Below is an account from our senior photo editor Bob Meyers, who photographed Hurricane Sandy preparation and aftermath in northern Virginia and surrounding areas.
There is nothing more humbling than the powerlessness we face in a fury of a major storm. On Sunday night, I was anxiously watching the forest full of tall oaks behind my house as they whipped back and forth in the high winds of Hurricane Sandy. The wind whirred around the edges of the house and rain beat a steady pour on the roof, walls and windows.. The black silhouettes of these massive trees shook against the gray clouds and the rain poured sideways in a blizzard of leaves. My little dog Coco shivered under the coffee table. She had not ventured beyond the porch for the entire afternoon when normally she loves to run through the trees looking for squirrels. From somewhere not too far away I heard a crash, a thump softened by a wet swish of cushioning leaves. I saw my neighbors’ lights go out and tried a nearby switch. Nothing. My wife and I had candles and flashlights ready, but there was little to do except to go to bed with ears open for the alert of any damage.
Earlier Sunday I had been out in Annapolis, Maryland, helping secure a sailboat and taking a dingy out of the water. Few boats moved on the open water already choppy in rising wind. All around town people were tying things down: Ropes were wrapped around sails and tables, extra lines were added to the pilings and docks. Customers ran into stores asking for generators and ran back out to the next place on their search list. In Vienna, Virginia, where I live, the shelves that normally hold gallons of water and milk were empty. Shoppers in boots and bright yellow rain gear pushed carts full of food and supplies. Outside people ran between cover as the wind and rain strengthened. At the building supply, shoppers pushed carts laden with plywood and two-by-fours to the counters. Rain blew through the open bay doors.
Now, lying in the dark listening to the fury, I thought about what I seen and photographed. The time for preparation was over, and the storm would do whatever it did, and we could not affect it one bit.
At first light Monday morning I heard chainsaws outside. I dressed warmly, wore a wide brimmed weather hat and rain coat and headed out into the storm. All day long I walked around my neighborhood talking to people I don’t often see and meeting new folks that have moved in.
A couple of blocks away a giant oak tree lay across two SUVs parked on either side of the road with our main power line underneath. Other trees blocked off all the streets leading out of the neighborhood, but we heard there was power at the shops and restaurants in town. A crew of utility workers who had come from Columbia, South Carolina, Sunday waited in the street near the tree. Parts of a transformer, street light and other pieces of the energy infrastructure that keeps our neighborhood lights on, refrigerators humming and our heating and cooling equipment running lay on the pavement mixed with leaves and branches. People wandered by, took some photos and asked when the power would be back on. The crew said they hoped to repair the line by midnight but first they had to wait for the all clear. A man from Dominion in an idling diesel truck made phone calls before giving the go ahead. One worker took a bucket lift to the street side power pole and made sure all the power was cut off, and then went to the other end of the damaged line and did the same. A worker told me that a homeowner’s generator plugged in the wrong way could feed 120 volts back into the line which would come out of a transformer at 2,000 volts – enough to kill them all.
Once the line was secure dozens of workers leapt into action.
A crew unloaded a new pole and began to equip it. Three men started cutting up the tree with chainsaws. Quickly cutting off all the limbs away from the cars, then using ropes, and force to cut the limbs away from the cars. The windshields were broken and one of the roofs caved in. Insurance calls had been made. One neighbor said he had moved his car to that spot on purpose, worried more by the giant trees towering over the house, than the one 70 feet away. Down the hill other crews worked on other fallen trees. Everybody felt lucky that their homes had been spared, but awed by the power of nature. Some reported on events further north. New Jersey and New York had borne the brunt of the storm’s force, and nothing could stand against the storm’s surge at the ocean’s edge.
Later Monday, after roaming around Northern Virginia, listening to the radio when possible and checking with friends and family and finding them safe, I felt relief, but also a sense of exhaustion. I realized there was a physical tension, an apprehension that built up for days and I just wanted a long, restful sleep.
I’m glad the storm is over, but fear the next big one won’t be long in coming. Hurricane Sandy hit only four months after the June 29th derecho that knocked power out in Vienna for three days in the middle of a massive heat wave. That storm caused a 700-mile path of devastation from Chicago through Washington. Unlike Hurricane Sandy, there were no warnings about the derecho. In 15 years, my house lost power in storms four times. Two of those have been in the last four months. This has to be a major warning sign about the increasing impacts of climate change. Denial can’t be our only course of action.