On April 27, 2011, Alabama suffered the most severe outbreak of tornadoes in recorded U.S. history. Dozens of tornadoes snapped trees, destroyed homes and businesses, and injured and killed people across the region. By the storm system’s third wave, the electrical infrastructure could take no more, and power winked out across much of north Alabama, including the whole of Madison County which is served solely by the Tennessee Valley Authority. All primary feed-lines had been destroyed, and officials speculated that restoration of electrical service would require several days. Water service continued, but in a reduced capacity because some treatment plants had been knocked off-line.
Authorities urged residents who suffered little or no damage, injury, or death of a loved one to remain calm, to stay home and exercise common sense so emergency services could better serve those severely affected by the storms. On April 28, voyeuristic and frantic — some callers to local radio ominously claiming the arrival of Armageddon — people hit the highways, speeding through major intersections, even though by law light-controlled intersections become all-way stops during power failures. Emergency services were suddenly sidetracked to help those foolishly in auto accidents caused by failure to think.
The national news media arrived on day two to broadcast and publish their standard “place-location/disaster-here” stories with the stereotypical “battlefield” and “war zone” analogies and interviews with individuals thanking God for sparing them while spanking the hell out of everyone else. Not one star reporter asked, “Why did God choose to spare you?” or “Why did God wreak such destruction and take the lives of others in the first place?” Reporting straight, informative news based on interviews with authorities is obviously not as entertaining as pieces choking with the blather of those claiming special connections to God.
By day two, folks had calmed somewhat, and many had begun to heed laws governing such things as intersections. The increased presence of police certainly had bearing on their new attentiveness. As for the police, when they weren’t enforcing traffic laws or the dusk-to-dawn curfew, they were responding to increased domestic disturbance calls because, if many of us enjoy anything, it’s being with our families during long periods of high stress. Perhaps that joy explains the dimwit who decided to fire his weapon twice in this urban neighborhood. Certainly he hadn’t been reduced to hunting squirrels for survival, not with a grocer operating on emergency generators only a half-mile away, but you never know.
Those of us lucky to be uninjured but sustaining damage and downed trees began to clean up. The media, running another of their stock plug-in-name stories, highlighted the “volunteerism” and “cooperative efforts” of those affected most by the storm. And, yes, a minority of good people, for nothing more than the personal satisfaction of helping fellow human beings, did volunteer and are continuing their efforts. It’s the same in every disaster: the media-highlighted minority of selfless volunteers; a second group who offer services for personal benefit, whether money or goods; a third, larger group who take care of themselves, neither asking for nor offering help to others; and finally a second minority who claim need even though they’ve suffered no loss. As my grandfather used to say, “it takes all kinds.”
As the power outage stretched into the fourth day, the number of food poisoning cases rose, causing authorities to advise residents to discard all foods from refrigerators, that it was no longer safe to eat, no matter how long cooked. Meanwhile, local home improvement stores, operating on backup systems, brought in hundreds of portable generators. Sales and use skyrocketed, and so did the number of cases of carbon monoxide poisoning, forcing officials during the daily press conferences to plead with residents to exercise a smidgen of common sense when operating the gas-powered generators. Officials implored residents to read all instructions, to operate generators in well-ventilated areas, not inside their homes or garages or under open house windows. Some generators had even exploded because owners had run them continuously, never checking oil which eventually ran dry. Some acts of brilliance simply speak for themselves.
Officials continued to emphasize daily the need to conserve water due to decreased capacity of online water treatment plants. “Don’t wash your car. Don’t water your lawns,” the water department spokesman advised. On the fourth day, one homeowner in this neighborhood washed out his rain gutters. Another guy washed his car. I asked the second fellow whether he’d heard the news conferences. He hadn’t, so I informed him of the request to conserve water. That, he said, didn’t apply to our neighborhood because the offline plants were in the southeast part of the county, and we were in the northwest. His car sparkled.
Sunny, mild weather dominated the first few days following the storms, with highs comfortably in the mid-70sF. As TVA restored power neighborhood by neighborhood, officials requested residents to reduce normal electrical use so the fragile replacement lines wouldn’t buckle under the burden of high demand. The obvious and most easily accomplished point of conservation was air-conditioning. When power returned to our neighborhood on the fifth day, three out of every five air-conditioners hummed. One couple sat on their porch, waving and chirping to passers-by about all the hardships they’d faced without power while the inside of their house cooled down to whatever temperature they normally enjoyed. The next day, rain returned, and the temperature dropped to an unseasonable mid-50sF high. Some who’d been air-conditioning their home the day before conserved now by switching to heating.
By day seven, TVA had restored power to most of the county by rerouting electricity through secondary lines. All water processing plants were back online, inspiring the water department representative to declare that residents no longer needed to conserve, even as TVA officials warned that, without power conservation, outages would lie ahead as primary power routes remain down and power use increases during summer. But who cares? We’ve got water and power now, and that’s all that counts.
Common sense may once have been common, but no longer. It’s one of those myths like “community cooperation” and “God watched over me while letting others die.” It’s something we like to believe in, something we use to convince ourselves that we’re smarter, more charitable, more special, that we really care for one another. But we live in a greedy, narcissistic society, exacerbated by such silliness called social networks and reality TV in which most of our lives are neither social nor real. The pending doom of our planet through human-induced global warming, starvation, natural disaster, war, terrorism, genocide, antibiotic-immune bugs, and more requires little or no thought and certainly no preventative action from us individuals as long as we have what we want. If we don’t have it, we’ll secure it by any method possible, to hell with common sense.
As for our children and their children, friend, they are the future. And the future is their problem as long as we’ve got ours.