Stormy Weather: Powerless? Nature is the real power

THE DETROIT FREE PRESS TEAM finishing the front-page news story on the great power outage of 2003, from left standing with candle: Steve Spalding, then John Gallagher on the phone, Carole Leigh Hutton and David Ashenfelter. Metro Editor Bob Campbell sits next to David Crumm in lower right. David served as Rewrite and this Free Press team was finishing the main front-page story on the last laptop with battery power, helped along by Spalding's candle.

THE DETROIT FREE PRESS TEAM finishing the front-page news story on the great power outage of 2003, from left standing with candle: Steve Spalding, then John Gallagher on the phone, Carole Leigh Hutton and David Ashenfelter. Metro Editor Bob Campbell sits next to David Crumm in lower right. David served as “Rewrite” and this Free Press team was overseeing his work as David typed out the main front-page story on the last laptop with battery power, helped along by Spalding’s candle. The laptop is not visible in this photo, but the final minutes of its screen’s glow illuminate Bob and David. A moment later, a newsroom aide was dispatched to take the laptop’s flash drive and physically transport it to a printing plant that had backup power.

“If this phone line goes dead, that’s because of the storms hitting this part of the country,” our columnist and author Benjamin Pratt said this week as he telephoned the ReadTheSpirit home office in Michigan about the publication of his latest column.

The storms did more than knock out power. In a heart-breaking blow to people along the Boardwalk—high winds whipped fires that destroyed dozens of businesses. (See the news item below.)

This time of year—hurricane season—makes all of us anxious. As founding Editor of ReadTheSpirit online magazine and publishing house, I am writing this column because I so vividly recall the terrifying first hours of the “Blackout of 2003,” which affected 55 million people. I was a senior writer on the Detroit Free Press staff, at that time, and occasionally was called upon to serve as “Rewrite” for major tragedies. In a traditional newsroom, Rewrite was the staffer who sat by a bank of phone lines and took calls from a cast of dozens of reporters swarming all over a breaking story.

With my background in religion reporting and my generally calm demeanor, the Free Press honchos tapped me for Rewrite a number of times over the years. I was at the hub for a couple of plane crashes, a mass shooting, the explosion of a fireworks factory—you get the idea. The rest of the staff would run as fast as they could to grab individual facts, fanning out to police stations, emergency rooms, neighbors’ homes. On and on, they would race until deadline. And, Rewrite would take their calls, tapping more and more details into the final story with each telephone report.

The Blackout of 2003 now is remembered as a cautionary tale about flaws in our national power grid. One long National Public Radio report on the 10-year anniversary of the massive outage focused on the need for proper tree trimming along power right of ways. I thought: How the terror of that story has faded into mundane maintenance tips!

When the Blackout of 2003 hit, the first reports in our newsroom were: It’s another terrorist attack! As Rewrite, I recall one of the first phone calls came from a breathless reporter who was speeding somewhere in a Free Press car: “Flames have been spotted south of Detroit! I’m heading there now!” Turns out, those flames were just the tall, burn-off vents that always sent flames skyward in one industrial area south of Detroit. Suddenly, in the darkness that was descending all around us—those vent stacks were an ominous sign.

As my fingers tapped on a laptop, I thought to myself: “Wow. This is how panic spreads! In an instant of terror, we can leap to the assumption that we are under attack.”

The truth was: We were under attack from ourselves—our own flawed technology in the national power grid. (You can read all about it in the extremely detailed Wikipedia overview.)

The larger truth is: In stormy weather—when we’re suddenly powerless—we glimpse nature’s real power. Talk about scary!?!

Click the photo to read Rodney's story.

Click the photo to read Rodney’s story.

TODAY, our intrepid columnist and author Rodney Curtis has published a new column about this very point—as his family was just caught in a power outage.

ALSO TODAY, our caregiving expert Heather Jose writes about the challenges faced by millions of caregivers nationwide as seasons change. She invites readers to share tips to help caregivers prepare for fall and winter. It’s a great idea—and only takes a moment.

AND … BACK TO THE BLACKOUT: Now, 10 years after the 2003 blackout, as I look at that classic photograph of the Free Press team finishing the front page that day, I think: Is this a nostalgic look back? Or, is this a vision of how we’ll all be covering the next waves of disasters as nature truly unleashes her power?

Am I sounding shrill? I think not. After 40 years in journalism, my skin is as thick as a rhino’s hide. I’m simply reporting here: When we’re powerless, the real terror is that we glimpse nature’s unrestrained power. Want to have this message driven home with hurricane force? Grab a copy of Ken Burns: The Dust Bowl on DVD. In our home, we had to watch Burns’ four-hour documentary over four evenings. It was just too darned shocking to watch more than an hour of that film in one sitting! In the 1930s, bad farming practices in the Texas-Oklahoma region set off dust storms that eventually reached the East Coast and even dropped Great Plains topsoil on ships at sea!

EILEEN FLANAGAN:
‘it’s weird we cannot make the connection’

Another ReadTheSpirit writer, Eileen Flanagan, regularly reports in national publications about the looming effects of global warming. In early 2014, we will publish Eileen Flanagan’s new book—about urgent ways we need to start connecting our global family. If you’re already laying out the calendar for your small group discussions, now that Labor Day has passed—make a note to look for Eileen’s book. For quite a while, Eileen has been writing about these issues in national magazines. She just had one of her stories—a report on how climate trends are affecting Africa—published as a cover story in Christian Century magazine. The title: Temperature Rising.

If you click over to read that story by Eileen, don’t miss the quote from Pini Chepkoech Kidulah, an activist in northwest Kenya who is trying to raise awareness and responses to the growing crisis. Pini is Christian, as are many people in that part of Kenya, and she reminds all people of faith: “As Christians we need to approach it as a justice issue because we have a history of working for social justice, but it’s weird that we cannot make the connection on ecological justice, climate change justice and the issue of poverty.”

CARE TO SEE THE BOARDWALK STORM STORY?

By now, you probably know the Boardwalk story: Ravaged by Hurricane Sandy, the folks who live and work along the Atlantic coast Boardwalk rebuilt their businesses to capture much of the 2013 tourist season. Then, a fire on Thursday—whipped by storms that hit the East Coast—wound up destroying dozens of businesses along the restored Boardwalk. Associated Press reports, in part:

SEASIDE PARK, N.J. — A massive fire spitting fist-sized embers engulfed dozens of businesses along an iconic Jersey shore boardwalk Thursday, forcing workers to rip up stretches of walkway only recently replaced in the wake of Superstorm Sandy as they raced to contain the blaze’s advance.  The 6-alarm blaze began in a frozen custard stand on the Seaside Park portion of the boardwalk around 2:30 p.m. and fanned by 15-20 mph winds from an approaching storm system, quickly spread north into Seaside Heights, the boardwalk town where the MTV series “Jersey Shore” was filmed — and where the October storm famously plunged a roller coast into the ocean.

The CBS station in Philadelphia posted a several-minute video report in the middle of the night, as firefighters controlled the fires and residents, once again, talked about their resilience.

(This column originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an online magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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  1. Duncan Newcomer says:

    The “tale of two cities” will be the tale of all our towns, I think. Two cities? Today Rebecca has been looking a video images of Boulder, Colorado where she lived for 30 years, and I’ve been looking at images of Seaside Heights, New Jersey, near where I went to church camp as a kid. These events do and will touch us all, more and more, change how we think and feel aboutmost everything. Duncan