I’m writing this entry on a Thursday morning on the train to Chicago. In a few more hours, six days will have passed since the inland hurricane hit Southern Illinois. As the recovering disaster area recedes into the distance, the events of the past six days seem almost like a dream to me. But they weren’t a dream. And so, the story continues.
By mid-afternoon on the day of the storm, I found myself at the Interfaith Center. Charlie Howe had beat me there since he was travelling by truck, so when I arrived, he was already using his chainsaw on a large tree that had fallen across the path to the back door of the center.
It became clear pretty quickly that at least the initial sawing through the main trunk would be a one-person job. I realized that the walking and working had left me quite thirsty, so I went to get some water for the two of us and came back to watch the work as it progressed.
Once Charlie’s chainsaw got stuck in the tree trunk, the work ground to a halt. We tried hopping on the far end of the trunk in the hopes of snapping the remaining bit of wood at the cut point, but the wood wouldn’t snap. Even after a few other people joined us, we still didn’t have enough weight to snap it, so Charlie went about the work of extracting the chainsaw blade from the wood with a hand saw.
Within a matter of minutes, about a dozen people, mostly students, had gathered by the back door to eat and talk and get the latest news about the storm. I talked to people and helped with the sawing a little bit, but there was little I could do other than talk to people and fetch batteries for a hand saw and occasionally hop on the tree trunk in question. Once a path had been cleared from the parking lot to the back door, I decided to head home.
By this point, our house was starting to become a refugee center of sorts. I use that term half-jokingly since our region’s disaster thankfully involved a relatively small amount of injuries or outright destruction of homes. But it did involve damage to some homes and vehicles, and it became clear very quickly that the power would probably be out for days rather than hours. So, I sent a text message to a few friends inviting them to use our power, and Aur invited a few people over too.
How did we have power while most of Southern Illinois was powerless? Two words: photovoltaic modules. In other words, solar panels, and the inverter and battery storage required to store that energy and use it for our electric needs.
Our house itself doesn’t have a solar system installed. However, in preparation for the Shawnee Energy Fest, Aur had constructed a mobile solar energy trailer. This trailer consisted of a few solar panels on the roof, an inverter to convert the power from DC to AC, a monitor to track how much energy was being captured and stored, a set of batteries to store the energy, a pair of outlets on either side of the exterior of the trailer to use the energy, and an electric golf cart that fit inside the trailer and could be used at the fest for various transportation needs.
This mobile solar energy trailer was designed as a practical means of demonstrating the power of solar energy to the public. Now, it would do just that, but not in quite the same setting that Aur had originally imagined.
Throughout the power outage, one of the first and most popular uses of the solar system was cell phone charging. Cell phones are always handy tools, but especially so when you’re trying to get in touch with loved ones, find out the latest news, track down scarce resources, and coordinate plans in a disaster area. For the first hour or two of the disaster, I had trouble texting and calling certain people, due no doubt to network traffic or a brief power outage at a cell tower. But soon, I was texting people left and right to find out how they were and see how we could help each other.
Shortly after I got home, my friend Ben met me at my house. He left his phone to charge, and I took my charged phone with me. Together, we headed back out into the streets.
It’s hard to describe exactly what it felt like on that first day, and throughout the entire crisis.
On the one hand, people were remaining calm for the most part, and there was little short-term danger to be seen anywhere. Even with the slow and heavy traffic, it was much quieter and calmer than I would have expected a disaster area to be. Most of the buildings in town were either completely undamaged or had suffered superficial damage to their exteriors, and most of the people I encountered were in no immediate danger of food or water shortages or other threats to health and safety. For a lot of us, myself included, it seemed more like an exciting start to an unusual weekend rather than any cause for alarm or anxiety.
On the other hand, there was a tangible electricity in the air, and a post-apocalyptic atmosphere in the streets. Just about everyone was fine, but just about everyone also knew that water and gas and electricity and even cash (versus credit) would rapidly become precious commodities. Just about every block had either a building that had been smashed by falling trees, or a lane or two blocked by debris, or power lines that had been knocked down or still dangled precariously over the road. Many of the side streets, and some of the main streets, were full of lush green branches and scatterings of leaves. In some cases whole trees lay across the roads like willful roadblocks, complicating travel for all of the extra people who were in town to attend graduation ceremonies.
