Weathering a storm
In case some of you missed my column last week -- it wasn't published because I was unable to access my computer. Surprised? Well, so were we, the numerous residents in the Washington Metro area, who were without electricity for anywhere between 3-7 days. It wasn't load shedding or a technical hitch. On June 29, one of the most destructive thunderstorms swept through the entire D.C. area.
Washington is used to political storms, but what hit us that day was a fierce natural catastrophe downing hundreds of trees and leaving 1.4 million homes without power in Virginia, Maryland and the Capital,. Thankfully fatalities were minimal, but life just stood still since cell phones and internet services were also lost. In some areas roads were blocked by fallen trees, making it difficult for residents to venture out. The situation was exacerbated by the fact that, despite computer-based weather forecasting methods, the storm took everyone by surprise. Normally there is adequate warning and people are prepared with flashlights, water and essential food. This time most of us were caught unawares and left at the mercy of Mother Nature. To make matters worse, the storm descended in the midst of a sweltering heat wave of more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit!
"So what?" some of you may be thinking. "In this country thousands are affected by natural disasters every year and we have learnt to cope." I, too, have lived through several tropical storms in Bangladesh and am familiar with the resilience of Bangladeshis, especially those who live in remote villages and are left without adequate help after a disaster. However, losing electric power in the "World's Capital" is a unique calamity by any standards. It caused tremendous disruption since most homes and even many public facilities do not have generators.
I could go on and on about the post-storm trauma faced by friends and neighbours, but, as is characteristically true of my columns, I want to focus on the positive experiences to illustrate how folks here dealt with the emergency. Despite the total mayhem, people maintained their composure and discipline. What surprised me was the patience and equanimity with which citizens accepted the situation. And yet, it was not total resignation -- communities became proactive to resume normalcy.
Neighbours went into immediate action to clear manageable debris. Friends living in apartment buildings with generators shared their homes. Libraries and community centers were designated as day time shelters where senior citizens and families with kids were encouraged to "cool off." To avoid clogging the phones of the utility companies, Council members used the centres to organise conference calls with the companies for latest updates on the power situation. Highest priority was attached to restoring services to hospitals, nursing homes for the old and infirm and water-pumping stations. Business offices and shopping malls opened up common areas to families of employees and customers for charging cell phones and using the Wi-Fi.
I was particularly impressed with the way drivers solved the problem of passing through traffic signals without power. As if by general consensus, a ground rule was established that whoever arrived at the crossing first had the right of way, hence preventing a grid lock. There were no public rows, no disruptions created by shoving, pushing or trying to get ahead in four way crossings or in supermarket lines. Once power was restored people just went about their business as usual.
The experience was a shocking reminder of how our daily lives are controlled by electric power. Watching the entire system disintegrate, the question that kept nagging me was: Why have we become so dependent on electricity? Definitely, electricity makes life more productive, comfortable and enjoyable, but, must we become slaves to power-operated gadgets and appliances? We drive to the gym where we walk or run for an hour on a machine run by electric power. Yet we refuse to walk a block to the grocery store. We use telephones and emails to communicate with neighbours and friends rather than stroll down the road and have a friendly chat!
Where is all this dependency taking us? We are on the verge of an economic meltdown, and facing a serious energy crisis (not to mention the pervading global unrest generated by a battle for oil supremacy). Yet, we, especially the citizens of developed countries, refuse to conserve energy or change our lifestyles. The storm was an eye opener for many of us. But, are we prepared to learn the lessons and make a conscious choice to travel in life's "slow lane?"