There’s no way to capture in words what Southern Illinios has been like during and after the massive storm that just battered the region. I don’t want to overplay the significance of it since I realize that it could have been much worse, and other places have experienced much worse. But since it’s been an exciting couple of days, I thought the least I could do was tell the story of my own experiences.
For me, I suppose the story starts last Wednesday night. I was inexplicably restless and hyperactive that night and stayed up until almost dawn on Thursday — which happens to me from time to time, so I didn’t think much of it at the time. After talking to friends, though, I think it may have been due to a sense of realizing that something big was coming.
Ironically enough, what I occupied my time with on that night was climate-related, if only in a geeky way. I found my copy of the Ultima Collection and decided to play Ultima 7 Part II: Serpent Isle. The major plotline of this game involves a world out of balance and a land ravaged by powerful magical storms which threaten to tear apart the fabric of reality unless balance is restored.
So, after playing this for a few hours, I went to be a little before dawn and tried to get a good “night’s” sleep.
The first signs of stormy weather came late Thursday night, perhaps technically early Friday morning. I was at a friend’s house, and the sound of sudden hail hitting the building and ground outside reminded me of the sound of a popcorn popper. We saw the sky light up green with a lightning flash, then many more “ordinary” yellow-ish and grey-ish flashes as the region was pelted with hail. My friend went a few feet outside to pick up some hail to show us, and we all poked our heads out a little bit just to see it fall.
After another night’s sleep, it was time for my radio show. I hadn’t read the forecast for the day, but I’ve heard that there was nothing in the early morning to indicate the strength of the coming storm. I’m pretty sure that the severe weather alert sounded at WDBX shortly after my show (before I left the building), but even then it wasn’t clear that this would be more than just the usual heavy thunderstorm.
During the first half of the storm, I actually went outside and walked and sang and danced a bit in the falling rain. The occasional thunder was loud and powerful enough to fill me with a sense of awe, and I could feel the energy of the storm all around me. In the heat of the moment, I called on the wind and rain and thunder to humble us with their power and intensity and ferocious beauty.
In retrospect, that may not have been the best idea.
As I made my way home, the weather grew very calm. I noticed how stark of a contrast this was from the previous moments of intense wind and thunder, but for a moment it didn’t occur to me that this was the “calm before the storm” — or at least the calm before the REAL storm. As soon as it started picking back up though, I could tell that we were in for trouble.
The winds started picking up, and I was at home with two of my roommates and a third person who had come to look at the plumbing. As the first tree limb was torn loose in our backyard, we actually went outside to marvel at the intensity of the storm and talk about the fact that the branch fell just short of someone’s truck.
But unlike in any other storm I’ve experienced, the winds just kept picking up. More debris started falling from the trees, and the winds rose to a violent crescendo. My two roommates Aur and Juan decided that they wanted to move Juan’s car and go somewhere else to ride out the storm. I told them that they were crazy, but the storm had all of us excited, and there was no dissuading them.
Just as they were starting to back out of the driveway, we had one of the most intense wind gusts of the entire storm. I was standing in my living room looking out through the front door, and I glanced out the side window just in time to see the largest tree in our yard — a massive tree far older than I am — ripped free of the ground and pushed to the ground in the direction of my friends and their car.
For a moment, I was simply stunned. There was nothing I could do, even if I’d had the time to get out the door and get to the car. Instead, I watched as the crown of the tree landed right on top of their vehicle, obscuring most of it behind leaves and branches.
Once I was sure that the tree had stopped falling and nothing else was going to domino down onto my head, I hurried outside to see if they were okay. For a moment, I wondered if anyone was trapped in that car, and if I’d have to be dragging them out to safety. Luckily, the tree had been partially deflected by hitting my friend Aur’s van, and Juan’s car had actually received very little damage. It looked pretty serious having the fallen treetop obscure most of the car, but in reality the car and its occupants were fine. Juan got out of the driver’s side before I even reached the car, and Aur emerged from a tangle of leaves and branches on the passenger side a moment later.
After that, there was no denying the seriousness of this storm!
The entire storm — or at least the intense portion after the calm of the storm — must have lasted only twenty or twenty-five minutes. And yet, the results were like nothing I had experienced firsthand.
As the storm died down, it wasn’t long at all before the rain stopped, the winds were quiet, and the sun started to emerge. Dozens of neighbors emerged from neighboring buildings and eventually from surrounding areas as people wandered around on foot and in vehicles to look at the damage and do whatever else they had to do for the day. The tree that fell on Juan’s car had landed perpendicular to the road and extended well onto the other side of the street to form a massive green roadblock. This was one of the most dramatic scenes in the immediate area, so a few dozen people stopped to look at it, many of them (myself included) pulling out cell phones to take pictures.
For a few moments, we were just a bit dazed, marvelling aloud at the power of the storm. We realized that Juan’s car would be stuck for at least a little while, so Aur and Juan headed out by truck, and I stayed at home. Surprisingly, the house itself incurred very little damage, even with several trees and treetops being tossed around like dominoes.
Once it was clear that my house and my friends were okay, I soon became restless. I was alone now, and I didn’t have any tools or a vehicle. But I decided to roam the neighborhood by foot — “looking for trouble” as I later put it. That is, after all, what my experiences as an activist and my fondness for role-playing adventurous characters had taught me to do.
At first, I was honestly of very little help to anyone, but the span of the storm’s impact started becoming clearer to me.
