Last week’s thunderous downpour caught me driving down a rain-swollen highway near my home. I’ve seen bad storms before — monsoons in India, hurricanes in Miami, flooding so bad in Manila that other Philippine dangers like volcanoes, Islamist insurgencies and being mowed down by a colorful Jeepney seemed almost welcome. But this was rain beyond anything I had previously experienced.
I got about halfway between my home and destination when that familiar advice from the Weather Channel came into my head.
“Turn around, don’t drown,” they say of encounters with flash flooding. “Stay tuned for your ‘Local on the 8’s.'”
I wasn’t about to actually turn around, as I had just barely made it out of a dip in the road that was fast becoming a lake. Instead, I pulled into the parking lot at Starbucks to wait out the worst of the Venti-sized deluge. (Fortunately, and perhaps accidentally, they didn’t charge me for this.)
Soon the rain let up enough for me to finish my errands and get my sodden butt home. Walking in the door, I wasn’t terribly surprised to find that the power had gone out.
My wife Beth was just hanging up the phone.
“I called the utility department to report it and all I’m getting is a busy signal,” she said. “I don’t want to be late for work. Can you keep trying to get through?”
“Sure,” I lied.
Beth and I generally have an honest relationship, except when it comes to reporting power outages. She believes officials at the power company need to have their noses rubbed in it when our usually reliable source of electricity has gone down. I happen to believe that, if they don’t already know about the issue from the dozens of other people calling in (hence the busy signal), they’ll find out quickly enough without hearing it from me.
I feel bad enough already for the lowly government worker. Revenue cuts and the economy have ruined their sense of job security. Conservative pedagogues characterize them as lazy, hide-bound bureaucrats. Many of them spend their workdays becoming more familiar with noxious effluents — sewerage, trash, muddy stormwater, proclamations from the mayor — than anybody would want to be.
Surely they don’t want to hear my voice being the 99th caller to point out that “hey, you know that violent supercell that just blew through the area? It knocked out my power, and now I can’t watch reruns of ‘Two and a Half Men.’ You gonna fix it or what? How soon? And Charlie Sheen’s lady friend in that episode — did they end up getting married?”
I’ve already asked a lot of our municipal workers recently. The garbage bin we use to roll our household trash down to the curb each Thursday morning had its lid broken in two, so they had to bring out a replacement. Then there was the fire at our next-door neighbor’s house a few months back that city firefighters were kind enough to extinguish before it consumed our entire neighborhood.
So rather than wait 20 minutes for someone to finally answer the phone, then report something as obvious as the way lightning interacts poorly with power lines, I preferred to sit in the growing dimness and wait. I used my portable booklight to read. My son used the iPad. Our three cats conveniently interpreted the sudden dark as meaning it was time for dinner, and gathered around to stare at me.
Beth called from work and asked if I’d had any luck getting through to the utility company.
“No, not yet,” I said. It was technically the truth — it’s hard to get through when you don’t even try.
Another 45 minutes or so passed (or maybe it was three days — it’s hard to tell when all the clocks go blank) and I started to get weary of the gloom. Plus, it was getting hot. Plus, I was getting hungry and my wife had made it clear that no admission to the refrigerator was permitted during the outage.
It had now been at least two hours since the lights first flickered, and I was running out of diversions to keep me occupied. What the heck? I figured at last. I might as well give the city a call.
This time, the phone on the other end of the line rang only about a dozen times before it was picked up. An automated voice told me my “service problem” had been automatically recorded, and that activities were underway to address it.
I had my doubts about that, but at least I had made the effort. Now, if in fact our home had been the only one in this city of 65,000 to be knocked off the grid, it was officially noted in the public record.
And then something amazing happened. The lights came on. As did the TV, and the dishwasher, and the air conditioner. I had reached out to my local public servants with a reasonable request, and the request had been answered.
“Power back on,” I texted Beth triumphantly. “Called mayor personally to demand it.”
“Hah,” came the response.
It’s not exactly like I had somehow prevailed in that classic “you-can’t-fight-city-hall” scenario. What I did wasn’t exactly a “fight”; it was more like a polite request, given to a high-tech answering machine. But it felt good to know that it was still possible to live under a responsive government that actually did the stuff you asked it to.
And it felt good to have the AC back on, it felt good not to have to read any more, and it felt good to turn on the Weather Channel.