Five years ago today (June 29, 2017), I, along with a lot of other Americans living in the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic regions, learned a new word – derecho.
Over the next week, many of us also learned to make the best of a bad situation – trying to stay comfortable without power during one of the hottest weeks in modern southeast Ohio history.
In the late afternoon of June 29, 2012, the massive storm slammed into Athens County with 60 mile per hour average forward wind speeds and gusts a lot higher. In Athens County alone, it mowed down thousands of trees and power lines, and wrecked uncounted roofs, fences, barns and outbuildings. Locally, we were fortunate to not suffer any deaths or serious injuries (at least none reported by law enforcement), though nearly two-dozen people lost their lives in other areas.
The NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), on its web-page about the derecho, reports:
“While not the most intense or long-lived event ever observed, the June 29, 2012 Ohio Valley/Mid-Atlantic Derecho was noteworthy in producing the all-time highest recorded June or July wind gusts at several official observing sites along its path (Fort Wayne, Indiana, Zanesville, Ohio, and Huntington, West Virginia), in addition to widespread, significant wind damage. Five million people lost power from Chicago to the mid-Atlantic Coast, and 22 people were killed. The storm also was notable for being arguably the first derecho to capture widespread media attention, striking as it did nearly every metropolitan area in a broadening path that extended from Chicago and Indianapolis to Baltimore, Washington, and Tidewater Virginia.”
The Wikipedia entry for the derecho reports that the damage total of $2.9 billion “exceeded that of all but the top 25 Atlantic tropical cyclones.”
The NOAA adds in its summary: “Many thousands suffered without power for days in the life-threatening heat wave that persisted after the storm.”
THE HEAT WAVE, FOR ME at least, was the worst aspect of the derecho and its aftermath. With modern air conditioning, even people in sizzling locales such as Palm Springs and Phoenix (both reaching 120 degrees in the past week), can escape the heat.
However, from the moment the derecho struck Athens on June 29, 2012, knocking out power throughout the area, to Saturday, July 7, when electric power finally returned to our small, rural subdivision outside of Athens, the searing 90-plus-degree heat (with warm, muggy nights) never relented.
The good news is that most of us altered our schedules, lifestyles and habits enough to where, while uncomfortable, we managed to tolerate consecutive days (eight for my family) without power in the stifling heat.
At our house, we did the following:
• Picked up ice at Kroger, one of the few local sources, early every morning and brought it home to fill the coolers before heading into work.
• Closed all the windows and curtains or blinds before leaving for work.
• Since the power returned to uptown Athens and the OU campus the day after the derecho, my wife’s and my workplaces in Athens had A/C, so that helped during the weekdays.
• After work each evening, we went to an air-conditioned restaurant to eat. Thank goodness Athens Dynasty (Chinese) was close to our home.
• Upon returning home, we hung out in our relatively cool half-basement until the sun went down. Two or three nights, thunderstorms hit, cooling the air a bit.
• As soon as the sun dipped below the horizon and the air began cooling, we opened all the windows and sliding doors and left them open all night. In the evening before going to bed, we sat out on the back deck, trying to pick up an occasional cool breeze. We’d drink a glass of wine or two and play with our iPhones by lantern light, which wasn’t a half bad way to pass the time.
• Sleeping wasn’t comfortable, though it was tolerable, and brought back memories of summer nights in my childhood in a non-air-conditioned house (though at least back then we could sleep in front of a box fan).
• In the morning, the cycle continued, with all the windows and doors shut tight before the heat returned.
The worst part of our days came when we arrived home, opened the car door, and could hear the conspicuous roar of our elderly neighbor’s generator on the other side of the block. That soul-killing noise delivered the depressing message that the power remained out for yet another day. But we were glad she had some respite from the heat.
It was by far the most severe weather event I’ve ever experienced, and on Saturday afternoon, July 7, when the tree-service trucks finally climbed the hill to our subdivision, I had a small sense of what spotting an oasis in the desert must feel like for weary travelers. I’m just glad it wasn’t a mirage.
And yes, I do realize that our week-long travail was small potatoes compared to what a lot of people in our country and other countries experience every day of their lives.
Note: We ran a three-year retrospective of the derecho in 2015, soliciting memories from local residents. You can read it here.
Editor’s note: Over the past few months, we’ve been poring over back issues of The Athens NEWS – all the back issues – in preparation for our special, commemorative book later this year celebrating our 40 years in business. In the meantime, we are previewing the book with remarkable examples of that old content, along with a bit of commentary. The weekly feature is called “The Athens NEWS: 40 Years on the Bricks,” which is one of the titles we’re considering for the book itself (with expected publication early this coming fall).