“Bring the generator, and a chainsaw”
By Gary Cameron
Finishing the last day of a nice Canadian fishing vacation, (in 70 degree temperatures with no humidity I might add), I got “the call” from my wife Joann last Saturday. She had just returned to our Silver Spring, Maryland home of 29 years.
“Bring the generator, and a chainsaw.” Oh, oh, sounded like vacation time was over.
Heading home on Interstate 81 south, I saw plenty of power company trucks from various U.S. states and Canada going in the same direction. Little did I realize that quite a few of those trucks were heading for my very own neighborhood in Montgomery County, Maryland. I stopped for gasoline just over the Pennsylvania-Maryland line to fill up as I wasn’t certain if gasoline pumps were operational in my home area. A man approached, asking if that was a generator on my hitch carrier. He said that they were already sold out regionally and admired my 5300 watts of surge power.
Arriving home a day after a rapid major storm ripped through the mid-west to east coast, I saw what intense wind forces can do to an old neighborhood, circa 1918, and the beautiful, old trees that form a canopy over it. I’ve been through hurricanes on my home street, and covered them nationally; this damage was just as bad. Not Joplin, Missouri bad, but bad nonetheless. Power lines were down everywhere, temperatures were always in the high 90 degree plus range, with intense humidity adding to the heat.
As much as I wanted to cover the story on return, I had to take care of my property first. (Sorry, Tom). The backyard was strewn with limbs, branches, and the garage took a major hit from a branch about 200 feet above. The house and front yard were mostly unscathed, but the power transformer and utility pole in front of my house, which supplies juice to our block was down and in the middle of the street. That’s never happened before. The poles have bent and taken out lines in the past, but never ended up in the street.
Most of my neighbors were not as lucky; many had huge limbs through their roofs, or at best, laying on top. This was the price of living in a nice old neighborhood with plenty of shade.
Job one: Save what was left in the freezer and refrigerator, which meant getting the generator going and run power cords into the house.
Job two: Get enough gasoline in two portable tanks to run said generator for what could be many days of use.
Job three: Find a fan or two to get air moving on the front porch, which was the coolest part of the house.
After accomplishing that, it was time to pick up the chainsaw and start cutting limbs and branches down to size that could be hauled up the block to a huge neighborhood pile for later pick up. With evening approaching, it was now time to take care of domestic matters. With my wife not embracing the no lights, no air-conditioning edict, we decided (actually, SHE decided) that she would escape with the dogs to an available, and empty, DC apartment with power. I would man up on the home front and keep the generator going – solo.
It was time to make the front porch comfortable and turn it into office space. I ran some power cords from the backyard, through the kitchen, past the living room, onto the porch. Fan, check. Pillow, check. Flashlight, check. No need for a blanket.
DAY TWO; GET TO WORK!
I really didn’t sleep much, as another small weather front came through with heat lightning, but caused no further damage. I fed the generator (every 6-7 hours), and walked the neighborhood with my cameras. By then, people were past the initial stage of the storm, and all the “small” clean up was accomplished. No one was up and moving at 6:30am. How could anyone sleep in this heat I thought? Nothing was happening, and pictures were minimal. You have to have the human element in just about every facet of photojournalism.
Finally, a Montgomery County work crew with big trucks, big machinery, showed up and started their clearing and hauling process. This introduced me to Cliff and Krista Lutz, whose house I have always admired, took a major hit from tall trees. Pictures were here and new friends were made.
A few blocks over, the chain saws and private tree removal companies were starting up. I took some more pictures of more destruction. Seeing how badly some homes were damaged, the lack of power and comforts that it provides, seemed minimal. No one should complain when a neighbor has a 200 foot tulip poplar in their upstairs bedroom.
I headed back to the house and office porch/bedroom. Air card and laptop fired up nicely off the generator, and pictures were on the wire. Time for another tour of the neighborhoods. I really didn’t have look too far. My next door neighbor Jonathan Jay hired a tree removal crew to get heavy wood off his demolished rear deck (just finished last year), and garage (also, just finished last year).
A tow truck came and hauled away his Toyota Prius, which took a major hit from a branch, destroying the windshield. Half-way through filing my next edit, the “dead” transformer in the middle of the street came alive, with loose wires arcing high-powered electricity, and starting a brush fire (in front of Jonathan’s house, naturally).
I am no hero, nor close to one, but I sprang into action (and I mean damn quick), running my garden hose down to the brush fire, and attempting to contain it so the whole block didn’t go up in flames. All the curbsides were full of dried out branches and leaves from people’s yards. I yelled at Jonathan to give me more hose, and told Jill across the street to call the fire department and Pepco, and to turn this damn flame-breathing beast off. The fire was NOT going down.
The fire department arrived, quickly, and a weary firefighter admonishes me for attempting to do their job. ‘Your heart was in the right place,” I was told, “but your brain wasn’t.” “If that water stream came close to the arcing wires, it could have followed up the hose and make you look like Jim Carrey’s 1980’s character ‘In Living Color’, Fire Marshall Bill.”
A good friend and neighbor, and former DCFD Battalion Chief, William Flint agreed later. “Just take photos and let it burn.” I knew that. Well, I sort of knew that. The professionals wouldn’t even approach the mini-blaze near the transformer, but it appeared I put enough water on it for containment.