Ben and I did another walking tour of the neighborhood around my house. We looked around for any more volunteer roadwork that needed to be done, but even two people wouldn’t be enough to remove the remaining blocks without any tools. So, we soon made our way to the Strip to see what we could see of the damage and talk to anyone we knew.
Along the way, Ben told me about his experiences getting out of his own home on the outskirts of town. His adventure on the way to Carbondale had been a little more eventful than mine. One of his windows and a shed had been smashed by debris, and a tree had kept him pinned inside his house briefly until he trimmed away some of the branches and made his way outside. His main vehicle had only suffered superficial damage, so he started heading into town and “looking for trouble” just as I had.
Since he lived a little outside of town, there was plenty of work to be done. He can surely tell his own story better than I can, but it sounds like it involved several hours of volunteer road clearing on the way into town. Spillway Road was apparently littered with countless fallen trees, and there was talk of people stuck in houseboats out on the lake, so he spent the first few hours of the disaster working with neighbors to clear the roads. Once he made his way to town, he stopped by my place to charge his phone and hear the latest news from my part of the world.
By the time he’d told me this story, we had bought and eaten some quesadillas from the Mexican fast fast food place on the Strip, which was still selling food even though it didn’t have electricity. Soon, we were at our destination for the moment — a local bar at the north end of the strip called PK’s.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, PK’s has been a staple of the Carbondale bar and music scene for the past few decades. With their dim lighting, hangover breakfasts, and small stage for live music, they’ve been a haven for professional drinkers since before I ever came to town. Usually, I’m reluctant to go to PK’s because I’m not a professional drinker and don’t have much desire to be around them while they practice their trade. But we had heard that PK’s was open, and given the circumstances, I wanted to at least have a look.
To my surprise, PK’s had quickly become by far the classiest joint on the entire Strip. The power was out, and the entire length of the bar was illuminated with several dozen evenly spaced candles. The door had been propped open to let in what daylight remained, and people were milling about having friendly conversations about the storm and resulting loss of power.
Ben and I spent a little while at PK’s talking to people and finding out the latest news. It was at this point that I heard confirmation that there was indeed a 9 pm curfew in Carbondale and presumably other parts of Southern Illinois without power. Since it was around 8 pm when we heard this, we soon wrapped up our conversations at PK’s and made our way to my house.
As we took Ben’s dog for a walk in my neighborhood, we very quickly discovered that a curfew was in fact being enforced. It may not have even been 9 yet, but an officer pulled over and politely asked us if we lived nearby and if we knew about the curfew. Any thoughts of nighttime exploration of city and campus quickly evaporated. With the lights out and a curfew in place, we ended up going to bed fairly early.
In the morning, Ben went to work to check for power and deal with the refrigeration and freezer issues inevitable in his fast food workplace. He had intended to join me later in the morning for a Red Cross volunteer drive we’d heard about, but work kept him busy for much longer than he’d hoped. Instead, my roommate Juan and I ended up driving out to Southern Illinios Airport to find out what we could about the volunteer drive.
When we got there, it turned out that the Red Cross organizers were still just getting organized themselves. Once they found out that we weren’t any of the trained volunteers they were waiting for, they took down our phone numbers and told us that they’d call us once they were further along in the process. They never did end up calling, so I hope they found enough volunteers.
At this point, Juan and I were low on gas, so we drove to Du Quoin in search of a functional gas station.
From what we could tell, none of the gas stations in Carbondale or neighboring towns of Murphysboro, Carterville, or Marion were working at that point. The two places we heard about where gas was available were Du Quoin and Anna. Both of these towns are about the same distance from Carbondale, but Duquoin was slightly closer to our current location, and we’d heard from Ben that Anna’s gas stations were running out of gas. Besides, rumor has it that the socially conservative town of Anna is not the friendliest place for a Mexican and a long-haired Pagan tree-hugger to visit even on the best of days.
So, we headed to Du Quoin.
As we headed north out of town, we saw the first dramatic presence of utility crews that we had seen since the storm — a line of two dozen or more Ameren and CN and other trucks huddled along the railroad tracks working on the power lines and associated debris. As much as I may prefer living off-grid, I knew that a lot of people in the region were depending on that power coming back up, so the sight of all of those workers was very encouraging.
The gas lines in Du Quoin, however, were a little less encouraging. The first two stations we passed had lines coming out of the parking lot and into the street, so we pressed onward. Soon, Juan found a gas station that wasn’t on the main road and thus didn’t have much of a line yet. In the fifteen or so minutes that it took us to fill up, though, a long line started forming behind us, so we had just barely made it in time to beat the rush.
