Thursday, July 20, 2006
Hell Hath No Fury Like Ma Nature Having a Hot Flash
So, do y'all know it's been hot here?
I mean, HOT?
I am sure you DO know, if you live in the States, because from what I hear, it's been unusually hot across the country lately. But here it's been hot, and humid. Suffocatingly humid. Disgustingly humid. So humid that dew soaks the cars in our apartment complex parking lot every morning as though it had rained.
My city, you see, is at the intersection of two enormous rivers, smack dab in the middle of a prairie flood plain.
As any native St. Louisan will tell you, Hot + Humid summers are our specialty.
But this past week has been even hotter than usual. A week of temps at or above 100 degrees Farenheit. Heat indexes as high as 115.
Okay, okay, dwellers of tropical isles. You may call me on my whine. I permit you. I know it gets just as hot and humid where you live. I know in some places of the world weather like this can last for weeks at a time.
But tell me: does it also get below freezing there in the wintertime? Does it snow? And then invariably sleet the next day, so that there is a treacherous slippery-slick crust of ice on top of the snow that you must punch through with a shovel in order to clear a path from your home?
I thought not.
You see, here in the midwest, even though hot and humid weather comes back every summer, we can't get used this heat. We just can't. Because if we did, then we would be freezing our ample midwestern butts off every winter.
So, we do the only reasonable thing we can. We compromise. We set our internal thermostats at something around 60-70 degrees. And complain about the weather for 6 months out of the year.
But I digress.
It's been hot. Even hotter than it usually gets here in August (and it's only July).
(Only you know, you don't really want to, ahem, because it's too HOT).
And apparently, even the sky itself here felt it was too hot.
Because last night, a strong but fairly normal heat-driven summer thunderstorm popped up on the east side of the river. This was not a predicted thunderstorm. But everyone around here knows the risk of such pop-up storms is high at this time of year. After all, it's hot, and humid.
The storm raged for a while on the east side, causing typical thunderstorm damage. Then it veered southwest, crossing the thick air above the Mississippi.
And suddenly, a typical pop-up thunderstorm became the worst non-tornado storm to hit the St. Louis metro area in years. Packing 80-mile-an-hour straightline winds, it raced into the St. Louis metro before the local television news stations could even put out a severe thunderstorm warning on television.
I know, because I watched from my window as the storm came up. The sky darkened rapidly. The wind whipped up almost instantly, bowing the trees in the green commons area outside my apartment at severe angles, pushing a torrent of leaves and litter through the air.
"Is there a tornado warning or a thunderstorm warning for our area?" I asked my husband, who was watching TV.
He flipped through the channels. There were warnings for Illinois. For us, there was nothing.
Our neighbors began coming out on their balconies, shouting to one another.
"Do you see that?"
"Do you see those clouds?"
"Have you heard anything?"
"I don't hear the sirens!"
"Should I move my car out from under that tree?"
All I could think was, Get back inside, morons. Who needs a warning to know this is serious shit?
And yet I myself stood at my patio door, with nothing but a screen between myself and the coming storm, transfixed.
The power flickered. We turned off our computer. The lights flipped on and off rapidly, and then went out.
The sky turned green. Then yellow, then red. Lightning lit up the clouds. Whole branches ripped from the trees. At first, there was no rain.
The lack of rain made me nervous. Having lived all my life with this kind of storm, I know that when it rains hard, the winds usually aren't so bad.
But lightning and no rain is usually a recipe for strong straight-line winds, hail, or tornadoes.
Then the rain came, in nearly horizontal torrents. And the wind remained. Suddenly, we heard sirens-- not the storm warning sirens, but police sirens. More than a dozen police car sirens, sounding at once-- more than could possibly be responding to a single event.
"Do you think the storm sirens have been knocked out, and they are trying to tell us there's a storm warning by turning all of the police sirens on?" my husband wondered. We had no idea. We had no power. Our battery-operated radio was out of juice, and we didn't have enough replacement batteries. Our cell phones were having trouble connecting. The few friends and family members we had been able to get through to had no information about the storms; they had power, but had heard nothing conclusive on the news about the strength of the storms in our area.
All the while, our son wandered through the house, giggling, waving a flashlight. He'd been frightened at first by the sudden power outage (despite the fact that we lose power regularly here when it rains, he seems frightened at first almost every time), but in minutes he'd decided it was all quite an excellent game. He smiled at the candles we'd lit, calling them "decorations." "Look outside, Mommy! Look, Daddy! Windy!" he kept admonishing us, gleefully.
We tried to keep him corralled in an interior hallway, away from the windows. We don't have a basement.
Oridnarily I am terrified during strong storms because of this fact. Every midwesterner knows that a residence without a basement is a disaster waiting to happen in tornado season. During a tornado, if you don't have a basement, you might as well be taking shelter in a house of cards.
And yet, this storm had come up so quickly, and seemed so unreal, that my customary fear took a backseat to sheer wonder at the sudden ferocity of the skies.
In less than an hour, it was over. Tree branches, leaves, and trash littered the ground, but there were no felled limbs on our car, or on any of our neighbors'. Pieces of siding had ripped off of a nearby building. The power was out for blocks in every direction, and the power company wouldn't answer our calls. But otherwise, it seemed, our neighborhood had escaped major damage.
We used the last of our hot water to give our son a bath and take quick showers ourselves. Then we opened our freezer lightning-quick to get out our carton of ice cream. If our power was going to be off indefinitely, and ther was a fair chance that all of our food in the freezer might melt, I reasoned, at least we could eat our damn ice cream.
So, my husband and I ate fresh sugared strawberries and ice cream by candlelight, all our windows open to the absolute darkness outside to catch any rain-cooled breeze that might come, listening to crickets singing in the uncanny-seeming, natural silence.
All in all, it was actually pretty relaxing. Even romantic.
Our power was restored just after midnight. It wasn't until I turned on the TV early this morning that I realized the extent of the damage to our area.
450,000 households in my area lost power during the storm. Tens of thousands of people are still without power today.
And the weather forcast predicts a high today of at least 101 degrees. The furious storms did nothing, absolutely nothing, to break the heat wave. And tens of thousands of people are today without air conditioning, in 101 degree heat.
There are power lines and felled trees across roads all over town, not to mention a number of intersections without power to the traffic lights, which the local television stations say are snarling traffic.
My entire (large) county is under an indefinite boil order, because our water treatment system was knocked out.
And the winds caused serious property damage all over town, on both sides of the river. Semi trucks were pushed across highways. Trains were pushed off their tracks. The airport apparently had a piece of its roof blown off.
We are told to expect more storms tonight. I really, truly hope they're nothing like yesterday's.
Edited to add: If any of my local blogger or RL friends are without power at home but are reading this because you have managed to get temporary internet access at work or something, you are welcome to hang at my place in the AC this afternoon/evening. Drop me a comment here or send me an email at stellafitzgerald AT hotmail.com-- I'll be checking. My apartment is tiny and there are no guarantees my power won't go out again if it rains tonight, of course. But I offer what I have.