A small Pepco crew showed up near dusk. Working 16 hour shifts in heat and humidity, they just wanted to accomplish their tasks and move on to the next one. Their job was to ensure that the “dead” transformer stayed that way, and prep the damaged pole for transfer to a new one. Stoic and weary, they offered hope that power would be restored sooner than expected, especially after the little brush fire incident. That had got someone’s attention.
Two men waited with “Old Sparky,” wrapped up and ready to head off wherever old transformers go. A truck was needed to lift and carry the monster away. They waited and waited and waited. Fortunately, they had cases of cold Gatorade and water in coolers on ice but no food. I offered to bring back burgers from my nightly run, but they said thanks, they’d be gone soon.
I returned from a quick dinner. The men were gone, but “Old Sparky” remained in the street, wrapped in heavy gauge plastic wrap. The pick up truck never showed meaning that power probably wouldn’t be restored as quickly as we had hoped.
Night approached and it was still 85 degrees at 8pm. Jonathan left in his rental car, leaving Jill and I as the last Woodside Parkway soldiers on the block. I started to feel like a cross between Wil Smith’s character in “I Am Legend” (minus the quick red Mustang GT) and Clint Eastwood’s ‘Walt Kowalski’ on his porch in “Gran Torino.” There were no zombies roaming the streets; I hadn’t had to put up 2×4’s over the windows and doors – yet.
Minor break-in’s were reported in the neighborhood, as there were a number of empty homes with no power and light. Time to feed the generator for the night and turn on the porch fan, call Joann who said the pool was nice at the apartment complex and the dogs were happy. I was invited over but I didn’t want to leave my generator. We’d become quite close.
DAY THREE; BEN CUSHMAN AND THE INCREDIBLE TREE CLIMBING STEVE GORDON
It was time to find the human element amid the destruction. Ben Cushman’s house, a half block down the street, was one of the hardest hit and had a frightening story. Moments before the storm and high winds hit late June 29, Cushman’s wife Nirupa said in no uncertain terms that they had to get their children Sahana and Suriyan out of their second story bedrooms “now!” Just as they were carrying them out of their respective bedrooms, a huge tree crashed through the attic and into the rooms over the children’s beds. It was a close call, very close. Talk about maternal instincts.
As Cushman waited for a huge crane to arrive, he was amazingly cheerful, resilient and optimistic. Again, the loss of electrical power seemed minimal. I was in the presence of a man who knew how lucky he was to have his children out of harm’s way. The crane operator was very wary of starting the job; to get to the wreckage, he had to take his crane arm over power lines that weren’t clear whether they were hot and active. After the transformer incident and minor fire, no one was taking any chances. The crane operator wanted a Pepco representative on site to assure him.
I headed back to the office/porch/bedroom to file photos. My friend Brian Beard showed up with homemade biscuits and gravy and a six-pack of a micro brew. It was going to be a good day. Just as Brian and I sat down to eat, a huge Pepco crew arrived with a new utility pole and a new transformer! Christmas in July!
The crew, all from out of state, were an incredible team to watch. Every move and repair was orchestrated, with linesmen Travis Shepherd and Will Hall appearing to take the lead. Shepherd, in a lift bucket, started to disassemble all the remnants of past electrical and telecommunication lines, which even before the storm, were a mess. Somehow, despite the heat and the physical and mental effort of his job, he kept track of which lines go to which homes and tied them off.
Once finished with that, the old pole had to be removed, and the new utility pole dug and installed. Looking down the street back to Ben Cushman’s house, I saw that the crane operator and tree removal workers were attempting to bring down the huge limbs and tree trunks around, and attached, to his house. Steve Gordon was up in the middle of the mess, attaching the crane’s lifting straps, and then cutting limbs and trunk that will be lowered to the ground. It was a delicate dance about 150 feet in the air, with much yelling back and forth from Gordon to the ground crew. He moved very slowly and deliberately. Even so, after a massive piece was cut, he had to duck out of harm’s way as the piece of wood swung back over the top of his head.
Back to the house for the final hook up of new lines, transformer and street light. Shepherd, Hall and crew were putting the final touches on attaching the big juice wires from the main 240 volt line to the transformer. Everyone was drenched in sweat, and nothing but thanks and compliments are directed toward the crew. These are the worker bees who get the job done.
Amazingly, the power came on less than half an hour after the final touches on the new transformer and pole were installed. I shut the generator down, wound up the maze of extension cords throughout the house, and re-attached the freezer and fridge to their original electrical outlets. Watering the plants and flowers seemed like a cool and refreshing idea, so I did that for 30 minutes before going into the house to turn on the air conditioning. Suddenly, a police cruiser appeared in my driveway. The officer asked if I was the homeowner, and once that was established, he stated that my alarm system, reactivated with electricity for the first time in four days, was going off.
The internal temperature in my house slowly lowered from 89 degrees to the artificially chilled 74 on the thermostat. I took a shower, turned on a hi-def baseball game, and fell asleep before the third inning was completed. I woke up hours later, game over. I headed up to my bedroom and not the porch.