Upon our return to Carbondale, we met up with Aur again. He had wanted to offer power to WDBX, the community radio station where we (and many other local DJs) have our radio show. Unfortunately, though, the station required 220v power and we only had 110v. So, Aur suggested that I should call the Neighborhood Co-op Grocery and see if they needed our solar power.
As it turned out, the Co-op had just acquired a gas generator and didn’t have a pressing need for our solar energy. The person I talked to, however, mentioned to me that they had just gotten rid of some of the large amount of frozen foods and cheeses that had thawed to the point of no longer being sellable. So, Aur and Juan and I decided to go and salvage thousands of dollars of food that would otherwise go to waste.
Juan and I hopped into Juan’s car — the same one that had been briefly trapped under a tree the afternoon of the storm. Aur hopped into his truck, and together we headed off to the Co-op.
When we got there, there was more food to be had than our mere mortal minds could comprehend. The Co-op had been without power from Friday afternoon until sometime Saturday, and all of their frozen and refrigerated inventory had started warming to the point of being unsellable before they could find anything to do to keep it cold. They were prepared for brief power outages, but not ones that lasted days rather than hours. So, the refrigerated and frozen inventory had to go.
We apparently missed out on a bunch of refrigerated foods that we would have had no means to keep cool anyway. But when we got there, we discovered large amounts of frozen foods and cheeses at the back of the store. For health code and liability reasons, the Co-op isn’t allowed to give away such foods since there is some risk that contamination has occured or will occur due to thawing. But that doesn’t stop concerned citizens from salvaging the food once it has been left for disposal in or around the dumpster at the back of the store!
And so, the salvaging began.
The food was all still cold to the touch, so we knew that if we got it into proper storage soon, it would still be useable. Juan and I started loading up his back seat and trunk with a seemingly endless amount of gourmet cheeses and frozen dinners and vegetables and fake meats and even some real meat in the form of bacon and chicken nuggets and salmon patties. One or two other people we knew came by, and we let them take as much as they liked since we had no special claim to the food and were happy to share. They only took a little to fill a few coolers they had and left the rest to us. Juan turned on the air conditioner of his car to help keep the food cool, and then he drove around to the front of the shopping center that the Co-op is a part of.
At this point, we needed some hardware. We had power, but we didn’t have any way to preserve all of this food. So Aur bought a deep-freezer from the neighboring True Value. They apparently thought he was crazy at first for buying appliances in the middle of a power outage, but once he explained the situation to them, they were happy to sell him the deep-freezer and load it onto his truck. We also went to Juan’s family to borrow (or buy?) an empty deep-freezer that they weren’t currently using.
By the time we made it home, the bed of Aur’s truck was filled with a full deep-freezer, an empty deep-freezer, and a pile of frozen foods. Juan’s car had a trunk full of frozen foods, a front passenger seat full of cheeses, and back seats full of cheeses and a few spare tires.
What an odd sight it must have been! I rode with Aur, and we got a few curious looks as we drove through town with two deep-freezers in the bed of the truck, one of them overflowing with food. Soon, though, we made it home and started shuffling around the food and freezers to their newfound homes.
With that story told, I will draw this entry to a close. Shortly after I arrived home from the food run, I headed out to Carterville with a friend, so it seems like a good place to end this chapter of the story. But it will take me one or two more entries to finish the story, so I’m sure I’ll have more to write soon.
As I write this, it’s almost noon and my train is departing the Champaign-Urbana stop. As I walked the streets of Carbondale after dark last night, most of the city seemed to have electricity restored, but there were still some sections with power lines down, and much of the city was still filled with logs and trunks and branches that lined or occasionally still blocked the city streets. I don’t know the full status of Carterville, Murphysboro, Herrin, Marion, or any outlying areas, but last I heard they were all still partially or entirely out of power.
And so, as I ride north to Chicago to visit my family, my thoughts and prayers are with my friends and neighbors who are still without power or full access to their city streets. And my thoughts and prayers are also with the land itself, which has been irrevocably changed by the loss of untold thousands of old trees and the disturbance of what little ecological balance existed in the region. The people and the land will recover, of course; I have no doubt of that. But since this storm did so much to stir up the details of our lives, I wish them all the best in staying in touch with their loved ones and seeking out a new equilibrium in the wake of the storm.