Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Tornado of Twenty Ten

The world-wide “extreme weather” events (Wimbledon heat waves, Pakistani floods, etc.) that some are quick to declare portents of a generalized Global Warming have manifested themselves in central Jersey in the qualities of hot and dry—the “choleric” temperament of the old humors theory, the one rather disgustingly ordered by the “yellow bile”. The summer heat, though more oppressive than usual, has been less remarkable than the drought. Lawns are dead, trees dying; even my impatiens are barely hanging on in a state of shriveled, minimalist exhaustion. It was almost thrilling, therefore, when about two in the afternoon on Monday my keen weather sense intuited the certainty of impending rain.

By about three forty-five the atmosphere was unpleasantly sultry, nearly dripping, and there began a modest rumbling of thunder. The sky, however, was ambiguous, not to say schizophrenic. In the north there was a bank of heavy clouds, darkening dramatically toward the horizon. To the south, however, the welcoming welkin was bright, and much of it actually blue. The air suddenly felt much fresher, drier. At about four I stepped out into the backyard, put my infallible weather nose in the air, assessed the ambiguities, and came to a sad conclusion that it was yet another instance of big wind-up, no delivery. I returned to the house and reported my definitive diagnosis to my wife. “Honey,” I said, “we’re not going to get a single drop of rain out of all this.”

My sentence was punctuated by a strange crackling sound and the immediate extinction of all electric light. (The sound was later identified by an eyewitness as a lightning bolt blasting an electrical transformer about a hundred and fifty yards down the road.) Then all hell broke loose. First came torrents of rain so heavy that despite the fact that the downspouts were all reasonably clear, cascades of water begin pouring over all the overwhelmed gutters, rather as though one had turned the full power of a fire hose into a bathroom sink. The trunk of the one oak tree close enough to the house for me to see became the bed of a vertical river that swelled and bubbled as it crashed to earth. Then came the wind, blowing due south into the no longer blue yonder and carrying with it twigs, limbs, and branches that clicked and clacked, and banged against our flat roof before flying, falling, tumbling into the lower garden. At the extreme end of the garden I saw the top of a tall conifer jerk and bend violently southward, never to right itself. Then there was a tiny bit of hail drumming against the skylights. Then, abruptly, wind and rain ceased; there was a preternatural calm. I stepped out to the front of the house and saw the spectacular wake of the Tornado of Twenty Ten.

Bloguiste as Joyce Kilmer contemplates nearly lethal linden (Photo credit: friend/neighbor Carolyn Guile)

About two hundred yards of Hartley Avenue was now a mini-Dunsinane of fallen trees. Two trees in my own front yard had lost significant parts, but that was as nothing to the vast linden that had just missed the house and had, in its uprooting, undermined one of my stone walls. Greater chaos still waited me behind the house. My last viable ornamental tree had been halved, and a huge pine in the compost compound lay splintered like a dry twig. My first sensation was of shock. It should have been of gratitude. Neither we nor our next-door neighbors the Browns had any damage to our dwellings.

The utilities were not just out. They were down and out. The utility pole that channels our electric main plus all the telephone and electronic stuff lay shattered in four pieces at the mouth of the driveway. I was pretty sure none of the wires was hot, but half the people accidentally electrocuted in this country share that comforting view almost to the end. So I didn’t mess. The little girls were just getting home from their day camps. It was a major palaver negotiating police barriers and blocked off roads, and we then faced the daunting task of an impromptu candlelight supper.

One hears a lot of rude comment concerning the quality of our utilities services, but you won’t hear much from me any more. Before nightfall the first PSEG crew had arrived. These guys couldn’t begin to work on the wires until they had cleared the trees. So literally all night long, from dusk to dawn, large men made grotesquely larger by their padded, brightly florescent safety gear, stalked up and down the arboreal highway with screaming chainsaws, the whole surreal tableau illuminated by powerful searchlights mounted on the cabs of trucks. At dawn a new set of trucks arrived, this time to begin hauling away the mountains of dismembered green. Less than twenty-four hours after the big blow, the electricity was up and running again. Telephones, internet, and all that--a different story. That's why I'm writing this blog post in the library.

I spent the years of my boyhood in places like Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. Tornadoes were common. At least that's what everybody said. I never experienced one first hand. Not until I was happily retired in suburban New Jersey, that is.

The tree as it appeared yesterday (above) and in a previous blog (below)