Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Weather Damage and Cultural Shortcomings

The derecho of Friday night ripped through town without any warning. A tropical system by any other name in its behavior, it raged through the area for ninety full minutes. I retired for bed that night around 10 pm, observing shortly before I nodded off what I estimated to be 70 mph wind gusts. Though I knew the squall was intense, I had no idea of the ferocity of the storm. In this part of town, power lines are underground and trees are far less commonplace. Even during the insanity of back to back blizzards in early 2009, I never lost power.

In Washington, DC, a dynamic has developed over time. Young professionals have, of late, congregated inside the District of Columbia. A city with a high cost of living, it makes much more sense to live within the reach of public transportation. A car adds additional expense, including parking fees, car payments, insurance, and gas. Few of us are starving, but most of us are unable to put much back in savings. These are dynamics even more in evidence because of the still-sluggish economy. These bad times have fallen disproportionately upon young adults.

A house on a shady, tree-lined suburban street seems to be the middle class Washingtonian dream. One crucial caveat: it ain’t cheap. Where one lives is often a status symbol, proof one has reached some larger goal, now having the satisfaction of having come into one’s own. Only a few blocks from me is a historic residential area named Cleveland Park. Many of the houses date back to the Gilded Age of the 1880’s and 1890’s. These residences cost several million dollars apiece and are only within the financial reach of a privileged few.

The complex of storms that erupted late last week was fueled by abnormally hot conditions. That night, the evening high temperature was 82. In weather terms, this reading is only courting danger, especially in summer. Ancient deciduous trees shed significantly heavy branches because of high winds, taking down power lines with them. The aftermath of this storm has often fallen heaviest on those who live out of downtown, in adjacent areas of Maryland and Virginia.

In some ways, the Washington, DC, metro area is divided into two distinct regions, based on cultural identification and, with that, stated life goals. Before the riots in 1968 that followed Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, many whites lived in the District. Following the violence of that event, white flight took hold and continued for decades.

Caucasians began to stream south into northern Virginia, or north into Maryland. Until gentrification took hold in the 1990’s, Washington, DC, was once the murder capital of the nation. Large swaths of the District became impoverished. Parts of town were utterly obliterated by the crack epidemic. Some have never recovered. These sections have been hit by a series of natural disasters over time, not just one or two every now and then.

Times have changed. Most people I know live in urban settings. Few lost their power Friday night. It’s a curious reversal from the way things usually are, when those with the means to afford a multi-bedroom, multiple square foot house have a decided advantage. A white picket fence splinters remarkably easily under the right conditions. Many people are still without the means to keep themselves cool, I recognize, which can be life-threatening in this Hades.

The aesthetics and logic of shade, greenery, and well-maintained property can become lethal, especially for the elderly and disabled. The automobile used to shuttle children back and forth to school, and to the grocery store can be smashed and helplessly pinned against the weight of a tree branch. This is what I discovered yesterday while walking through an afflicted part of town.

I find it a sort of poetic justice. The desire to isolate from one’s peers can backfire spectacularly. Power crews struggle to reach another person's castle and moat, an attempt at “privacy". The American Dream isn't much without the innovations upon which it depends. Alienation is a life without electricity, estranged from the rest of civilization.

There are lessons to be learned here. Houses of worship have opened their doors to those who need a cool place to sleep or to recharge. This is a highly appropriate gesture but crisis alone is a poor reason for philanthropy. Many are still without power and may be without it the rest of the week. It should not take a genuine state of emergency before we extend basic outreach and hospitality to others. The self-assigned hectic pace of DC residents has been disrupted, but all is not lost. Oh, that magic feeling, nowhere to go.

Rugged individuals can be their own jailors with disturbing ease. We’ve built beautiful cages for ourselves, never seriously questioning why. We say we tolerate others, so long as they don’t move next door. Yet, it is facile to suggest that racial prejudice alone fed suburban growth. People often follow existing trends and do not question the long-term consequences. A self-critical streak might do us a world of good.

Meanwhile, here in DC, what has already been a blistering summer continues. The difference between 95 degree and 100 degree heat is negligible. By Saturday, we’ll be back close to the century mark with the peak of the daytime sauna. I wonder if people will take this opportunity to reconsider their priorities. Sometimes trying to keep up appearances is more trouble than it’s worth. What are we really trying to escape?

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