in.

A woman walking two dogs stopped under the tree in our neighbor’s boulevard, presumably to keep dry and avoid the marble-sized hail. I yelled to her that she had better get inside, and offered our house — there was already a lot of lightning and thunder. She shouted something back at me, shaking her head. I closed the door. It stopped raining a few seconds later; she took off.

The sky and air outside took on a sickly green tint. We saw a cloud start swirling around a little, which was enough to make even the seasoned tornado watchers in the house a little nervous. I found this extremely unsettling and repeated my plea for relocation to the basement.

At this point, I should digress a little about the state of my neighborhood. There are a lot of trees. Actually, saying that there are a “lot of trees” is wholly inadequate. When we buy grass, we have to buy the “indoor/basement turf mixture” because our yard gets so little sun. It took our satellite dish installer an hour to find a path from our house to the southern sky through all the trees. The sun sets twenty minutes earlier here than in the rest of Madison. Hopefully, you get the idea. In any case, if you can see anything in the sky, you can bet that it’s close by.

My plea was again unheeded, but I at least started to get the sense that the rest of the house thought that my desire to go downstairs was epistemically justified. I went over to the sink to wash some dishes. Andrea, Jamie, and Chad were all about ten feet away, at the big window by the kitchen table. I heard Andrea shriek and Chad yell “There are house parts up there!” This was way too Wizard of Oz for me, and I was sure that they were pulling my leg. I went over and looked up. Sure enough, house parts, and nothing smaller than a shingle. The power went out, causing the carbon monoxide detector to emit a high-decibel squeal. Andrea was already holding Otto, I think. We all ran, with radio and flashlight in hand, to the room in the basement with the most natural light: my ex-office, which is currently unfurnished.

The basement window didn’t give us much of a view, except of Andrea’s tomato plants getting tossed around. Something was clearly up, though, since our ears were popping. WPR was well into Evening Unattractive Music Mode, which continued uninterrupted, although I half-expected to hear the Emergency Alert System tone followed by Anders Yocom seriously flipping his wig, disaster movie style. After about two minutes, we went back upstairs. Everything seemed normal until we looked outside.

For those keeping score, that’s the tree we had seen someone take shelter beneath not five minutes before. A better view of it, from the next morning, is below:

Looking outside revealed trees everywhere. My first thoughts, upon realizing that we had escaped mostly unscathed from such a potential catastrophe, were of the words to Joachim Neander’s Lobe den Herren. About 1600 pounds’ worth of enormous branches were torn off of the big maple tree in our front yard; instead of destroying our garage, they landed harmlessly in the lawn, merely creating enormous-branch-sized divots.

The tornado cut about a two-mile long, two-block wide swath, starting about a block north of our house. A lot of trees were uprooted throughout the area; now the neighborhood seems too bright and eerily empty. We were lucky; others were not as fortunate. The folks on the end of the street had their garage torn off of their house. Our next-door neighbor lost eight trees and had significant roof damage. She later joked that her husband “had built a good house, but three feet too long.”

The roads were impassable for about a day. Right after the storm hit, we saw people driving around in circles, looking for a way out. After a while, fire engines and paramedics were able to get in; miraculously, no one in Madison was injured. After vehicle traffic slowed, pedestrian traffic picked up the slack. I was amazed at how many gawkers walked by, ogling people trying to make sense of their front yards, without offering to help. (Our dinner guests, on the other hand, were serious all-stars who helped us and our neighbors!)

We finally got power back after about 45 hours. It was restored by employees of the local utility, as well as of the Hooper Corporation, which is sort of the “Kellogg, Brown, and Root of Madison” as far as I can tell. (Whether or not Jim Doyle engineered the tornado as a kick-back for them will have to wait for a Cannes-nominated “documentary”.) I was amazed to see how quickly the construction mobilized: installing new telephone poles (fresh off of telephone-pole laden trucks), re-stringing miles of power lines, etc.

Most impressive, though, was the action of the local cable company (owned by convicted monopolist sympathizer Paul Allen). Before the roads were passable, before 75% of the neighborhood had power, and before it was clearly safe to be out and about, there were Charter Cable trucks dispatching repairmen. I guess that the battery-operated-TV-owning cable subscriber is a vocal market. Uff.