On July 19, a fierce storm pounded St. Louis. At around 7 pm, the power flickered, then it went out. The sky looked threatening and the winds were relentless, so my wife and I gathered up flashlights and a portable radio and headed for the basement.
What happened next wasn’t at all what we were expecting.First, let me emphasize that this was nothing compared to what happened to the Atlantic Gulf Coast last summer. It was maddening and inconvenient, but at least it pretty much ended at that. With that aside, let’s get on with the story.
For whatever reason, the portable radio was already tuned to 1120 AM, which was KMOX. I knew KMOX would interrupt whatever they had going on to cover this. At first I heard good news. The worst was to our east. I learned in the fourth grade that weather moves from west to east, so this was just a typical midwestern thunderstorm that would blow over in about 20 minutes, and then the utilities would send workers out, and we’d probably have power back in an hour or two.
But this wasn’t a typical thunderstorm. This storm did the opposite of what typical weather does and it moved southeast. One minute, the worst was to the east of us. The next minute, they were saying a tornado touched down at Jefferson Barracks. That’s only a few miles away.
It seemed like a couple of hours passed, but it probably was closer to 45 minutes before the storm let up. We could hear pinging on the gutters. Hail? The thunder and lighting was spectacular–not in the good way–and the sky was an eerie color. There wasn’t much rain, but there was more than enough of everything else to make up for it.
Finally the storm moved to the south of us and fizzled out. We took our flashlights and cell phones and the radio upstairs. It was cooler in the unfinished basement, but there really wasn’t anyplace to sleep down there. The living room, being on a sunken slab foundation that was added to the house later, is always a bit cooler than the rest of the house, so we’d sleep there that night.
The radio kept giving updates on power losses. The numbers kept getting higher. All in all, nearly 400,000 homes lost power that night.
The Gatermanns called that night to ask if we’d lost power. My wife said we had. They invited us to stay with them. I was already asleep; otherwise, we probably would have taken them up on the offer.
I had to work the next morning, so our first full day without power impacted my wife more than it impacted me. She said she’d run a few errands once it got hot, then find a library that was open and go there and read to stay out of the heat.
Before I left, I called over to the office to make sure it was still there. The preliminary reports were that the Illinois side, where I work, was hit harder. Some of my coworkers had lost power, but the office was still in good shape. So I headed out, but not before I opened the fridge to try to salvage a few things. My wife’s insulin was still cool, so I grabbed it. There was a fridge at work, so I figured I might as well use it.
As I drove to work, I got my first real glimpse of the damage. There were tree limbs everywhere. Some were small, but some were huge. Then I saw a utility pole snapped in two. The top part was hanging by what was left of the wire. I saw some orange cones on the ground. It was keeping people away from another downed wire.
As I drove home that night, I meant to go home a different way to avoid the area with the snapped utility pole. But of course I forgot. The pole was still hanging by that thread of a wire. The cones were gone. I saw the wire still on the ground. I could imagine the scene behind that story: "Bobby, go move those cones so I can back out my pickup and go sell some propane. Try to stay away from the sparks coming off that wire."
When I got home, my wife was there and electricity wasn’t. We gathered up a handful of things and headed off to the Gatermanns’. They welcomed us in, and even took us to dinner. There was damage in their neighborhood too, but not everyone had lost power. They were one of the homes that hadn’t.
At the restaurant, people were complaining that there was no ice. The manager explained they were out of ice and trying to get more, but all of the ice suppliers in the city were sold out. That was fine by me. Using ice just to keep my drink cold seemed wasteful when there were more important uses for a scarce commodity that night.
The next morning, we drove back home so I could get ready for work. My wife was going to tackle the freezer and the fridge. She’d just filled both earlier in the week because there were some good sales. It was a shame to lose it. It could have been worse, I said. I repeated it to myself too. It could have been worse.
That night, there was another storm. This one hit the parts of St. Louis the other storm hadn’t hit so hard. Another couple hundred thousand people lost power, including the mayor of St. Louis.
My wife actually stayed around the house quite a bit. It was hard for her to leave home. We ate out, of course, because preparing food without electricity is difficult. Finally on Saturday I remembered we had a gas range. I turned on the burner, lit a match, and ignited it. We could cook! So we went to the store, bought about a meal’s worth of stuff. It was a simple meal, but it was one we made at home. Eating out every day gets old really fast.
We got used to hearing the sound of our neighbors’ generators. By the time I thought about getting one, our food had spoiled, so there wasn’t a lot of point. We worked in the yard a bit, clearing the damage. We’d been told to drag our downed limbs to the curb, and the county would come pick them up. I dragged five huge limbs from the back yard up to the curb. All of them were taller than me.
There’s not a lot to do without electricity, so we read an awful lot. As the daylight faded, we lit candles to help out. We gathered every candle in the house up and set them in the living room. Usually it let us read for another 30-40 minutes.
The biggest adventure was the stoplights. St. Louisans don’t really seem to know what to do when confronted with a red light (most people seem to think they have a grace period, kind of like credit cards), but when a signal is completely out, it can be very dangerous. About two miles from us there’s a major intersection that had its lights out, and every time we drove past, there was at least one smashed-in car at the intersection. We got used to hearing sirens. "Sounds like someone else ran the light," we’d say when we heard them.
When we had to go out, we avoided that intersection.
At about 3 a.m. on Monday morning, my wife got up to use the bathroom. She walked back in and flipped the light on and off in the living room in celebration. "What?" I asked as I woke up. It usually takes a while for things to set in when I first wake up. I’m known for that.
"It’s back on!" she said.
We closed up the windows, I turned the air conditioning back on, and crawled back into our real bed. Usually when I’m roused at 3 a.m., I don’t go back to sleep. But I didn’t have any trouble getting back to sleep that night. Sleeping in my own bed felt too good.