Freak of Nature

Life can blindside you if you’re not paying attention. So can the weather, as Cincinnati was reminded in 2008.

September 14, 2008, happened only 13 years ago, but look at how distant we are today from then. The most popular mobile phone in the world was made by Nokia. “Social media” was a term that needed explaining. America was possibly about to elect John McCain and Sarah Palin. Mad Men was the big thing on cable TV, and cable TV itself was a big thing.

Illustration by © Bomboland, 2021

In Cincinnati, September 14, 2008, seemed to be just an ordinary late-summer Sunday: comfortable temperatures, blue skies, and a sun that never stopped shining. Really, the weather was just beautiful—except for the thousands of downed trees, the tens of thousands of homes losing power for a week or more, and the five people killed. Other than that, it was perfect.

I was at home. Maybe your mind went through the same denial mine did as I saw the afternoon get more aggressive and windy. This can’t last. I mean, the sun’s out! Any minute now, this will literally blow over. Instead, what started blowing over were people’s trash cans and backyard furniture. Then branches, big ones. Eventually trees and utility poles.

I didn’t hear the crash of a huge tree right around the corner from me, because I had my headphones on. I was in the zone, deep into editing a video project, surrounded by consumer-grade, pre-TikTok technology. My project had to be delivered (uploaded) by evening. I’d left it to the last minute, as usual, so I was concentrating. Puny distractions like gusts of wind weren’t about to get in my way. Besides, the usual threatening signals that tell us to prepare for danger—dark clouds, vomit-colored skies, John Williams music—weren’t there. If you happened to be outdoors that afternoon, maybe at the Bengals–Titans game, you saw stuff blowing around, but you’d seen that plenty of times before—just like you’d seen plenty of Bengals losses (24–7). The danger increased slowly over several hours. Cincinnati became that mythical frog in the pot of boiling water.

A reasonable amount of stronger-than-usual wind was expected that day. Hurricane Ike had just clobbered Texas, and its leftovers were on their way north. What happened to Cincinnati, though, was exponentially more than expected. Weather patterns coming from other directions converged with Ike, creating something called an “adjacent frontal boundary.” I have no idea what that means, but the conflicting warm and cold fronts helped produce an “extratropical cyclone.”

OK, at least the word cyclone starts to suggest something bad. It wasn’t Judy Garland/Helen Hunt bad, but the day turned out to be pretty gruesome, mostly because it caught us by surprise.

As the noise of both wind and flying debris increased outside my window, I did finally realize that a truly scary thing was about to occur: power failure. For some reason my street is always eager to go dark during storms. There was no way I could afford to stop my project or, worse, have my files corrupted and lost. I was already clicking “save” every 30 seconds, but now it was time to implement Plan B: my Cincinnati Reds.

No, not those Reds. You’ve probably noticed in places like hospitals, tech firms, and media studios that some wall outlets are bright red. These are the ones connected to backup generators that always deliver juice no matter what. I was employed by a radio station with red outlets galore, and the studio was only a mile away. It was clear that I needed to shut down, pack up, and move my project there now.

All the old instincts from high school AV club fired back up: Do not forget even one plug/cable/adapter, or you’ll have to go back home and you will feel like an idiot. I efficiently got everything into my trunk and pulled out of the driveway, proud of my Plan B. This self-satisfaction lasted about 20 seconds. Remember that huge tree around the corner I didn’t hear falling down? It now said Hello! as it straddled the street. It might have even crushed a parked car; I was too panicked to notice.

I belatedly apologize to the neighbor whose front yard/flower bed I drove across, just barely bypassing the tree. When I managed to get to the main street, I saw that all the traffic lights and businesses were dark, meaning my house had definitely lost power just after I left. I’d made the right call. The fact that I’d soon be among the thousands of people using candles for several days didn’t register—all I could think about was getting to my Cincinnati Reds.

The radio station was on the sixth floor of a large office building, and as I turned into the parking garage it occurred to me that the elevators might not work. That would be the end. No way I could schlep all this stuff up six flights. Even if I survived that, I might get to the station’s front door and find the electronic card-entry system not working. How quickly my self-satisfaction turned into conjuring layer upon layer of worst-case scenarios. What’s the hourly rate for analyzing that?

The elevator worked. The entry card worked. Being a Sunday, many spaces at the station were unoccupied, so I was able to quickly reassemble my home setup. Plan B had succeeded. I got everything finished and uploaded just ahead of the deadline, leaving no one the wiser about how long I’d put off the project in the first place. I tore down my setup and returned home, this time parking near the fallen tree and walking the rest of the way. I felt less guilty when I saw even more tire tracks mangling the unfortunate flower bed. Hey, we all gotta do what we gotta do.

Maybe you were like me, enduring so many days without electricity that you thought about going to Lowe’s just to buy a pitchfork for marching on the Duke Energy building. I don’t normally come to the defense of corporate behemoths, but I will cut the company some slack here.

What happened to Cincinnati that day was a true freak of nature. It was clear we were going to get some strong winds, but what we got was—by only one mile per hour—something just shy of a Category 1 hurricane. On top of that, the local Duke Energy crews normally ready for restoring power had just left for Texas to help with Hurricane Ike’s far worse situation. Duke had to quickly summon them back and call for more reinforcements from elsewhere. Maybe they could have done better, but the teams I saw were busting ass.

In the past 18 months of our pandemic, we’ve been hailing as heroes those whom we call the “First Responders of 2020.” Let’s at least label Cincinnati’s Second Responders of 2008 as “human.”

Mary and I were among the throngs who endured a week without power, watching all of our food go bad while watching none of our television. Obviously, other Cincinnatians wished such minor inconveniences had been all they’d experienced. People died. Homes and businesses were devastated. Spring Grove Cemetery lost 150 trees that day alone, plus hundreds more that had to come down later. Schools were closed for days, leaving working parents in the lurch. People needing to replace spoiled food found nearby supermarkets closed.

But here comes the part about “we’re all in this together.” The part where homes that still had electricity strung extension cords over to those that didn’t. Where neighbors arranged instant block parties for barbecuing and sharing as much perishable meat as possible. Where they pooled money to rent nearby hotel rooms and take turns in the hot shower (with air conditioning that probably wasn’t bad, either). Where kids off from school banded together to pick up debris. Where everyone got together and found a warm sense of community in their hatred of insurance companies.

It was all 13 years ago. That world was so very distant and different from today’s, right? Here’s what else was happening then: The governor of New York resigned over a sex scandal (Eliot Spitzer, in case you forgot). Headlines were tracking the mental state of Britney Spears. The economy was shaky. Harrison Ford was working on another Indiana Jones sequel. The Bengals were struggling for respect. (The Reds were finishing up one of their worst seasons ever, so I guess not everything was identical.)

We never know what will happen in life, and that’s what keeps us going. We have to believe in tomorrow no matter what. See you then. I hear it’ll be a nice day.

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