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Battening down the hatches

Derecho

Climate, energy, and economy. They’re linked, even if America doesn’t give a damn. Photo: NASA Goddard Photo and Video via Flickr.

It’s been almost two weeks since the debilitating derecho descended almost stealth-like on half of America, a heat-breathing storm of epic proportions. It came on the heels of several days of equally epic heat engulfing that same wide swath of American terrain. The difference was that the storm came and went whereas the heat lingered on interminably.

In the wake of both events a predictable rise in concern about global warming resurfaced.

And, typically, plenty of counter-arguments are being bandied about as if global warming is a debate, instead of a fact. The counter-arguments include references to other periods in recent history when there have been storm spikes, heat waves, tornado clusters and big hurricane years.

It’s true that both sides confuse weather with climate, though the two are obviously linked. But none of this matters when key details relevant to how we live today alter how we experience storms in the era of accelerating of global warming.

It was a hot and stormy night…

When the derecho hit here in Virginia I had just finished a dinner in Lexington, a cute college town, with my husband Erik, his former philosophy professor, a Tibetan Lama, and a couple who run a Buddhist retreat center (yes, I know this sounds like the set up for a joke). But it’s not.

Dinner had wrapped up and the latter three left. As we sat there with the professor, all of the sudden the power flickered and then went off, an event we attributed to too many East Coasters blasting AC during the heat wave.

Then Erik went out on the sun room porch to see if anything was amiss, letting a blast of hot windy air enter the apartment in the process. When we looked outside trees were bent over as if bowing after a performance. But there was not a drop of rain, and the heat was beyond eerie.

A second later my teenage daughter called from back at home. The first thing she said was, “Uh, we have a situation here.”

Panicked, I urged her to go to the basement with water and the cats and to not leave until we got home. And then, in one of the most singularly stupid decisions I have ever made in my life, I urged Erik to drive us home in the middle of the storm, a trip of 45 miles.

We barely made it out of downtown Lexington. Only five minutes after the initial winds numerous hefty limbs already littered the narrow streets. We sat stuck there with people getting out of cars, removing limbs to make the area passable. Anxiously I sat with my hands over my head fearing a fresh limb would crack our wimpy little Prius in two.

Finally we made it out but it was clear this storm was far from over. So we opted for the highway instead of the surface road to avoid more downed trees. Our car was buffeted by the 60 to 80 mile-per-hour winds all the way home and all I could think was that we would be slammed into those endless concrete barriers put up for road work. Shovel ready indeed.

I was also thinking, “How on earth does Dmitry Orlov (who lives on a sailboat in Boston Harbor) keep a cool head when he’s out at sea and a squall rears up?”

Anyway, we made it home safely, parked our car in the city parking garage just blocks from our house and soon the storm passed. At our house we lost no power. In fact we didn’t lose it for the entire heat wave, though significant portions of our local area were down for up to 11 days.

I relate this saga not only to purge myself of the dire memories, but also because it made me aware of both how my own family has been dedicated to preparing for emergencies, and yet how unprepared even we were. And that’s really my point with this essay not only for us, but for our whole society.

Fubar nation

Global warming was never a “debate.” But the extent to which it has been subjected to “debate” by interested shills is also the extent to which individuals, families, businesses and government have failed to address and prepare for epic storms in the era of accelerating global warming. And this is where things today are different than the storms of 1930 — or the 50s, and even the 80s — in four key ways:

  1. The population is larger and sprawl development is more pervasive, leaving more chance for property damage, death, and long-term fallout to localities and regions.
  2. Energy, water, sewage, and road infrastructure are all more aged, making them more vulnerable to shocks, and more difficult and costly to repair.
  3. The banking crisis and its affect on economy and thus government revenues have lead to more cuts, especially of first responders and infrastructure obligations, leaving crews shorthanded — fewer workers facing bigger, more spread-out problems.
  4. The population has become utterly dependent on just-in-time retail and groceries, along with push-button cooking, universal AC, and electronic banking. Fewer and fewer possess the skills to help out (or sustain themselves) in a serious or prolonged emergency, and, lacking cash, many can’t make money transactions when grid functions are down.

If this was a dress rehearsal for what a widespread emergency with lingering elements of privation is like, it looks pretty scary.

Trust in God and keep your powder dry

In my own home, where we just got a big freezer and have just begun to develop a larder of meat, butter, frozen fruits, veggies and breads, as I said, we didn’t lose power. But if we had, for any length of time, unless we had a back up plan — generator, friend’s house that still had power, ice at hand — we would have lost hundreds of dollars in food and the thing is barely a quarter full yet. But we didn’t have a back up plan.

It’s made us look even more seriously into ancient and traditional food preservation methods that don’t require electricity, such as drying, salting, souring, and fermenting. This approach requires a change in mindset and a change in the conditions of our living arrangement; life is much different when you have five to fifteen crocks and jugs and what-have-you’s around the kitchen and dining room aging and morphing and wafting their various scents into the air. You need sympathetic friends who see your process as conscious and even sophisticated rather than…unkempt and chaotic.

We’ve considered more vertical gardening in our very urban albeit small town lot to access more food right where we live instead of blocks away at our newbie community garden. But we have next to no land and limited sunlight at home. Clearly we need to do some MacGyvering.

And in our case, we have no bug-out location to retreat to when the shit hits the fan in the much bigger way implied by a global banking system collapse, energy peaks, manifold weather events, and the tsunami that will result from all three.

So for us, this is it — a walkable community with people who have a love of place, on the rail line, and surrounded by a greenbelt of agriculture. It’s as good as anyplace to ride out storms, and better than a great many places.

Uncle Sam is AWOL

But as long as we inhabit an unserious larger society, and suffer under a pathetic and dysfunctionally polarized political system, we’re on our own. Not that I’m looking to government to solve our personal resilience. No, in our family the DIY ethic is alive and well and serving us pretty well, though we learned a lot about the holes in our family system with this dress rehearsal, too.

But all my prep is not going to gird me against an electric grid collapse. It won’t help me if all around me people are not only unaware of our vulnerabilities, but they actively argue against them due to the anti-science and anti-social-unity messages pushed on FOX News and conservative talk radio (don’t get me wrong, I know plenty of old school conservatives who’s brains aren’t addled, and who are superior preppers, but they ignore FOX and they are in the minority) and carried forth by a retrograde and very possibly insane Republican Party.

Not that the Democrats are much better. They may be a little more open to new ideas, and even wish they could break through, but they are as in thrall to plutocratic corporate rule as anyone. They are not fixing or striving to fix the broken system that is barring the intelligent response to these myriad crises in the offing.

In the end it is difficult to conclude anything other than that we are already witnessing our federal and state governments collapsing. Until they are willing to openly address global warming, peak oil and the looming financial crisis with any degree of seriousness, their actions may be less than worthless on the upside, positively destructive on the downside. That means that we can expect a lot more derechos, whether literally or metaphorically. And we’re going to have to learn to get by no matter the conditions.

At best we can hope local governments will be responsive and even proactive in their emergency planning. But that, my fellow citizens, depends entirely on you.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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