The biggest damage on my block was a small house that had been crushed almost entirely by a tree. There were a few people milling about, so I asked them if they lived in the house in question. It turned out that they knew the people there, but nobody was home at the time, which was a relief to hear. Then, I moved on to one of the most visually stunning bits of damage I’ve yet to see here in Carbondale.
Over on Wall Street, an apartment building had some or all of its metal roof sheered entirely clear of the building. The entire roof had been flung into the neighboring power lines, tangling all around them and pulling a few of the poles to lean precariously into the street. The end result was a large segment of sheet metal suspended in the middle of the road by a tangle of power lines and poles, surrounded by bits of debris and fallen power lines.
I can only imagine what it must have been like to watch that happen!
By the time I got there, the Carbondale Police had a few officers on the scene — a couple to direct traffic, and one to stand by the sidewalk in a certain spot and direct people not to walk over power lines and debris that had fallen on the sidewalk. That may sound a bit silly — people have common sense, right? But you’d be surprised… they had to advise several people not to take shortcuts under the power lines dangling overhead or across the power lines on the ground. I even got in on the act at that point and pointed out to a couple of people that standing under those lines was a bad idea. They seemed to be holding steady in their newly mangled configuration… but why tempt fate?
I wandered in and around my own neighborhood, but there wasn’t much to help with. In most places, the small debris had either not been a problem or had already been cleared, and I had no power to clear the large debris. So, I mostly just wandered and asked the occasional person if they needed help clearing out anything.
Then, I finally started being mildly productive. With the help of a passer-by, I cleared a bit of debris off of Wall Street — mostly a moot point since a big chunk of Wall was impassable, but that portion was seeing occasional use and I figured it was worth it even if it improved the rapidly-forming traffic only by a fraction.
As I made my way west along East College, I started to see entire segments of road in that neighborhood blocked by trees. You could still get around, mostly, as long as you weren’t in one of the cut off segments. But it did create chaos, especially since they were routing traffic two ways down the normally one-way street.
This is the point at which I first began to feel mildly productive. I came across a pile of fallen branches on the side of the street right around the corner of East College and Marion. On any other day, this pile would have been no big deal since there was still plenty of room for a single vehicle to get around it. But since there was a growing amount of two-way traffic, it had become one of several choke points on the road.
It only took a minute or two to move the light branches and other windsept debris out of the street. As soon as I did, trafic was indeed able to take up two lanes at that spot. I felt encouraged by this small act — and since it seemed like there was little more I could do in my own neighborhood, I decided to move westward.
The intersection by the underpass is a strange place even on a good day. University Ave, Illinois Ave, and Mill St all intersect in a complex mish-mash that seems a bit out of place even when the trafic lights are working. To my surprise, all of the traffic lights were out, and there was no one there to direct traffic.
For a moment, I was tempted to try to direct traffic myself. But I quickly realized that this was one of those whimsical ideas I get sometimes rather than anything practical. Most people were just treating the entire mess as a giant stop sign — and while the complexity of it all lead to some confusion about whose turn it was to go when, it seemed like people were avoiding accidents by exercising appropriate levels of caution. So, I paused a moment to marvel at the site of it and just kept walking.
Soon, I found myself at the one big patch of debris where I feel like I really made a difference. Just a foot or two south of the intersection of West College and University, there was a substantial pile of broken tree limbs. This pile was covering an entire lane of traffic as well as the parking spot next to the curb. There were a couple of long and heavy lengths of wood which I simply couldn’t move alone, but there were also a lot of smaller branches and loose clumps of leaves.
As soon as I saw this pile, I knew that I had to work on it. University is one of the major streets in town, and this sort of bottleneck was the sort of thing that could slow down traffic for a big chunk of the city. So, I started pulling away the smaller branches. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to move the larger branches, but I focused on what I could do, and hoped that other people would notice and come to my aid.
And come to my aid they did! At first, there were two people who walked up together and wordlessly joined in the work. By this point, I had cleared away the small amount of debris that was actually leaning into the passable lane and cleared a bit out of the blocked lane. But together, we were able to clear about a third of the blocked lane — and more toward the north end of it, which helped people turning from College onto University.
At this point, though, we started to reach an impass. We had moved some of the biggest lengths of trunk, but couldn’t get them out of the way entirely. One of the other volunteers invited a group of young men who were passing by to help us, but they apparently had better things to do as they casually strolled off to destinations unknown. And so, it seemed like the work to finish clearing the roadblock was going to be either slow and gruelling or simply not possible.
And then, I looked up and saw Charlie Howe walking our way with chainsaw in hand, ready to get to work.
I think I actually laughed out loud at the sight of him and his unexpected aid. I said that he was just the man we’d been looking for, and he set to work sawing the fallen trunks into smaller chunks that we could haul to the curb. After moving a few of these chunks out of the way, I focused more on the small debris — both because it suited my relatively poor upper body strength, and because it made the lane visibly clearer so that drivers would know they could drive over it.
With Charlie’s help, we made quick work of the blockade and finished clearing the lane — a task that probably would have been impossible without him, or without a few more strong bodies to lift that heavy length of trunk. Traffic on that part of University expanded to fill both lanes, and we decided to move on.
Charlie told me that he was on his way to the Interfaith Center to help clear away some fallen trees over there. He didn’t have room for me in his truck, though, so I told him I’d meet him over there.
And for now, I’ll leave off with that. I did have a few more adventures later in the day, but I’ll leave the telling of that for later. In the meantime, it’s early in the morning after the storm, and I don’t want to waste too much time or electricity writing this entry. So, I’ll leave it at that for now, and I’ll be sure to share more soon.